Saturday, May 3, 2008


Saga of Fray Paco
Book 2: Don Alcibiades - The Banker
Chapter 5: Seles

A beaming Januario and Severo skipped in to Don Alcibiade's office carrying a woven mat basket piled high with plantains and tiny honeysweet bananas from Davao.

"Is all that for Fray Paco?" a slightly envious Don Alcibiade asked. "Those fruits look pretty enough for me to eat."

Fray Paco kept his screechy mantra. "Eu quero dois platanos (I want two plantains)" in Portuguese.

Januario handed him a bright, ripe plantain to sink his beak and talons into. Severo shyly told Don Allcibiade, "Better not eat from his basket. Fray Paco doesn't like it."

"Is that so? What will he do?" a curious Don Alcibiade asked (knowing the answer) but he had asked a man a question, even if he was a domestic, he owed the man patience and good manners. "Therefore, in Fray Paco's eyes, if I take even the smallest plantain from his fruit basket, that makes me a thief and he'll attack me," concluded Don Alcibiade. He was beginning to see not only the other fellow's point of view but things from the perspective of a confounded cockatoo.

"Yes, Don Alcibiade," giggled the two attendants.

The banker thought no thing was as it seemed, which is why banks as they were then run by their owners or caciques would hit rock bottom sooner rather than later. Everyone including himself thought in very straight, parallel lines that were never destined to meet. Don Alcibiade had realized his practical banker's way of looking at money, loans; finance was in fact self-defeating, counterproductive and, in the long run, impractical. Bankers needed to be creative and to transact business outside their rigid and square box.

There was a knock on the door. It was Tirso.

Ah. Por Dios! Everyone had a habit of knocking in the middle of my philosophizing. What is it now? He thought with irritation.

"Adelante!" thundered the banker.

Tirso entered with a strong, muscular man of about thirty. A Malay, guessed Don Alcibiade, probably from Laguna or Cavite or perhaps even Batangas. He had an intelligent and efficient demeanor.

"Sir," Tirso reminded Don Alcibiade, "this is Seles, the calesa driver you talked to at the Boulevard yesterday."

"I came here at exactly 6:45am sharp as you instructed. And then I saw and heard the ruckus with the famous cockatoo Fray Paco. I decided to wait until the time was right to see you,” the man known as Seles said.

"I am the jefe," Don Alcibiade replied, shaking hands with him. The banker felt very rough, calloused hands. He tried not to press the Malayo's hands too hard so as not to hurt him. Too late, he saw him wince! As Tirso left the room, Don Alcibiade proposed a deal to the startled man.

Seles had never shaken hands with a white jefe before, a man who sat next to his driver in his Model T Ford instead of sitting in the back as many did.

This is not a chiflado, Seles thought, and what was that catala (cockatoo) doing in this jefe's room, pouncing at plantains which cost the earth at the Quiapo market?"

Don Alcibiade saw that Seles observed Fray Paco.

"Let me introduce you to the oldest member of our clan. He also has the sharpest tongue and swears the filthiest oaths in five languages. He is now perfecting his English and quien sabe? even a Chinese dialect. His name is Fray Paco."

Seles laughed in spite of the fact that he still did not know what the Spanish jefe wanted.

“Sir, he is well known to the people. They love him.”

Don Alcibiade went right to the point.

"I need a strong man I can trust to keep secrets. You are to carry heavy narra files from this place – the bank to Ongpin Street at the Pansiteria Wak Nam. After I've done with them, the files must be brought back to Intramuros. Es mas (what's more) I need you to fetch Fray Paco's attendants and take them from Santa Mesa to Intramuros every day except Saturdays and Sundays. It will be a round trip."

Seles responded. "I don't know how to handle horses. You criticized my treatment of the horse yesterday."

"In a way it's not your fault. You see, the great mental defectives who own these calesas should never have placed a skittish, high-strung, part Arabian horse behind a calesa, and then to round it out, they put an inexperienced, desperate but," Don Alcibiade quickly said, "basically decent man to drive the calesa.

"Are you offering me a fulltime job?" Seles asked incredulously.

“I have a lovely calesa stored somewhere and a gentle, slowpoke of a mare. She’ll drive you and show you a thing or two. No more whips, please. So, Chico, what is your answer?”

“I am receiving an offer I can’t refuse,” Seles considered. “Si, Don Alcibiade, it’s a good offer. I have a large family. I’ll try to do my best.”

Fray Paco was still crunching his plantain, muttering, “muito obrigato,” Portuguese for “Much obliged.”

“De nada,” replied Don Alcibiade.

“The calesa is in one of our bodegas in the port of Manila. Tirso will take you there while Fray Paco, his two attendants and I eat lunch in Chinatown. You can use the time to clean the calesa. As for the mare, her name is Rosinante after Don Quixote’s steed. So is Seles your last name?”

“It’s my first name, a sort of diminutive, my last name is Santos,” he replied mysteriously.

Don Alcibiade could not resist mysteries and meddling into other people’s business. He persisted. “What does Seles stand for?”

The man was uncomfortable. He shifted his eyes and looked up at Fray Paco avoiding his gaze. Then as he still hesitated, Don Alcibiade told him, “Mira, Chico,” giving him the familiar “tu” form. Don Alcibiade didn’t like using the “thou” form now that they were surrounded by American informality. “Mira, chico,” he began. “You see Fray Paco?”

Seles nodded.

“That creature, a few minutes before you came into my office, called me a cretin and told me to shut up in no uncertain terms. And you know what I did? I shut up! This doesn’t mean that a cockatoo can order me around although he thinks he can do that; it means that we are a very eccentric and unconventional family. We’ve heard it all before.”

Don Alcibiade rose sprightly from his armchair and walked toward Seles, who rose as if on attention. “So what kind of name is Seles?” he asked again.

“You see, Senor, my father was an anarchist,” began Seles.

Don Alcibiade did not blink an eyelash. He fully expected Seles to have been derived from a glorious ancient Greek name, something from The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Hesiods; much like his own name.

“Nothing wrong with being an anarchist, Chico, so long as they don’t burn down buildings and offices, or throw bombs and assassinate Archdukes and Presidents. My father was somewhat of an anarchist himself.”

“All right, Senor, if you insist. My full name is Isosceles, like the triangle, and my sister’s name is Nusa as in Hypotenuse.”

“That’s marvelous!” The banker exclaimed. “How did your father ever get the names Isosceles and Hypotenuse past the parish priest?”

“Aah…we have not been baptized,” Seles told him slowly. “Will that make any difference?” Seles asked in a rather tremulous voice.

The banker looked straight into his eyes. “No,” he said clearly. “I know many people who have not been baptized, who aren’t Christians; they are decent and simpaticos. On the other hand, there are some Christians who are not only antipaticos, they are not really even Christian at all.” Isosceles and Hypotenuse,” Don Alcibiade reflected. He would crack up about it tonight when he would describe his day to Dona Ibon. This fellow’s father had been a ballsy guy.

“Why he had even surpassed my own father in choosing a name. The pyramids I think are perfect isosceles triangles. And Pythagoras himself or was it Euclid never mind that for now discovered the hypotenuse of a triangle.”

He was going to like Seles. He knew he would never hit another horse again. Humans, he wasn’t so certain, but some people can be vicious and working on the docks was not a picnic. If thugs attacked you it was an eye for an eye down there.

“Allow me one more question. How did your mother react to your father’s anarchic beliefs?” he could not resist asking.

“Sir it was my mother who converted my father to her beliefs.”

It’s gratifying to see more and more women take the initiative in politics and in other walks of life, thought the banker.

“Welcome to our family, Seles,” Don Alcibiade affirmed, steering him towards the door.

His niece Esperanza had said almost before the crack of dawn, that he would cogitate something. Well, he had. He and Fray Paco would ride on the Ford – in front so that Fray Paco could see the sights. The yayos, Januario and Severo would go in the old calesa with Seles driving an even older Rosinante.

Now that Don Alcibiade had done a trial run, he only needed about thirty minutes lead time before the bank opened its doors to the public. Tomorrow would go smoother.

“Bueno, Fray Paco,” he said jauntily, “you have been such a treasure. This is going to be a very curious day indeed.”

The morning seemed unending. Don Calixto II, son of Don Calixto Senior, one of Uncle Cesar’s womanizing cronies, came in with an intriguing proposal.

“The cinemas will be a big money-making business now that the talkies are here. Did you see The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson? I would like to build three movie theaters near Quiapo complete with a stage and dressing rooms in case there is a famous opera troupe or the Diaghilev Ballet tours the Orient.

Don Alcibiade loved the theater, the Spanish zarzuelas, the Verdi operas and the Wagnerian Ring cycle, which he had seen as a young man in Bayreuth, the year after Richard Wagner had died.

“Let’s see, that would have been in 1904 ah! How time flies. He enjoyed the lighthearted operettas of Franz Lehar, “The Merry Widow,” and “Countess Maritza,” by Emmerich Kalman, the Hungarian Composer.

And then Dona Ibon insisted he accompany her to the movies to see “As You Desire Me” with the divine Greta Garbo, and he was infected forevermore with the movie virus.


  1. Morning, Isabella,

    It gets better and better, the more you get into the saga.

    I sometimes get confused about the year(s) the action is taking place. First I thought it was 1904, then a bit later, on into the late 1920's with Al Jolson and the talkies, and now we are in the thirties? ("As You Desire Me").


  2. First, a hello from me and my wife Wai Ling, to that beautiful red-head, Jeanne! I always enjoy reading your comments and hope we can get some "forum" conversations going here, starting with the two of us!

    Now, dear Jeanne, I see your good point, but in context I think this chapter is situated circa 1930, with perhaps a bit of poetic-chronological license of a few marginal years.

    Actually, I remember the first time I saw Al Jolson's movie (the first "talkie"), "The Jazz Singer." I saw it on TV in summer of 1971 - when I was 8 years old - as our local Philadelphia PBS (public TV) station ran a series of silent movies, and my Dad let me stay up late to watch them as it was summer
    vacation time. I got hooked on silent movies at age 8, and still am. Don't you think that black-and-white movies (and photos)
    are somehow ESPECIALLY vivid precisely BECAUSE they so saliently
    depict contrasts between light and shadow? And somehow, the silent movies are MORE vivid because they REQUIRE more imagination from us!

    (cf, Shakespeare's introduction to "Henry the Fifth", when Shakespeare apologises for how the little stage cannot accurately depict what happened at Agincourt - but then he asks us to "work" our imaginations!
    I think the decline of Hollywood began when Hollywood began to lose respect for our imaginations - so that today, all Hollywood offers us is a lot of noise, helicopters and explosions - the opposite of what Shakespeare gave to us, for our imaginations to WORK on!)

    Now, addressing a different topic, about Wagner: Heh, I've often said that no Englishman could ever write what Wagner wrote, because at the end of Goetterdamerung, when the entire universe was going down in flames, an ENGLISH "Wotan" would simply mutter:

    "Oh dear, what a mess we've made! SORRY!"


  3. PS, one of my favourite examples of a movie which asks us to "work our imaginations" like Shakespeare would ask us to do, is the very silly movie
    (1940s), "Road to Bali", starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

    It's SO bad, that it's GOOD!

    It's all terribly - and knowingly - unrealistic and campy. It's not really "cinema"; it's THEATRE! Those old Bing Crosby and Bob Hope movies were really THEATRE on film, and that's why they're so great.

    I'm a great cinephile, but I know the difference between cinema and theatre. Cinema, at its best, is "painting with light," but even at its best, cinema is more impersonal than theatre. Theatre is more personal, and so, theatre (at its best) is a higher art than cinema.

    Hm, just one more digression: the funniest bits of TV I've ever seen are Monty Python and the (Philadelphian!) Ernie Kovacs who inspired the Pythons. And neither of them ever used any special effects - although Ernie Kovacs experimented with special effects IN A THEATRICAL, PERSONAL WAY!

    Now, dear Isabel and Jeanne - and our other readers (hey, come on, comment here, will you?) - if you don't know Ernie Kovacs, then please hie thee hence to youtube and watch a clip of him as "Percy Dovetonsils", and especially this bit of theatrical genius:

  4. As a cinema and theatre aficionado, I concur with you that theatre(live) is far more personal and intimately and intricately interwined with "life," both onstage and every theatre goer's experiences. It definitely touches and opens one's "soul," if one dares to participate in the "life," unfolding on stage.



Isabel Van Fechtmann

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