Ortigas is soaked in memory. Too much of it remembered, and you drown in the past. Too little of it grasped, and you lose your grip on the present. I used to work in this small city centre; an almost self-contained town which, compared to Makati, has a more scaled and perhaps even down-to-earth hustle and bustle.
White UV express vans and SUVs ply its choked asphalt roads – veins and arteries which curve and twist and turn to one-way streets and the quaint, narrow driveways which merged with avenues bordered by huge malls. The noise of a passing MRT ricochets across Ortigas while the honking of reckless buses along EDSA brings the commuters from the more suburban fringes of the capital region to the commerce of the centre.
I remember long walks along Julia Vargas Avenue blinded briefly by the glint of the morning sun striking towering skyscrapers clad in steel and glass. The smell of morning dew permeated in the air especially when one passed by the San Miguel compound. Call center agents would walk the opposite way, headed home after another ungodly graveyard shift. Freshly baked pastries and donuts infused the smoggy, morning city air, with scents wafting across the haphazardly built district, carrying the irresistible temptation to buy overpriced macchiatos and cinnamon swirls. My colleagues and I would sometimes opt for the cheaper morning drink, a ten peso plastic-up of taho with a freshly lit Marlboro black, as we took in the polluted idyll of Ortigas and pretentiously thought ourselves as New Yorkers.
January made our walks in the city centre pleasant. Cooler temperatures afforded us the chance to wear our pricy cardigans and sweaters with our cheap shades, finds from SM’s department store, splurges from our Christmas bonuses. A cup of coffee in our hands, our working shoes clicking on the uneven pavement, and we headed towards our office with the confidence of our corporate slavery and subsequent purchasing power. City boys and girls – that’s how we saw ourselves. We were young professionals with a lot of ideas, just enough money, and a whole lot of angst.
When I get to pass by Ortigas I remember all of it. I recall how we choked from late night drinking and smoking binges. I remember the unpredictable EDSA traffic. I remember the friendly cigarette vendor we fondly teased to give us discounts on our smokes after the government imposed sin taxes on vices. I remember the long queues at ATMs and the longer queues at J. Co. I see myself, walking again along Emerald Avenue with my colleagues, as we desperately searched for some heart warming goto as a change from our MSG-filled breakfast of instant noodles.
The trees at the parking spaces there must be shedding their leaves now. They always do in January, and they always did while I took refuge underneath them some time ago. When my train, bus, or cab passes by the avenues, I can see my colleagues and I walking on the sidewalk, laughing our hearts out after another day in the office, perhaps excited to see a movie for the Friday night, or simply relieved we have a weekend ahead of us. It’s much too hard to be a forgetful man like I am, and yet find difficulty forgetting or moving on from a past that is increasingly estranged as my new life takes a new shape, and the lives of my former colleagues take on theirs with such variety.
More than the spaces of Ortigas, I remember the faces; people from the office; vendors on the streets; rude bank tellers; annoying mall assistants; and the occasionally handsome traffic enforcers. A part of me still lives in a past which feels like home because it was. My colleagues were family, and Ortigas a second home of sorts. There is nothing pretentious about the place. You take Ortigas as it is, and it allows you to define it according to the meanings you’ve sorted out in your head. Perhaps that is what makes it so difficult to forget the place – it’s been embedded in my mind, and heart.