Three stories and a beer: How I met and said goodbye to Nick Joaquin

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Poet and novelist Erwin Castillo remembers his first and last encounters with the acclaimed writer, Nick Joaquin — episodes replete with crazy adventures, literary brushes, and, of course, beer. Illustration by CARINA SANTOS/Photo of Nick Joaquin from the MALACAÑANG MUSEUM

Author’s note: Some years ago one of Nick Joaquin's relatives solicited from me a memory of the man. The memory was to be 300 words long. Here is what I wrote then. I understand a book from that effort is published, but since I have not received any further communication from the solicitor, I have no idea if this piece is included in the book.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I first met Nick Joaquin in June of 1960. He was then 43 years old, section editor of the Philippines Free Press, and at the height of his literary powers. I was 15, a beginning writer, and had just started sophomore year at the University. Nick had published my first serious short story in his magazine earlier that week, but he changed the title and cut off a few words. I was absolutely embarrassed and incensed. So I sought him out at the old Free Press offices on Avenida Rizal. It was raining hard. Nick was not there when I arrived. He will be here later, said the guard, I will tell him you were looking for him.

A year or so later, at a symposium on new Philippine Literature sponsored by the PEN, Nick recounted his outrageously comic version of this meeting. He told them how the would-be writer, the snotty whippersnapper, full of himself, had come to tear up the royalty check and throw the pieces at his face. Nick Joaquin told his audience I had come gunning for him, that I had come to beat him up!

What really happened was that I went to the movies to pass away the waiting time. When I left the cine in the afternoon I was hungry, still half-soaked, but not very angry anymore. The same guard delivered me up to Nick at his court at the Free Press canteen, where he presided over his disciples and subalterns, overwhelming them, and the blare of rain and traffic two floors below, with his booming, nasal bellow. Seeing me approach his table with the guard, Nick pointed and challenged, “O ikaw, anong gusto mo?” I said I wanted a beer. On the table with Nick that afternoon were idols Greg Brilliantes and Ding Nolledo, later dear friends also.

NJ.jpg The author with Nick Joaquin. Photo courtesy of ERWIN CASTILLO

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Through the years, my UP friends regularly crashed the Silliman Writers’ Workshop. One such year Nick was a guest lecturer. Wanting to steal a match on the other UP fellows, Willie Sanchez and myself proceeded to Nick’s hotel, there to be told that Mr. Joaquin was some politician’s guest and was not expected until later.

Unfazed, Willie and I sat ourselves at the hotel’s Western-themed restaurant, wrapped napkins about our necks and set out to drink — better yet to eat and drink — ourselves to the early death we deserved.  We drank a bottle of good scotch chased by a lot of beer, feasted on steaks, lobsters, oysters. We puked ourselves empty a few times, then refilled ourselves over again, dimly beginning to realize that Nick Joaquin may not return to the hotel in time to pay the enormous bill we had run up.

Finally the beleaguered hotel manager told us to settle our bill as it was closing time. “Charge it to Mr. Joaquin’s room, please.”

“Sorry we cannot do that without Mr. Joaquin’s permission.”

The terrifying prospect of the Cebuano drunk-tank at the police precinct suddenly presented itself. Clutching at straws, “We are Mr. Joaquin’s children,” we declared, half-sober already. “We are Mr. Joaquin’s children!”

“I happen to know Mr. Joaquin,” the hotel manager announced. “And I know Mr. Joaquin is …” and here he sweetly beamed in some sort of victory, “… an avowed bachelor.”

Which was when Nick, in perfect time, came singing something god-awful through the swinging doors.

NJ2.jpg Photo courtesy of ERWIN CASTILLO

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The last time I saw Nick was on the evening of Recah Trinidad’s birthday party that year he died. Actually it was Nick’s birthday too, as their anniversaries were a day apart, and that was how we celebrated the two of them through the long decades. In those decades Nick had given generously of his friendship, honoring us for whatever little thing we did, defending us in our sloth and our many shortcomings. It grated on many people that Nick Joaquin addressed us in diminutives, even in formal symposia. Still he may have thought it his continuing duty to goad us, pointing out how hard other writers worked, how much more they produced.

 “We’re better,” I leaned over and whispered. “We are better, Quijano.” I called him that aping Ding Nolledo.

“I know,” Nick whispered back. “I know.”

From the beginning he introduced us to his friends — John Siler, Elena Roco, Jose Garcia Villa — and to his family — his doting sisters, his brothers, specially Ping whose piano we enjoyed at the Colombian. He befriended our friends and our families in turn. We had many crazy adventures together, some too dangerous or too scandalous still to be told. But in time, my sojourns with Nick and the other denizens of bohemia became rarer. There came the serious need to earn a living. There was now a family, children, to enjoy and support. Nick, too, was aging, becoming more and more a noisy parody of his demon-driven self. After the operation he stopped smoking his Unions, and his sober time seemed to shorten: six beers, four beers, finally two.

That night at Recah’s I was wearing khaki shorts and Nick said, “Those are exactly the pants I wore during the war,” and laughed. At his urging we — that was Pepito Aguila, Jing Aldanese and myself — serenaded him with“Estrellita” one last time.

Estrellita del lejano cielo
que miras mi dolor,
que sabes me sufrir
Baja y dime
si me quiere un poco
porque yo no puedo sin su amor vivir.

Two beers and we embraced in goodbye.

I did not go to his wake or burial. I felt something of him — grim, fierce, absolutely alone — was hostaged there, among our sworn enemies, in the cold, dead, soulless pantheon of our godforsaken culture. When forced to accept the award, Nick Joaquin had stood broken at that center stage, eyes cast down, arms spread in surrender, palms open as if he waited to be sacrificed. No, never again. Never again.

And after all Willie Sanchez and I had already given him the authentic river burial he deserved. One night we kidnapped Nick, quite drunk, to San Mateo below the dam, where Willie and I kept a dugout river canoe from our misadventures a long time ago, while the world was young. 

Willie and I intended to lay his snoring form on the dugout, cover him with leaves and midnight flowers, and launch him downstream, let the Marikina river bear him to where it met the Pasig wending its forlorn way to the sea and the sky, to meet the floodtide of bats homeward to the white limestone caves — that starlit riverine path travelled by our heroes and holy poets from Balagtas to Rizal and Recah Trinidad. But somewhere above the river Nick Joaquin woke up screaming and threw Willie and me out of the cab.

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Editor's note: According to the author's son (who communicated with his father), this piece was in fact published in a book that was done by Nick Joaquin's nephew. The nephew had asked for stories about his uncle from friends and writers. But the author doesn't not have a copy of the book, and it looks like it may be impossible to find.