Robles, Tony

View of the I-Hotel from the Silverwing Cafe

I remember the I-Hotel as it sat empty. My father would take me out to eat at the Silverwing Cafe across the street from the I-Hotel. It was 1978. A woman called mama would see us and we didn’t have to order—she knew what we ate. She’d call out to the cook, fellow in a white hat named Jim, “Pig nose, Chinese sausage, boiled shrimp, rice!”. And I would sit with my father who waited for his pig nose and rice. At the counter were old Chinese and Filipino men who spoke in thick hushed words between mouthfuls of food, their attention on their plates and on each other, mouths filled with food and words and pauses that filled the spaces in between. Sometimes a man would come in with an armful of clothes and mama would disappear with the man to rear of the restaurant. The man would reappear without the clothes in his arms. Then mama would reappear. Then our food would appear. My father would sit and eat that pig nose and I would watch as he scooped the rice with his hands.

And the I-Hotel sat looking at us from across the street. I ate not knowing the eyes from behind the curtains that still saw us and the rooms that were empty yet filled with tears and laughter and poetry and history. I sat eating Manilatown., running my fingers underneath the table, feeling those pieces of gum stuck down there as if it were braille–pieces of conversations, secrets, poems, stories, curses, vows, prayers, lies, half truths, laments, confessions, incantations—everything that was rendered silent on a night in August—all still alive in my father’s hands, stained with the rivers of soy sauce, patis, bagoong and sweat handed down from his father and his father’s father.

I was just a kid. I didn’t know what the I-Hotel was–what it meant–yet I was right there and it was right across the street sitting in silence, waiting for a poem to rise, a song to be sung in early morning. I didn’t know about Manilatown but I knew about the pyramid building yet I knew nothing about the pyramids other than the fact that they were pyramids. And I watched my father eat and he couldn’t stop returning back to that place that was Manilatown to fill his belly and mind with Manilatown and the I-Hotel. Coming back to Manilatown where he could eat with his hands and show his song wha he couldn’t express in words. He came back to Manilatown over and over again and I followed.

Manilatown sits in my belly, a belly of fire. Manilatown sits in my mind, a mind of fired. Manilatown love you, son, my father says as he pushes a handful of rice into his mouth. I fill my belly with the I-Hotel as it looks back at me, empty yet full.