Out of the Camp Ch.43 – Lost in Quezon City
One evening after a communications class I’d enrolled in at Pasadena City College, I was walking back to collect my car from the parking lot when I heard the sounds of a big band coming from what I later learned was a gym. It was a warm, summer evening in the late 80s/early 90s and the doors had been left open to allow for air to circulate in the hall. I slowed down and walked over to the open door to listen. The band comprised around twenty players including a rhythm section, 3 or 4 trumpets and a trombone plus four saxes and the director. The following week I stopped by the gym before class and was able to speak with the director, Russ Guarino. I asked him if the band ever used singers in the line-up and he said that they did and that, in fact, they were looking for a male and a female singer for the next semester. I was surprised to learn that the band was, in fact a class, ‘The Swing Band’ class, which one could enroll in in the usual way although there was the additional requirement of attending an audition.
After having jumped through the required administrative hoops in addition to the audition, I found myself a couple of months later, showing up for class at the start of the Fall semester along with around twenty musicians together with a female singer who’d been chosen from three who’d applied. I, in contrast, far from having to compete with a phalanx of vocal giants for the gig, was the only male that showed up and so I got the gig by default. Class began with a weekly schedule of rehearsals and learning new arrangements of mostly older tunes from the Great American Songbook and a few more recent well-known numbers. We performed an occasional free lunchtime concert at Harbeson Hall, a venue on campus where folks from the local community would show up to listen along with students, mostly music majors, and an occasional faculty member. One week when we arrived for class, our professor had been replaced by a well-known local trumpet player, Bobby Rodriguez, who spent most of the class’s time talking about his career and the famous names he’d worked with. No reason was given for Russ Guarino’s disappearance though the college was rife with rumors, but we were sad to see him gone. In contrast no one was disappointed when Rodriguez too dropped out and was replaced three weeks later with an excellent teacher and marvelous trombonist, Ray Buckhart.
We continued rehearsing regularly and I recall one evening performing at a weekend fundraiser dance shortly thereafter, again in the College’s Harbeson Hall. While doing some research for this piece I learned that Ray had sadly passed a year ago after many years on the music faculty at Pomona College in Claremont and later moving to Boise, Idaho in 2019 to start a new chapter in his life. I’d only been at PCC a week or two when I learned of another band rehearsal class run by the music department, this was the ‘Studio Jazz Ensemble’ led by well-known arranger, trumpeter and educator, Dirk Fischer. After a traumatic audition at the hands of a merciless taskmaster, I was admitted to the fold, initially hating him and his take-no-prisoners style of teaching. However, as time passed and I got to know a little of his quirky ways and something of his earthy Minnesota origins and wartime military background I ended up, as did all of his students, loving him. That cringe-making audition, however, is one that is still burned in my memory after all these years. He had asked me if I knew the song, ‘What’s New?’, a standard from the 30s written by Bob Haggart and successfully revived in the 80s by Linda Ronstadt. I told him I knew how it went and asked if there was a vocal chart around. With hardly a breath, he’d called up the music and directed the band into the intro and I hardly knew what hit me. Despite this, I started the verse quite successfully, the band played beautifully as we continued into the second verse by which time, I was beginning to feel quite comfortable. Big mistake! I was barely looking at the ‘dots’ as I knew the tune, and I’d completely forgotten about the octave jump that comes at the start of the third verse, “What’s new? Probably I’m boring you…”. As we went into it, I suddenly realized too late that the focus was on me and, as my stomach knotted up in panic, I just made a blind leap hoping that I’d ‘land’ instinctively in tune and on key. Of course, that wasn’t what happened! I overshot and was horribly flat, completely out of tune and, what made it fifty times worse, singing at the top of my voice. Dirk waved his hands around to get the band to stop and, as things quietened down, I saw him grinning. I looked at the band and saw that the brass section had collapsed in complete hysterics. I remember in particular a young trombonist called Danny, who totally ‘lost it’ and was doubled up in convulsions, helpless with laughter. To say that I was embarrassed wouldn’t begin to describe my emotions in the moment, but I very quickly realized that there was no cruelty or mocking in their reaction. In fact, what I did see in some of the encouraging, quiet smiles of the more mature players was a degree of sympathy and understanding, perhaps having had a similar experience themselves following, most probably, a less dramatic gaffe than I had just made. When everyone had settled down, we carried on with the rehearsal including my having another crack at the song. This time however, since I was now aware of what was coming, it was fine. Auditions are always a challenge under any circumstances but when you’re being accompanied by a twenty-piece jazz orchestra, many of them seasoned, mature musicians, that ramps up the heart rate considerably. I remained singing with both classes only for a short time and left ‘The Swing Band’ class at the end of that semester when Ray Buckhart also moved on.
My time with the ‘Studio Jazz Ensemble’, however, was only just beginning as I remained with Dirk for between twelve and fourteen years. There were some gaps as I was still overseeing the offshore business in the UK which required me to make an occasional trip to London or Aberdeen. We had a schedule of gigs that kept us focused and gave some purpose to the endeavor in addition to just the fun of doing it. Every May, a local church, St. Clare’s in Santa Clarita would hold a barbeque which we would perform for. Thousand Trails RV & Camping Resort in Soledad Canyon was a Valentines Day outdoor gig which we did from time to time. We had a fundraiser concert at the Korean Mission in Korea Town, LA, a performance at the LA Arts Council, an awards Ceremony Concert at College of the Canyons, Valencia. On another occasion there we participated at the COC ‘Jazz Invitational’ together with several other jazz ensembles. The City of Monterey Park hold an annual ‘Playdays Festival’ each May which we played regularly. The Los Angeles Club on Figueroa Street, a 100+ year old up-scale business club was an occasional date we had….
and changing tack again; music to the day job!
On one occasion a client requested that I go to Manila with little or no notice to resolve an overseas work permit issue we had with a group of Filipino contract employees. We had been requested to assume management of these staff who were employed on an ongoing offshore construction contract in the Middle East where their original employer’s agreement had been summarily terminated by the operator (oil company) for some alleged egregious action or other. At the same time, the operator wanted to retain the services of the current crew to avoid any disruptions in the day-to-day operations of the project. To this day I still don’t fully understand the arrangement these guys had with the government agency responsible for securing their work authorizations to travel overseas. However, because of the unusual development leading to the rift between the operator and the Filipino crew’s previous employer, we had to replace and assume the role of that company but also had to become an approved and registered contractor with the POEA (Philippine Overseas Employment Administration) and arrange for the Overseas Employment Certificates of these men to be revalidated with us as a licensed overseas employer under their government. To this end I was scheduled to meet with a local maritime staffing operation based in Quezon City, a suburb of Manila.
Due to the short notice, I had difficulty in securing a flight and ultimately had to pay for a business class ticket to Manila on United Airlines, changing flights in Narita Airport, Tokyo. I can’t really complain because for some reason I got ‘bumped up’ to first class, my first and so far, only experience at that level. I used to fly BA a great deal, especially between 1987 and 1993 when I was travelling several times a year between LA and London. I only ever booked coach but because I’d racked up enough airmiles to earn a gold BA Executive Club Card, I would almost routinely be moved up to business class whenever I checked in. Anyway, I boarded this United flight and made my way to the front of the aircraft and located my seat. As I settled myself in, I foolishly tried to make small talk with the bejeweled, buxom, middle-aged lady sitting next to me. Don’t you hate it when people do that? Well anyway, she certainly did and looked at me as though I was something she’d scraped off the sole of her shoe, as she pulled her fur stole more tightly round her neck. Thankfuly, there was a four-to-five-foot gap between the seats so I wouldn’t have to be bothered by her again…, so to speak! The experience was actually very pleasant, the flight uneventful and we landed on schedule in Tokyo and, other than waiting for a couple of hours for the connecting flight, I remember nothing other than arriving in Manila and being met by a group of men from the agency we’d be working with. They drove me to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Makati where I had been booked in for three nights. We had a drink in the bar where they explained what we’d be doing over the next couple of days and after some small talk they left, and I retired to my room for the night.
The following morning, I had a delightful breakfast being attended to as I was by a bevy of young ladies who couldn’t have been more accommodating, asking me every couple of minutes if I’d had enough to eat or was there anything else that they could do for me. I was picked up and taken to the company offices to meet the manager who hadn’t yet arrived and so I was introduced to a management assistant who briefed me on procedures that we’d undergo at the government offices and what would take place a little later when we got there. When the manager arrived and we’d had some coffee and gotten a little acquainted, we headed off with two of the others to meet with officials at the POEA Headquarters in downtown Manila. We parked on the street near the main building and walked to the front entrance. As we walked, we passed literally hundreds of people lined all the way up to the entrance and into the building. One of my companions explained that these people were waiting for a meeting with an official so that they might secure a work authorization which would allow them to work overseas. It wasn’t just seamen, he explained. There were housekeepers, nannies, bookkeepers, secretaries, engineers, construction workers and many other classifications in addition to mariners and offshore oil workers. “So, anyone who wants to work overseas has to get a government authorization before they can do it?” I asked. “Yes!”, one of the guys said, “unless they have an offer from a firm in the country they’re going to, or they have family there who are helping them. Also, if they’ve graduated from college in that country, then they can just go with their passport and any required visas for that country. Other than that, they have no alternative but to deal with this.” We were in the building by this stage, and he waved his arm indicating the lines of hundreds of people inside the main corridor of the building. “Some of these folks have been here all night or, at least from the very early hours of the morning. They come here from all over the Philippines, from some of the remotest islands, thousands of miles away. They’re so desperate to get out and earn a decent wage so they can send money back here to their families.
As we walked along the very long main corridor past the hundreds of people standing in line, I looked into the countless offices as they all had a large picture window which we could clearly see into. In each office there was an administrator sitting behind a desk dealing usually with a group of people answering questions presumably concerning questions about their status, qualifications and experience pertinent to the positions they were seeking, and the country they wished to work in. We turned left into an outer office almost at the end of the corridor and where a receptionist greeted my companions warmly saying simply, “He’s waiting for you.” The inner office was substantially larger and contained a huge desk with a very large man sitting behind it. He also greeted us warmly and invited us to take a seat on a very large, luxurious leather couch. We’d barely begun the formalities when the receptionist came in with a tray of coffee and pastries and laid them on an adjacent coffee table. I was introduced to the director or superintendent – can’t remember his official title but he clearly was a ‘big-wig’ in charge of government personnel at this huge facility, plus all of Metro-Manila and the surrounding region. He addressed me asking, as did many, how I liked the Philippines and I replied that the people I’ve met are wonderful, very warm and extremely friendly. I also told him, however, that it was my first time in the country and that I’d only been there for a few hours, I’d liked what I’d seen but would really like to get out into the country and visit some of the islands. At this he became quite animated and agreed that I ought to go here, there and I don’t know where or remember any of the places he named. What he said that did surprise me was that the Philippines comprise of something like 7,000 islands. I was really shocked by this figure; I knew that there were a lot of them, but 7,000! Wow!
Most of the time spent we there we were engaged small talk. Aside from my visit it was clear they were all baseball fans but apparently the current hot topic was about a rash of passengers arriving at the airport being highjacked and robbed by fake taxi drivers who’d picked them up. I’d been forewarned about this before I left home and advised that I’d be picked up from the airport by company employees. The actual business that took place during this visit largely involved the receptionist running in at out of the office with files of paperwork, getting stuff signed, running out again only to return with more signatures required on ever more forms. I noticed in the short time I was there that people loved using those big rubber stamps. You know, the old kind that you dunk on an ink pad and then thump it on the paper or form or whatever. Bureaucracies! Anyway, after all of this was taken care of and the various files were placed in envelopes, we left taking our copies, or originals, and returned to the office. Now, what happened next was that someone had to take the paperwork to a judge or court official to have it certified or notarized. Another big rubber stamp presumably! One of the guys advised me that this might take some time and so I said I’d take a walk and do some sight-seeing. Quezon City is a highly industrialized, low-income inner-city area of greater Manila with insanely heavy traffic and some of the craziest driving I’d ever seen.
There were multi-colored jeepneys everywhere, countless bikes and scooters many apparently focused on full-on suicide missions. Clapped out cars, vans and trucks weaving this way and that, many so overloaded with passengers that their vehicles’ shocks were clearly gone. As people were crossing the streets in this bedlam and no driver or rider would think of giving way to let them across so that, in the time I wandered around the city, I saw several people stranded mid-way between lanes of fast-moving traffic patiently waiting for a break so they might complete their perilous journey to the other side. As I wandered transfixed by the mayhem surrounding me – did I mention the noise? It was deafening! Horns blaring, engines with silencers long-since functional, bits of metal hanging off trucks, scraping along street surfaces, people yelling and generally, the noise you might expect when you cram millions of people into a relatively small area. At some point I was aware that I had acquired an entourage of kids running and walking alongside me asking for candy or dollars. I considered these requests and immediately dismissed the notion, certain in the knowledge that to give in to such urges would transform my modest retinue into a multitude. Instead, I engaged them in conversation as I continued walking. They asked if I was from America, if I was rich, did I have kids, when would I go back…, and on, and on. Before long I found myself back at the offices of my hosts and, as I saw several police cars parked nearby, my companions evaporated as quickly as they’d appeared.
The reception I received as I walked into the building completely floored me. Everyone was immediately surrounding me asking if I was OK and where had I been. The police were looking for me, all thought I’d been kidnapped or worse. As I digested all of this, one of the officers approached me; I was informed later that he was a Chief Inspector. I couldn’t imagine what sort of trouble I could be in, and he obviously saw the apprehension in my expression. In fact, he was extremely friendly and simply said that it was unwise for visitors unfamiliar with the city to go wandering about because it wasn’t safe to do so. He asked me if I was alright and told him, yes! I’d just been for a walk while some administrative matters were being dealt with at the office. He wished me well, hoped I would enjoy the remainder of my trip, shook my hand and left with the other officers in his wake.