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Nick Joaquin, a friend, and my compadre

By Willie Jose
December 2, 2017


(Before the end of the Nick Joaquin centennial year this month, I’d like to re-publish my article about our National Artist for Literature, Nick Joaquin. This article has been originally published in the Manila Standard. This time, however, some nostalgic photos will accompany this piece.)

If Nick Joaquin, our National Artist for Literature, were alive today, he would be busily visiting all his “inaanak” these days to give them his Christmas gifts, usually envelopes containing some crisp pieces of P100 bills.

It was Nick’s routine to come and see his godchildren a few days before Christmas and by and large, he knew all their names and their respective addresses.

Being the ninong of my son, Voltaire, Nick would personally drop in on my mother – in-law who lived on Guadalcanal Street in Sta. Mesa to drop off his gift for his godson. The people in the neighborhood upon seeing him walking would greet him and say “Oh, he’s Mr. Nick Joaquin.” Then, he would just hand over his gift (normally, an envelope with some cash inside) to my mother-in-law and leave.

There are many stories and anecdotes about Nick and I feel that by putting them in writing, hopefully, they will add depth and insights to his life.

However, writing about Nick -- a towering figure in the world of writing— is not easy, and anyone who attempts to write on a slice of his former life would always have the uneasy feeling of not being able to measure up to his writing standard.

Frankly, that is what I feel right now writing this piece but I’ll keep putting into words some of my first-hand knowledge and other personal stories I have known and experienced being his friend and a caring Ninong to my son.

Visiting his home in Barrio Onse in San Juan in an early morning, we would always find him wearing a simple robe and after the customary greetings, Nick he would offer us a bottle of beer or a soft drink, plus some slices of Spam meatloaf.

During the labor unrest at the Philippine Free Press in the early 70s, Nick became an accidental labor leader because the workers there looked up to him as their hero, believing that Nick could help them solve their labor problems. He was not only the workers’ savior but also a strong voice in their midst. When he and the rest of the union members finally decided to leave the company, they all joined Nick and worked with him at the Asia- Philippines Leader Magazine.

One story told to me by my late father Ka Tino, a linotype operator at the Free Press, that since some workers could not leave the company because of the loans they had borrowed, Nick had no choice but to use his own money to pay off these workers’ debts.

Coming to his home one morning, my wife and I learned that Nick had to be rushed to the hospital for ulcer. He told us that he had been taking aspirin on the belief that it would be good to prevent stroke or heart failure. Well, taking aspirin was OK for preventing stroke and heart attack, but this medication should have been taken with full stomach, we told him.

Nick readily admitted that maybe his morning routine of having some rounds of beers with an empty stomach could have been the culprit.

In a number of times, when my friends and I paid him a visit in the morning, he would always offer us beer and some slices of Spams. And he would normally beg off at 10:00 to start “working “—meaning writing.

One afternoon, while journalist Vic Sollorano and I were having some rounds of beer in a watering hole in Ermita where an all-female band was playing, we caught sight of Nick together with some of his friends. When he was about to leave, he approached me and said “OK, Willie give this P200 to my godson. Ibigay mo yan ha, sinagot ko yan chit ninyo.

During one conversation, I asked Nick about the secret of good writing, he simply said “Read and write, and write and read “That simple advice has served me well in my career as a journalist; I’ve just kept on reading and writing, gobbling up as much knowledge in my head and thus, writing has become my passion all through these years.

One time I dropped by his home and I had with me his book, “Tropical Gothic”. I asked him to autograph it and on seeing the book, Nick said “buti ka pa may kopya ka ng libro ko, ako wala na, yun iba nahiram, di na nasoli”. Then, he wrote “ Xmas 81. For Compadre Willie, May my Godson be a genius like his Ninong! – Compadreng Nick”.

He narrated an incident during Pavarotti’s performance at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, when he opted to stay outside the CCP ground; although, he had a reserved seat inside the auditorium, he would rather watch the performance of that well-known tenor on the giant CCP’s screen outside just to be with the hoi polloi saka nakamahal ng ticket and the people could not afford it.”

Inviting Nick to attend a party even if it was a formal gathering was not easy --- most of the time, he would either turn it down or make some excuses not to attend. But when his friends would do the inviting, he was always very accommodating and when he promised he would come, surely he would come.

Once, I had a party with some media friends in our house in Project 6 and because we have no right of way, we would normally pass through a Motor shop to reach the house. So, what happened that night, Nick came at 11 to the surprise of my guests; we were not expecting Nick would come that late.

On arriving, Nick was already a little bit tipsy and he complained about how hard it was to find his way to reach my house, saying that he had to ask some people in the neighborhood for some direction. Despite this hassle, however, we all enjoyed Nick’s company; he belted out some of Frank Sinatra songs while happily gulping his beer.

Preparing for the NPC elections in the 90’s, Joven Custodio and I thought that since Nick was very influential person in the writing community, it might be a good idea to solicit his support, so one morning, we visited Nick in his house. Initially, he was quite hesitant to accede to our request, saying that “I’ve already stopped going to the NPC” but he eventually agreed to campaign for us.

Nick joined us in making the rounds of different newspaper outfits, campaigning for us; cajoling media people “to please support my friends in the elections.”

When we campaigned at the Bulletin, Nick didn’t know personally the paper’s editor-in-chief, so he secretly asked me about his name and I told him, he’s Mr. Ben Rodriquez, then, Nick approached Mr. Rodriquez and addressed him, “ Sir, please support our group “, and Mr. Rodriquez, responded, “Ikaw nga ang aming Boss, Senor Joaquin.”

Going around these media outlets with Nick’s company was made easier with some packs of beers in our vehicles; we would pass those beers over to him to boost his
energy, the more beers he had consumed, the louder his voice, thereby making him our reliable leader and spokesman.

Many years ago, I took along with me my 10-year-old daughter Mao in visiting Nick’s home. Now, at 40 years old, I asked about her recollection on that visit, and she said,” I fondly remember calling him Tito Nick and he would tightly embrace me, calling me darling and in his house, the books are everywhere—in the living room, bathroom at sa pasimano ng bintana. Tito Nick would usually offer us coke and slices of Spam in the early morning.

Some would say that Nick was elusive, a shy literary giant, but one thing I’m very sure of that despite the honors and praises that had been heaped on him -- his friends would always remember Nick as a simple, thoughtful and generous great man of letters.

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