Two Restaurants and a Bus Line-A A +A
Friday, September 27, 2013
AS A little girl, the phone number I learned next to those of Lower and Upper Houses was the number of John Hay. It was 2101. I learned it, literally, at my mother’s knee. She taught me how to dial it and say “Halfway House” when Uncle Peping Romero answered the line in his deep, very American accented voice. Once patched through to Halfway House, I was taught to ask, “Is Andy Carino there, please?” When he got on the line, Mom got on the line, too.
After 2101, it was the number of Session Cafe, where my dad could be found if he wasn’t at Halfway House. Many times as a child, I dialed that number, waited for someone to answer “Session Cafe,” and asked for my father so my mother could talk to him. Thus, my memories of Session Cafe are of its phone number before they are of the place.
The place was that spot just off from Session Road, just about where the present branch of Jollibee Session now stands, beside a bank now managed by childhood buddy Emil Ruff, which used to be an electrical shop owned by Uncle Pons Sajonas. And which was before that, my father’s town office.
Session Cafe was where Dad took us all to eat after we caught the last full show of anything, which always began at 9:00 p.m. I remember walking out from Session Theater en famille, my siblings and I dressed in jammies over which my mother had thrown overcoats, socks, and rubber shoes. That way, we just shucked these latter items and tumbled straight into bed after getting home.
This, of course, was all in a nighttime Baguio where the car doors were never locked, and you knew who owned the ten or so other cars parked just outside the theater just from the looks of them. And you thought as you saw them that probably their owners, like you, were going to the show. Chances are, you saw them in the theater, too.
And then you probably saw them in Session Cafe after. The place was owned by Uncle Jimmy Tong. He was a smiling-faced, white-haired, Chinese man who manned the counter. He was Uncle Jimmy because everyone was an uncle or an auntie if you were a child in Baguio.
As was the owner of another Chinese restaurant/hangout: Uncle Akong, a slim, pleasant man who likewise manned his counter. And whose voice I had memorized from the sheer number of times that he answered after I dialed that Dainty number: 2923, and asked the standard “Is Andy Carino there, please?” Uncle Akong would say, “Just a minute,” and then yell out, “Andy! Your house, calling again!”
Dainty was many things to me. On Session Road itself, it had glass windows facing the street, flanking its door, which used to be a saloon door. I bought Haw Flakes from the glass window to the left of the door.
On the right side of the door, inside the other window, there were these long, yellow cakes displayed – they were called “streamline” cakes.
Growing up, Dainty was where you went for egg pie, jam tarts, and those yellow cakes. It was where you found Dad at merienda time. It was where you left a message for him to wait for you before he went home.
Even into adulthood, Dainty was a place which served me well. I could leave documents, money, and messages at the counter for others to pick up. I could ask for messages, money, and documents to be left for me at the counter. The Dainty counter was an all-weather, all-around, all-accommodating post office, bank, answering service. I even remember seeing letters at the counter addressed to people followed by “c/o Dainty Restaurant, Baguio City.” And I remember that there was this spot where all these paper bags and bags of bread were lined up, and Uncle Akong would be writing names on them: Andy, Pakol, Tarzan, Iking...
I will, however, remember Dainty best for three names: Manang Marcela, Remy, and Janet. These three ladies were keepers of the letters, purveyors of the messages, conduits of money. As a result, they probably knew everything that went on in town: who had just closed a deal and how, whose deal was still a cooking and how things were a-looking, who got this-and-that contract and celebrated by buying everybody lunch. Why? Because aside from being the cashiers of the place, they saw and heard it all happen, they saw and heard it all get talked about, they saw and heard it all “grapevined.”
Two of the Baguio habits I write of here are restaurants, Session Cafe, where anything could happen quietly, and Dainty, where everything happened, and very noisily. Session Cafe was so quiet that my cousin Judith Strasser (later Pavia) and I could do business in its peace and quiet, exchanging thousands in cash and jewelry without incident, without a waiter even lifting an eyebrow. Whereas, if you wanted word about anything, all you had to do was sit at Dainty and have a cup of coffee.
You came away with the information you set (sat) out for, and more. So anyway, the third habit this piece is about is a bus line.
The bus line was called Pantranco; it was nicknamed Pantran. While Pantranco certainly has a historical identity in a good many milieux, it has a particular one in terms of Baguio. Even more particularly, there exists a whole generation of Baguio “boys” and “girls” who would never have survived college in Diliman in the 70s without Pantranco.
Why? Because like any Baguio girl or boy is, we were creatures from a temperate zone who could never get used to the lowland tropical heat. Thus, weekends mostly meant one thing – ET go home. And believe me, the lowland experience was to me alien. Being in the heat was like being on a totally different planet. So the weekend was this respite when you could go home and sleep in your own bed under a real blanket, not one of those lightweight sheet things. And since it wasn’t every weekend the car came to pick you up, it was Pantranco time! when it didn’t.
Why else? Because as hometown girls and boys, we enjoyed hometown privileges invisible to the naked (outsider) eye. They included access to seats in totally booked buses, quiet arrangements to effect such access, discreet winks in a sign language you either spoke or didn’t speak. Thus, thanks to people named Tony, Cecile, Manang Aida, and Uncle Peping (again), we got through four or more years of college in Diliman, with weekends at home.
Why indeed. Moneys had to travel, you see. This was not yet the age of electronic bank transfers, and the only bank on campus was this tiny place that called itself, with pride, Republic Bank, where the best thing was their sub-arctic air conditioning. Telegraphic transfers took a week and hungry children can’t ever wait that long. So how did moneys travel to effect one-day express? By Pantranco, of course. Our parents could put cash in the hands of the driver of a Pantran bus or of Uncle Peping or of any of the Baguio crew at 8:00 a.m., for example. Hungry children could pick it up at 1:00 p.m. at the bus stop pretty near school and still eat a late lunch.
In one restaurant, you could do big business quietly. In another, everything was public. And with the help of one bus line, you made it through college in another planet. Talk about small town support systems.
These landmarks of my youth are no longer around. Session Cafe is now Jollibee Session. Dainty is now called Session Delights, and as that, has no Uncle Akong hanging out, writing names on paer bags that have loaves of bread, no Marcela, no Remy, no Janet. As for Pantranco, it’s now a different line, but I still see Manang Aida. Such landmarks as these will always be in a special spot in Baguio’s heart and history.
Another landmark that must be mentioned here because it is such a decided part of the Baguio landscape is Sunshine Lunch. It is tucked into a corner around Malcolm Square, was once the only 24-hour gig around, and is still home to the best siopao in the world. If it wasn’t to Session Cafe that my parents took us children after a late movie, it was to Sunshine Lunch.
One of us would alight from the car and buy a whole bag of siopao hot from the oven “to go,” necessitating that they got “injected” withsiopao sauce before getting packed into a huge, brown paper bag.
After which we had to get home fast or all the sauce would leak out, wet the big brown bag, and soak through to your lap, clothes and all.
Still, eating began in the car, and everybody got sticky from the sauce dripping through fingers and onto clothes and car seats. But never mind, the delicious white buns were worth it, wrapped around ground pork rolls that each somehow had hardboiled egg segments and/or Chinese sausage ingeniously incorporated into them.
Speaking of food, another restaurant, Luisa’s, though relatively young compared to all of the above, is probably now the Dainty habit, at least for the local press, for whom you could once leave anything at its counter. Now, there’s actually a press box at Luisa’s, believe it. Higher up on Session Road is a slightly older establishment, Teahouse, whose sweet spaghetti I greatly favored for many a high school lunch.
Still higher up, there is Don Henrico’s. And even higher up, Mario’s, the latter being older, having opened sometime in the 70s. The former is renowned for its pizza, pizza methinks originated from chefs pirated from the, uh, older place. Though Uncle Akong’s son Willy lately tells me that they were pirated from yet elsewhere, hmmm. Whatever else, one must note that these now brand chains are original to Baguio, oh yes. The others that bear their names are just branches and/or franchises. Along with Luisa’s and Teahouse, they are probably habits in present day Baguio which someone will write about as such – in a while.
Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on September 28, 2013.