The Man behind the Soup Kitchen, Part 1

Benjie on his way

If you go to the corner of Examiner Street and Quezon Ave in Quezon City, and you go on a weekend night, look for the parking lot of the Bank of Commerce where Benjie sets up his soup kitchen. The turnout varies. I’ve seen a low of maybe forty and a high of maybe a hundred and fifty people waiting patiently or helping to set up by bringing stuff from Benjie’s house nearby. They get a full meal. something to drink and a dessert. The people are orderly, friendly and grateful. When I stop by there to bring a dessert or take pictures I always happier when I leave than when I came.  

Benjie’s story

I went to kindergarten at a Dominican school within walking distance of our home. Most of my friends were from the have-nots. When I brought them home, my mom didn’t approve. I remember thinking, I don’t care if they’re poor. They’re my friends. So probably that was the start of my love affair with the poor.

On my sixth birthday my parents and my godmother came to my school with things for the class to eat. The nun told me to stand in front of the class. She asked me, “Who is the person you love the most?” I thought if I said either one of my parents, the other one would get jealous. They both would be if I said my godmother. The nun asked me to write the answer on the board. So I wrote, “God.” Later the nun called my dad and said, “Mr. Abad, let’s help each other. I think your son is bright.”

In the second grade I had a nun who was quite strict. The class was supposed to memorize the Apostles’ Creed, which was probably 60 or 70 words. She called on me first. How could I have memorized that prayer in five minutes? When she called me up to recite, I just stared at her and smiled. She was irritated, so at lunchtime she wouldn’t let me eat my lunch. I was okay with that. The problem was I was eating my lunch at home, and my father saw me and asked why I hadn’t eaten it earlier. When I told him the story he got very angry.

We weren’t rich, but my dad was influential. He was friends with Ferdinand Marcos, who was the current president. So he went to the school and threatened to go to the Department of Education to get it closed down. He said, “This is child abuse. You shouldn’t prevent my son from eating his lunch.” They’d given me a low grade for poor conduct, but my dad was so angry they fixed up the grades. I transferred to the primary school at the University of Santo Thomas, partially because my mom was a dressmaker with a client who was a teacher at UST. I had to make some adjustments, but that incident caused me to treat my own children in a non-dictatorial way.

At UST I was quite a good student. I was given awards and medals, but my parents were never there because they were always busy. My mother had a dressmaking shop, and my father ran errands for her, like buying fabric at the market or making deliveries. In the early 1970s, about the time I graduated from primary school, the ready-to-wear business was introduced to the Philippines, and people were buying their clothes from department stores instead of having them made. My family was really struggling. I remember hearing that I was very sick and my dad begged his sister for money for my hospitalization.

Mom’s business was failing, so she started buying meat from the market and delivering it to restaurants. Most of her siblings were also in that business. I remember overhearing a phone call—either I was standing beside my mom or I was naughty and picked up the extension. The man on the other end said, “Is this Mrs. Abad?” She said yes. “I believe you’re in the meat business.” “Yes, but we just supply meat to one or two restaurants.” He said, “I’m with Silahas International hotel and Philippine Village.” These establishments were owned by the Enriques, friends of Marcos. “Would you like to be our meat supplier?” She said, “We don’t have the money to supply you with the volume you want.” “Okay, for the first three or four months, we’ll pay you cash. Once you have enough capital, you can provide us with terms and give us a month or two to pay.”

My mom was dumbfounded. In hindsight, all of these hotels—like the Manila hotels, the Peninsula, Rustan’s supermarket, Manila Hilton, 80% of the hotels and businesses, as well as Makati Sports Club, Metropolitan Sports Club, Green Valley, Valley Verde, Quezon City Sports Club, Alabang Country Club—all of them are run by Marcos cronies. Ferdinand Marcos was the current president, and my dad had been his campaign manager during his 1965 presidential campaign, when he won against the incumbent, Macapagal. Dad worked with former Sen. Ernie Maceda, who was I think also campaign manager then. At that time Manila had been pro-Macapagal, especially in the district of Sampaloc in Manila. President Marcos addressed my dad as the old vanguard of Sampaloc. Marcos won there by a landslide. The two other gentlemen who campaigned with my dad got high government positions, Sen. Maceda and I think Administrator Llanes of MWSS. I still have the letter Marcos wrote my dad offering him a high position.

Dad just went on with his life. So probably Marcos told these guys that he owed my dad a debt of gratitude and they should look out for him and give him the opportunity to be successful as well. When I was young the village officials—that’s the barangay captains—would sometimes come to our place, a small apartment in a poor neighborhood near the University of Santo Tomas. We had just four rooms because we were renting out two rooms to students at the university.

The barangay officials said, “Mr. Abad, we were in Malacañang [the presidential palace] yesterday.” That was 1973-74, during martial law, when Marcos gave 10,000 pesos to the barangay head just for showing up at the meeting. [This was such a common practice that it was mentioned in my Tagalog language textbook, a relic of the 1960s.] At that time it was a lot, maybe worth 300,000 to 500,000 now. The kagawads, the council members, got 5,000 each. The meetings were at the Hero’s Hall in Malacañang. The officials said, “President Marcos is quite angry. He’s looking for you.” “Why?” “Because there’s two bags of money for you every time your name is called, and you’re not there.” Paper bags of money had been piling up for him.

It was just like giving bones to a loyal dog. My dad told them, “I helped Marcos, but not because I wanted something in return. I helped Marcos because I believed in him and because he was an Ilocano just like me.”

When I was in my twenties I finally worked this out from my childhood memories. As a teenager I was quite a rebel. I used to take my dad’s letter from Marcos and his 45-caliber and bring them with me to parties. This was during martial law. Carrying a gun was a capital offense. Every time I was apprehended by the police, I just showed them the letter, and I was let off. My dad had no idea I was using his influence. He was very angry when he found out. It was all just for the hang of it, just a teenager’s bravado. I had a gun. But I didn’t point it at anyone. I didn’t abuse anyone. During that time I was making friends with the poor, like the ones we visited, who’ve been my friends for twenty years now. (Link)

When we were living in that small apartment, I was raising homing pigeons on the rooftop. I loved those pigeons. But apparently they were wrecking havoc on the neighbor, who was a lawyer. So this guy went to the police headquarters and filed a complaint against my dad. The policeman came to our house and said, “Mr. Abad, please come down to the station. You’ve got some explaining to do.” My dad obliged. We had this dilapidated car, a late 60s Opel Cadet station wagon we used it to deliver meat. At the police station the lawyer and the officials were smirking, like, “Now we’ve got you.” They questioned my dad, and he gave them something, I think the letter from Marcos. They took it inside the commander’s office. When the officer returned, he was pale and he saluted and said, “Sir, Why didn’t you tell us who you were?” “I shouldn’t have to do that. I didn’t do anything wrong. You invited me here.” The lawyer was quite shocked at being upstaged in this scene. The policemen never came back.

My dad is also an alcoholic. When he woke up in the morning he downed shots of whiskey or rum. During martial law—even now—a minor was not allowed to buy liquor. But the liquor store owner sold to me because he wouldn’t get arrested. My dad was that influential. As obedient child I never went because I was afraid of my dad. I wanted to obey. Because of his alcoholism, arguments between my parents were frequent. I remember watching television, and they were walking in front of me because the apartment was so small. On one of those occasions I just stood up and said, “If you won’t stop this, why don’t you separate?” They stopped.

I was playing in the streets with kids who were really poor. They didn’t even have slippers [flip-flops]. That’s why even now when I see people without slippers I give them some. I brought my friends home with me. My mom was angry because the bed was dirty from people jumping on it.

In high school I really wanted to impress my parents and do them proud. The first year I got good grades, and I thought finally they would appreciate my efforts. But they didn’t. So after I was sent to a higher section in second year, it started a spiraling downward. Most of my energy then went to just passing. My grades went from the higher 80s to 75 or 76. In my third or fourth year the class advisor said, “I think you’re intelligent. So why are your grades just barely passing?” I said, “Ma’am, that’s harder. I don’t have any failing grades. All my grades are just passing, 76, 75. 77. It’s hard to hit an exact score.”

At the end of high school there was a national college entrance examination. I think it was from seven in the morning to one in the afternoon, with an hour for each subject. But my grandfather had just died, and that was the day of his funeral, which was a long way away. So I asked the proctor. “Can I just take the exam all at once and leave?” Luckily, he agreed. So I took it in an hour and a half or two hours and left. A week later I was called the principal’s office. They showed me my grades and the exam, which was 99+. Only the class salutatorian had a grade that high. They said, Mr. Abad, is this true?” I said, “Why, do you think I cheated? That was such an easy exam.” They said, “You’re just bragging.” “No, I’m not. If you want me to take it over, I’ll do it in two hours.” My teachers teased me by asking how I managed to cheat. Since we were seated in alphabetical order, I was right in front. I said I didn’t have to cheat. That was one of my proud moments because I knew I had something others didn’t. I was an under-achiever because of the lack of support. What was the sense of having all these awards if my family didn’t appreciate it?

After the offer to supply meat to the hotel, our finances improved. In 1982 we moved to an affluent neighborhood in Quezon City near the house of the current president. I was sixteen and in my first year at the university. Now I had everything I wanted, I did everything a son shouldn’t do. I drank a lot, I took drugs, I gambled, I womanized. I did crazy things, but abusing people was never one of them. And taking advantage of the poor was never one of them. I don’t know, my heart is always with the poor people. I have made so many friends among the poor that now they’re my children’s friends.

I went to college at the University of Santo Tomas to the College of Commerce. I was just an ordinary student. I was full of bravado. I wanted to show off. I was always the leader in my group, and I always had a need to tangle with authority, like getting into discussions with teachers. I wasn’t able to finish my college studies, but I had the distinction of attending for nine years without getting kicked out. Supposedly if you do five years without finishing a four-year course you will be kicked out. One semester when I dropped all my classes the dean asked me to come to his office. “We have to kick you out because you dropped all your subjects.” I told them there were personal reasons. He asked me to bring my parents the next day so he could talk with them. I said, “Sir, I’m not in high school anymore. You don’t have to talk with my parents. You can talk with me. I’ve been in your university since I was in elementary school. All I want is to finish my studies here.” “Okay, come back tomorrow.” I went back and he said, “Okay, Mr. Abad, even if it takes you twenty years, you can finish your studies here because you have been here so long. So that’s the sad story of the college education I wasn’t able to finish. I didn’t finish three minor class requirements: Spanish, a computer class, military and physical education.  I shouldn’t have obeyed my parents when they said I should take up commerce because we were in business.  My first choice would have been Astronomy.

So now we went from being poor to being quite rich. We had three cars, we had a big house, and there were parties at all of my parents’ birthdays. We had all of these fair weather friends. I wasn’t able to make the transition. I never enjoyed moving with the socialites. I thought all my dad wanted was to prove to his relatives that he was now successful. I only went to the family parties if they were at our house. Most of my godparents were Marcos cronies just like those who owned the hotels. I was not able to integrate with the socialites. I still spent my time with the poor. I brought food, and if they needed some I brought sheets of galvanized iron to fix their houses. When the squatters’ colony was razed by fire—the one in Makati that we visited—I brought about 60 sheets.

So I became an addict. But I didn’t put a stain on our name, and I never abused anyone. Probably my addiction was hardest on my parents and my wife. I used drugs from my first year of college, when I was sixteen, until I was thirty-four. In high school I did everything within the rules, but in college I had adventures.

In 1987 I married this girl who is still my wife and I hope will be until I die. I’m quite lucky that she didn’t leave me. I have three kids with her and one with another girl. My wife was able to shrug it off. Now I’m clean and sober. My gambling is not that bad. Once in a while I buy a lottery ticket. I used to go to casinos and squander lots of money from my mom and my dad. I had to settle down. I have to be grateful because I have a good wife and good children.

In 1982 my parents went from being poor to being rich, and then the reversal came. I was released from rehab on June 21, 2000.  I’d been there for six months. When I went home I learned my dad had suffered a stroke. That was the start of the downward spiral. He had three strokes within a span of three or four years. With the last one he was disabled. He lost his balance. He couldn’t eat with his mouth. He had tubes all over him. And the expense for medical care, including medicines and nurses, was so high it was just like getting robbed.

Health insurance was one of the things my parents had overlooked. Probably they thought their savings would be enough, not knowing that my dad would be bed-ridden for four years. The expense was enormous. We were forced to sell our “big house” and set up a small one. That was okay with me. I wasn’t born rich, so the transition was not hard for me. Life is too short to waste on whether you’re rich to poor. It’s okay. At least I know we took good care of my dad. The proceeds from the sale of our house were used up, and I was forced to go to work.

I hadn’t worked during my first 33 or 34 years. I just looked after the family business. If you’re the son of the owner it may seem like you’re working, but I wasn’t. I made deliveries and collections, but I didn’t do any paperwork. I didn’t talk with clients. But after Dad got sick I worked at a call center for I think three and a half to four years. It was fun. I was able to prove to my wife and my family and my friends that I could work efficiently because I received recognition for my efforts several times. For me it was a challenge to talk with Americans eight hours a day. I thought they thought I was an American. The problem was it was very hard to work every night and sleep during the day. The first two years I worked in ICT, a call center in Mandaluyong City, with the General Motors account. So I was talking with Americans about their vehicles, their loans, their titles, their plates—what have you. That was for two and a half years, usually from eight in the evening to four in the morning or from ten to seven. It varied. Sometimes it was one in the morning until night. It was quite taxing to the body.

When my dad died I told myself, okay, I did my part. I just want to relax. A year later one of my supervisors called me and said, “I’m with another company. If you join us you’ll be promoted in six months. Well, I went. Unfortunately, it seemed like every time it looked like I was going to be successful something happened. I finally resigned. Now my job is maintaining a soup kitchen. (Link)