I’m sometimes ashamed of myself when I do it, but I genuinely enjoy watching wealthy people, their little refined gestures and speaking tones, the way they look at you, their inherent politeness. The only comparable experience when I truly enjoyed observing living things was back in high school biology class when we tackled live amoeba under a microscope.
When I was a young boy, my interests included staring at ants going about their business for hours. Now, I just stare at people who live in big houses.
This might sound like a hideous and phony comparison, because despite my socialist tendencies, gawking at the rich almost always prompted the unconscious and vicarious “what if”—not “What if we launch the revolution tomorrow and wipe out the landed elite?” but “What if my dad were someone who played golf and my mom were someone who went to parties?”
You see, my tendency to find well-heeled people interesting can be traced back to my otherwise uninteresting childhood. There was this wealthy Spanish girl who married my uncle sometime during Martial Law. My uncle was in the army at the time and was part of a rescue group tasked to deliver toiletries and relief goods to people holed up in the Manila Penn. There was a riot in the streets of Makati, I believe, and the guests refused to leave the hotel until everything was clear. I like to imagine them as wayward kids having tantrums when told that they need to go to school.
The Spanish girl, who was one of the said hotel’s unfortunate guests, apparently met my uncle in the lobby. Depending on which story you’d prefer to believe, she was at the lobby either because she was complaining about room service or because a visit of young Filipino soldiers thrilled her. In either case, she singled out my uncle’s purported good looks from all the camouflage and married him after a couple of months.
The Spanish girl, who naturally became my Spanish tia when I was born, had three children with my uncle. As a kid, I would often be invited to sleep over at their house in this posh village in Pasig and each time, my cousins never failed to shock me—Miguel, who spoke strange English; Steve, who shouted at his nanny; and Joanna who detested anything that remotely resembled vegetables.
My cousins never slept over at our place of course, because ours was on this ugly side of Makati, but they did visit. During those times, it was their turn to be surprised. Ponds, they called the open sewers in their sweet childish innocence. Stray dogs, they petted until their skins erupted in sores.
Sadly, I started to lose contact with this moneyed branch of the family when Miguel finally managed to burn their house down by setting the carpet on fire. There is a story widely-circulated among our relatives that when my uncle and aunt arrived home to find their house wreathed in flames, my poor uncle promptly lost his rag and became huramentado, while my aunt coolly lit a cigarette, asked my uncle to shut the fuck up, and calmly walked inside the burning house to extract my arsonist cousin from the fire.
They eventually moved farther from Makati, and the bits of news that trickled down to us were nothing more than hints of their ultimate demise—of my uncle crashing fancy cars and leaving them right where he wrecked them, of my aunt being swindled in millions by frauds, of the both of them plundering what’s left of their money on dope. The last time I heard about them, my uncle is now reduced to a drunkard while my aunt is now working for a call center in Buendia.
This recent development (or regression) happened all throughout my high school, a time when I took to amoeba, paramecia, and various other microorganisms. I would major in nerdery. I would read Tolkien during breaks. I would write ambitious poems and short stories. I would learn to ignore my Mormon guilt about masturbation. I would keep countless juvenile journals.
I would only rediscover my old interest in the lives of the high and mighty when I finally went to college. By that time, progressive ideas would already start to mess me up.