Back in the mid-90s, the MACEA (the pseudo-government agency regulating the development of Makati) issued a zoning regulation prohibiting the establishment of food stores around the office areas in Makati. This meant that restaurants could not be located where people worked. The restaurants were lined up in and around the old Greenbelt mall. For lunch, the office workers had to walk or take a cab ride to where the food places were.
A group of enterprising people found a loophole in this rule. While restaurants where prohibited in office areas, vans and jeepneys that doubled as food shops were not. So every lunch time, vans and jeepneys would find an open parking space in the back streets, and became makeshift carinderias for the hungry and financialy-challenged urban professional. Hot food in styrofoams, most of the time salty and overcooked but amazingly cheap -- a good deal to buck the MACEA zoning rules.
For my lunch, I joined the secretaries of the firm who lined up for an old lady who sold home-cooked meals wrapped in plastic for thirty bucks to the office staff every lunch break. My favorite was sinigang -- a slice of meat, swamp cabbage, a few other vegetables, and lots of sour soup. The old lady offered the better alternative to the rolling food stores outside the building. And her meals had never triggered an attack of diarrhea, though one could never be too sure. That was fine, but working in a law office meant I had to put in long hours and lunch was not the only meal of the day that I needed to pay for.
Dinner would present another problem. Lawyers in the firm, I was told, stayed after dinner, because that was when the partners got back from their meetings to distribute work among us associates. So in the evenings, I usually went out to the streets to look for a balut vendor. I matched one balut with a pan de coco, and coke - a complete meal that got me ready for the night shift. When balut vendors were scarce, I had Lucky Me noodles as back up. Bulalo, chicken, pork and pancit canton flavors-- they all had one taste: salty.
There would be occasions that somebody would throw a party for the office with catered meals. That was when the office workers got to avenge their hunger during the day. Before the party host could even say “Let’s eat everyone!” somebody had already stashed away food in the fridge for the next day’s lunch. Others would fill up two plates -- one for lunch and another for dinner never minding the stares.
One day one of our bosses treated our group of young lawyers for lunch in a big hotel. Everyone of the group seized the opporunity to order food to their heart’s content -- big servings of steak and salmon, and lots of Japanese sushi. Each had the “Drink of the Month” that went with a free stuffed toy, a luxury that cost PHP 300 a pop. When we got back to the office, the group was chuckling, aware that the meal was a steal, and the boss learned the lesson of his life. “Dare not feed hungry young lawyers in an expensive hotel gratuitously, for you would pay dearly, and they wouldn’t care.”
In those days, Makati probably had the best hotels and restaurants in the country. But if you asked ordinary office workers if they had been to one of them, they would give you a blank stare. An average meal in one of these hotels and restaurants would cost more than a day’s salary. And it was simply idiotic to blow away that money on lunch when they had not earned the full day’s wage. So these hotels and restaurants were like ambitions that got ingrained in the minds of ordinary workers of Makati. One day, they thought, they would have enough money to eat pasta in Italianni’s. Meanwhile, they settled for the rolling stores and the anemic spaghetti in the styro.
(Next post: To work there is to lose your heart)