You’ve probably seen Frankie’s Steaks and Burgers, beside the new Cravings, near Lily of the Valley Beauty & Grooming Salon. If you’ve seen it, then you’ve probably seen Bototoy. Monday through Saturday Bototoy climbs the winding path from Barangka to the service gate behind Ateneo Grade School, along with his father who works as a maintenance man at the school, and his playmates Nono, Itoc, and Radny. Most of the kids who climb the path stop at the wide covered court of the College, beside Our School, near the Observatory, where they wait for the badminton and tennis players to call for ballboys. Bototoy doesn’t stop there. He walks to Gate 2, which is quite far, and crosses Katipunan Avenue to sit on the concrete island in front of Frankie’s Steaks and Burgers. Do you remember him?
Bototoy is six years old. His head is shaved except for a clump of hair above his forehead. His eyes are round and lively. His cheeks are round, too, he’s always smiling, and he has rabbity front teeth. He wears T-shirts, shorts, and Happy Feet sandals that are always faded and too big for him, because they’re hand-me-downs from his older siblings. Bototoy is small, so he doesn’t hang around the covered court. He’s always beaten to the ballboy jobs by Nono and Itoc and Radny and the other kids from Barangka who are quicker and much taller than he is. That’s how he wound up in front of Frankie’s Steaks and Burgers one day, and there he decided to be a watch-your-car boy. Each kid has his own turf, some in front of Shakey’s and Jollibee and McDonald’s and Kentucky’s, some in the other parts of Katipunan, where lots of cars were parked. Although few cars stopped in front of Frankie’s, Bototoy was content—even if sometimes he didn’t get even five centavos for watching someone’s car, or was ignored or even yelled at by the owner of the vehicle. On a slow day he would sit from morning to dusk on the concrete island in front of Steaks and Burgers, his rectangular throne that was dusty in the summer and muddy when it rained. Now do you remember him?
Bototoy has eleven brothers and sisters—the four eldest are married and have their own families. The next four have finished high school, and their father the maintenance man and their mother the herbalist are toiling to put them through college. The next two are still in elementary school. Bototoy and the youngest child, Nining, aren’t going to school yet because even if the tuition is free, getting their school supplies and other needs is a problem. Nining is Bototoy’s favorite sibling. Every time he came down the path in Barangka with his father and his playmates, he would drop by Aling Rory’s store before going home. No matter how little he’d earned from watching cars, he would buy his sister some small present: a packet of Oishi or Ding Dong or Tomi, or two pieces of Choc-Nut or Krispy Bar or Cloud Nine, or three pieces of White Rabbit or Snow Bear or Judge.
Only then would he go into the maze-like alleys leading to their house. By the water pump he would spot little Nining, sitting by the doorstep, waiting, wearing her dress and Happy Feet sandals that are also faded and too big, her eyes also round and lively, her cheeks as round as his. Smiling. And like him, she has rabbity front teeth. After their dinner of swamp cabbage and fish sauce, Bototoy and Nining help their mother fold the laundry, and then they watch television at the house of Aling Mela, their neighbor. Before eight o’clock their mother calls them home, so they sit and play with their small box of plastic toys. “What will you bring me tomorrow, Kuya?” Nining always asks. “I won’t say, it’s a surprise,” Bototoy always answers. “Lots of different candies?”
“Lots and lots. If I make a lot of money, I can buy lots of stuff.” “Kuya, where will you get the money?”
“On Katipunan. That’s where I work.”
“Where Papa works?”
“No, even farther than that. You have to cross the street. One of these days, if you like, you can come with me.” “I’d like to, Kuya.”
And as always, Bototoy would boast about his job watching cars in front of Frankie’s. About the people who went there. About their clothes. About their cars. About how, once, someone handed him five pesos. Nining would dream about candy and clothes and toys. And Bototoy would dream about watching many, many cars in front of Frankie’s Steaks and Burgers on Katipunan. Do you go there often?
Perhaps you’ve heard how good the food is. The owner is from Mabalacat, and the tenderloin steak is delicious, and the T-bone and spare ribs and Hawaiian and Salisbury steaks, and beef teriyaki and skinless sausage and air-dried beef and the arroz a la Cubana that the guests are always looking for. The place is small and narrow, but it’s clean and air-conditioned. The lamps on the tables are charming to behold, and there’s always cheerful music playing. Beside the cashier there are all sorts of local delicacies: cans of turrones de casuy and baskets of petit fours and jars of yemas and packs of espasol and bottles of garlic peanuts. But there is one specialty at Frankie’s Steaks and Burgers—not just to its regulars but to everyone who passes outside the restaurant, because beside the glass door is an aluminum window for take-out orders, and under the window is a colorful sign written in red and blue marker pens on a yellow square of cardboard: FRANKIE’S SPECIAL
Ever tried that meat pie?
Every morning, noon and night, customers flock to Katipunan and stop in front of Frankie’s and knock on the window and order that meat pie: by the piece, by the dozen, by the gross—to eat at work, to snack on, to give as presents, to serve their guests. Some people order and eat it right there, if not right before the window then in front or along the side of the small restaurant, and if not in front or on the side then in their parked cars. Bototoy always watches them, perched on the concrete island, silent and alone. Once, a young man and a young woman parked their car and ordered meat pies and Cokes, and had their snack inside their vehicle. “Boss, watch your car,” was Bototoy’s polite offer, which was ignored by the two because they were laughing at some private joke. Bototoy returned to his concrete island. The car window was open so Bototoy could hear their conversation as they ate: “I always buy this, it’s so yummy,” said the young woman. “The crust is so great,” said the young man.
“Yeah, it’s like so thin, and like, crispy, you know?” “When you bite it, it’s kinda sweet.”
“This one’s really, really, really my Auntie’s favorite. She’ll go out and walk just to buy it. It’s ground pork with no fat, and bacon bits, and chips, and raisins, and water chestnuts, and chopped onions and carrots, and grated cheese. So different from the commercial ones you buy in other places, what a rip-off, it’s all potatoes and so salty and it tastes like flour.” When they had finished their snack they tossed the empty cups out of their window, which they had crumpled and torn after drinking from them, and the sheets of waxed paper that the meat pies had been wrapped in, and their used table napkins. Bototoy told himself: “If I get rich, I’m going to eat that.” He regarded the yellow sign, and the aluminum window, and the waitress who was there arranging dozens of meat pies wrapped in waxed paper on plastic trays. Bototoy stuck one hand into the left pocket of his loose shorts: inside there were two new twenty-five centavo coins. Stuck his other hand in his right pocket: one ten-centavo piece, three five-centavo pieces, two one-centavo coins.
It would take a while, and a lot more cars to watch, before he could buy even one meat pie. If only he were bigger, he could work as a ballboy on the covered court, or compete with the other watch-your-car boys in front of Shakey’s and Jollibee and McDonald’s and Kentucky’s! For the first time in his young life, Bototoy thought of saving his money and living on a budget. The waitress at the aluminum window saw him staring. She smirked, and waved him away. The waitress shut the window. Once again Bototoy sat on the concrete island, and silently wished that more cars would arrive and park on the sidewalk. Three pesos and forty centavos was all he earned that entire day. When he passed by the Maintenance Department for his father, he was quiet and lost in thought. His father and his playmates thought he might be ill, but he told them he was just tired from watching cars in front of Frankie’s. At Aling Rory’s store he spent a long time deciding what to buy for his little sister. He settled for a packet of hard candy.
He had two pesos and seventeen centavos left—instead of buying rubber bands or marbles or cards or dropping the coins in his mother’s piggy bank, he would keep the money. It was the beginning of his savings. That night, before he fell asleep, he imagined a sweet life without fear and without the ache of tired muscles and without illness and without the lack of money and without problems, and on the movie screen of his consciousness he was with Nining, and they were joking with each other, and they were riding a small car (because it was a child’s imagination), and they parked in front of Frankie’s, and they ordered meat pies and Cokes, and they ate inside the car. When he opened his eyes it was alright bright outside, and his father was shaking him by the shoulders. “’Toy—are you coming with me?” he heard his father whisper. “Yes, Sir,” he replied, even if he knew that on that morning Nono and Itoc and Radny were going fishing for shrimp in San Roque, and just the other day he had prepared an empty can of Ligo sardines for his catch, and asked for his mother’s permission.
Two pesos was all he earned on that day, so at Aling Rory’s store he spent even longer deciding what to buy before he got four Tootsie Rolls, which he presented to Nining. The empty can of Ligo sardines he had turned into a piggy bank and added coins to—just a few, but at least they added up. He shook the can and looked at it. And thought that after a week it might be half-full. And thought that in a month he could buy a meat pie. And shook it again and looked at it. “I’m saving money, Nining,” he confessed to his younger sister, before he stashed the can of coins under their small box of plastic toys. “When I have lots of money, we will buy meat pies. They’re delicious.” “Like roasted pig, Kuya?” Nining asked.
“More delicious. Rich people eat it.”
“On my birthday, Kuya?” was her next question.
“Yes. When I have a lot of money. We’ll eat there.”
And Nining’s imagination momentarily lit up with visions of pretty restaurants like the ones she and her mother saw from the jeepney or bus they were riding. Like many of the restaurants on Katipunan, right?
Like the restaurants where the watch-your-car boys wait. In front of Shakey’s, and Jollibee, and McDonald’s, and Kentucky’s, and Frankie’s Steaks and Burgers. And Bototoy is one of those boys, so you’ve probably seen him. Because the following morning Bototoy was there again, waiting and watching. Every morning, noon, afternoon. He became acquainted with the face of patience and toil, of striving, of desiring, and of hoping. With the satisfaction of walking into the house with pockets full of jingling coins. With the sadness of lack, with lying down on the mat with a powerful desire to make up for the lack the next day. And the day after. And the day after that. And the days that followed. As the days passed, the sardine can half-filled with coins, and its contents increased. When Bototoy counted his coins he had twenty-one pesos, enough to buy a meat pie each for his sister and himself. “We’ll buy it tomorrow,” Bototoy grinned broadly. They giggled and shook with delight, and smiled with their rabbity front teeth. At dawn they were wide awake.
Nining put on her only proper dress—the color of cotton candy, with a collar in candy colors and a big ribbon that was also the color of cotton candy—that was to be worn only at baptisms or weddings or fiestas or midnight mass or Christmas visits. She sprinkled herself with baby powder and put on her plastic earrings that were shaped like stars. As for Bototoy, who had no proper outfit for going out, he put on his usual loose shorts and a T-shirt with a faded cartoon bear and letters that said “so happy summer day be many friends”, that he had borrowed from an older brother. “I see you’re going for a stroll,” their mother joked as they were leaving. “We’re having a birthday party,” Nining happily announced, and she held on tightly to Bototoy’s hand. They climbed the winding path from Barangka to the service gate behind the school, with their father and with Nono, Itoc, and Radny. They passed the covered court, walked the long distance to Gate 2, and there they crossed Katipunan avenue to Frankie’s Steaks and Burgers. Meanwhile, let’s have a short digression.
If you’re often on Katipunan, and you’ve seen Frankie’s Steaks and Burgers, and if you’ve tasted Frankie’s Special Meat Pie, then you’ve probably seen the waitress frequently assigned to the aluminum take-out window. That morning the waitress had woken up in a slightly deranged state of mind. The previous week, when they’d closed the restaurant and counted the day’s earnings, they discovered that the total sales of meat pies was lacking twenty-one pesos. The owner scolded the waitress for being careless, and suggested that she had stolen two meat pies. Although the cost of the missing meat pies was not deducted from her salary, the waitress was deeply hurt by the insinuation. It was true that she was careless—apart from being snooty, foul-tempered, and perpetually smirking—but in the matter of the missing meat pies she was innocent.
That morning, when the boxes of fresh meat pies were delivered, the waitress carefully opened each box and counted its contents. She arranged the meat pies on plastic trays. Brought them to the aluminum take-out window. Then opened the drawer under the window to get the booklet of white receipts and pink receipts and the piece of carbon paper and the ballpoint pen that had long been missing a cover (due to her carelessness). That morning—before Bototoy and Nining arrived—she saw that they were out of white receipts. Once more she opened the drawer under the window—in the corner was a stack of new booklets of receipts. When she took a booklet, two meat pies fell into her hand. Still wrapped in waxed paper, but already going stale—they had fallen in last week, and been pushed to the back of the drawer (again, due to her carelessness).
The waitress felt a great annoyance. She remembered the hurtful words uttered by the owner of the restaurant, and the suggestion that she had stolen the meat pies. She also felt a dark sort of glee—the glee of revenge, and of victory. She thought about it. She held the meat pies in her hands: like the two shoulder pads of the blouse that she had to pay for at the dressmaker’s tonight. Like two large kwei, those red wooden blocks that she was told to throw at the Chinese temple that time her friend brought her there to have her fortune told. At that moment there was a knock on the aluminum window, and when she peered out there were two little children standing there, staring up at her, with round and lively eyes, round cheeks, smiling with their rabbity front teeth. “Two meat pies, please,” said the little boy.
And in her dark glee the waitress took the twenty-one pesos that the child handed her, secretly stashed it in her pocket, and handed him the two stale meat pies. “Let’s sit down, Nining,” Bototoy smiled, carrying their meat pies. So his sister’s dress would not get dirty, he wiped off the dust from the surface of the concrete island. They sat side by side, smiling, giggling and quivering with delight. “This is where I work,” Bototoy said proudly, and Nining observed their surroundings with awe. Carefully they opened the waxed paper wrappers, and looked at the meat pies, and bit into them happily, and chewed the morsels slowly to savor the taste and make them last. “Eat the crust, Nining, cause it’s crispy,” Bototoy told her. “It’s delicious, Kuya.”