The Pilgrim

Nonfiction by | November 8, 2009

beggars circle tables
dogs circle carrion
the lover circles
his own heart
-Rumi

1.

One occasion in my childhood changed my life forever. It was the arrival of a Sony Trinitron television in our home. Being the latest technology of that period, it was a departure from the electronic appliances that resembled pieces of furniture.

It was the last years of the Marcos era. In those days, television broadcasts in the province started at four o’clock in the afternoon with Batibot, followed by a back-to-back Christian cartoons, Super Book and Flying House. Music videos aired just before the evening news.

Coming home from school one afternoon, I switched on the television and saw a blonde girl with a headband and ridiculously large plastic earrings. She toyed with boys under a street sign, mouthing lyrics I barely understood. Soon I memorized the chorus of the song – Borderline — and eagerly anticipated the music video every afternoon. The singer, I learned, was Madonna.

Madu-na? What a hideous name,” my stepgrandmother would say and laugh. “Madu” is the Maguindanaon word for stinky. I tried to ignore Ina Bingkong’s remark.

“She is melikano,” she added. “You know what they say about white people. They stink like rotten guavas.” Not this girl, I argued. I thought of Madonna as fragrant as Avon’s Sweet Honesty. Nothing my step grandmother said could change that.

And so it was that on a late afternoon in 1984, in the living room of a two-room apartment on dusty Don Abelardo Street where my family lived for nine years in Cotabato City, my veneration for Madonna started. I promised to love her forever like my own Nuestra Señora de la Guadalupe, an icon I became familiar with in the Catholic school that I was attending.

2.

Madonna, a.k.a. The Queen of Pop, was born Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone on August 16, 1958, in Bay City, Michigan. She moved to New York City for a career in modern dance. After stints as member of the pop musical groups Breakfast Club and Emmy, she released her self-titled debut album in 1983, the first of her eleven studio albums to date. The best-selling female rock artist of the twentieth century, she has sold over 200 million records worldwide. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2008.

Adored by fans and reviled by her critics – from animal rights activists to the Catholic Church — Madonna began her world domination via the Blond Ambition World Tour in April 1990, followed by The Girlie Show in 1993, The Drowned World Tour in 2001, and The Reinvention World Tour in 2004, visiting cities in Europe, North America, Australia, and Japan. In 2006 she performed in the Confessions Tour, making it the highest grossing tour by a female artist in history. She embarked on her Sticky and Sweet Tour in August 2008.

3.

Tita Madge will have a concert tour this year.” My cousin Phillip announced the news of the Sticky and Sweet Tour during my birthday party in May. He was the other Madonna fan in the family: the one who imitated her looks; the one who planted a fake mole on his upper lip with an eyebrow pencil; the one who rented the Betamax copy of the Virgin Tour in Ramadan of 1985 and never returned it; the one who woke me up early each morning for the entire duration of the holy month to watch the concert before and after partaking the sahur meal, making sure that the volume of the television was just audible enough so we could hear but not scandalize the entire apartment complex. He was my accomplice, the one who ignored the fact that I sometimes mistook a line or two in the lyrics. (“Never mind. The real point is to enjoy the songs. Right?”)

He was the one who assured me that there was nothing to be ashamed of in imitating a female star. “It will not make us bayot. Trust me.”

“And look where it got us now,” I told him during the party. We erupted in riotous laughter.

“Heard anything from your application in Idaho?”

“Iowa,” I corrected him. “Nothing yet.” It was already the end of May. There was still no word about my application to a writing program at the University of Iowa. I was coming to terms with the fact that I didn’t make it.

“Basta, if you get accepted, make it a point to watch the concert. Do it for us.” Phillip urged me. I nodded. “It’s a deal.”

We partied until the wee hours of morning. The stereo blared out our favorite Madonna songs. In our drunken revelry, we sang with our idol. “You got style that’s what all the girls say…”

4.

Sticky and Sweet kicked off in Cardiff, Wales, around the same time I arrived in Iowa in August.

Madonna would be performing in major European cities before opening the U.S. leg of the tour in New York. I checked the schedule of the tour on the Internet. I found out that the nearest concert would be in Chicago on October 26 and 27. Two nights. The first night was already sold out. Getting myself a ticket to the second night of the concert was a concern more pronounced than having my visa application approved. It was going to be a chance of a lifetime. The tour hadn’t covered an Asian leg. Even if there were Asian cities in the tour, I don’t think I could afford to go to Tokyo or Tel Aviv, the cities included in past tours.

On my second day in Iowa, before I could snap out of a bad jet lag and a flu, I bought the best seat I could afford. I texted my cousin Phillip and told him that I got my ticket. I would watch the concert not only for myself, but also for him. It was our deal.

August went and September came, all days passing by with the shades and hues of autumn changing the Midwestern landscape. The sun rose every morning and lent an iridescent glow to the already orange and copper and red leaves of the trees. Sweet and succulent Song of September were ripe for the picking at Wilson’s Orchard. In the cold weather Panchero’s remained open until two in the morning for hungry customers wanting their tasty burritos and enchiladas. On Fridays and Saturdays there were feasts of lines and verses (and bagels and cream cheese, too) as writers from around the globe read at Shambaugh House and Prairie Lights Bookstore. University students looked forward to tailgating and football on weekends, sporting yellow and black in support of their home team, the Hawkeyes.

And every night, in the warmth of my room on the third floor of a century-old red brick house, I eagerly waited for that October Monday when, finally, I would be fulfilling a dream.

5.

From the depths your narrow spaces
became a whole geography;
a mound was “the mountain of earth”
and to climb down it was a dare.

-Jorge Luis Borges

The night before my trip to Chicago, I stuffed a bag of potato chips, bottled water, a spare shirt, toiletries, a belt bag, boxers, and a pair of socks in my backpack. In the side pockets I stashed my Moleskine, some pens, the FedEx envelope that contained my concert ticket, my Greyhound bus ticket, a printout of my hostel reservation, some Google maps. I also threw in my worn out copy of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem to read in the four-and-half-hour bus ride to Chicago.

Earlier I argued with my friend Girard online about my plan to sneak in a camera inside the concert venue despite the warning in the ticket that said, “no cameras.” In the end I stuffed the camera in my backpack. To take photos of Chicago, I reasoned lamely.

At seven o’clock the next day my alarm sounded. I was groggy. I managed to sleep for three hours only. There was too much adrenaline in my bloodstream. I dashed to the bathroom, took a quick shower, and changed into my favorite jeans, a white shirt, and blue sweater. I checked my backpack to see if I missed something. Convinced that I was ready, I stepped into the street and headed towards Java House Café for coffee and bagel. It was still early, half past eight. My bus was scheduled to leave in three hours, but the ticket said that having a ticket doesn’t guarantee you a seat on the bus. It was on a first-come, first-served basis.

At eleven thirty-five I was seated on the bus, Passenger No. 12, as it navigated its way along Burlington and Dodge Streets. We passed through Victorian houses with bright orange Jack O’Lanterns smiling on the front porches, and into Interstate Highway 80. I took out my book and began to read, glancing at the wide stretch of cornfields “under Midwestern clouds like great grey brains,” as Denis Johnson described it in Jesus Son.

Like the long bus trips to any point in the Philippines, there were a few stopovers worthy of sociological study. At Walcott Junction –the world’s largest truck stop, the sign said—passengers were given thirty minutes to grab a quick lunch. That meant fast food. I bought coffee instead. I was too excited to be hungry. At Davenport, a city that looked like an ugly industrial project that is never completed, a Korean guy came aboard the bus. He brought so much luggage one could surmise that they contained parts of a collapsible home. A nomad with a Lego house.

We crossed a long bridge and entered the state of Illinois. We stopped at Moline where two men –a young black with braids and a middle-aged white — added to the growing list of passengers. They were wearing identical white long-sleeve shirts and carried transparent plastic bags containing dozens of letters. It was only five minutes later, when the bus was passing by the John Deere Center, that I realized that the men had just been released from prison. That explained the uniformed officer at the bus station who escorted them. Judging from the letters that they had collected, I guessed they were in prison for three years.

There was a snow shower at De Kalb. It was going to be a cold night in Chicago. An alabaster white Hindu temple welcomed us in Aurora. The pleasure of seeing something Oriental in the middle of a prairie evaporated as soon as we drove past the city’s exit where traffic began to get heavy.

In an hour we entered Chicago. The traffic crawled. I began to panic. It was four in the afternoon. I took out the maps and studied them carefully. In case I got stuck in traffic, I couldn’t afford to waste my time locating my hostel and the concert venue. I examined the maps like a general plotting a surgically precise military operation. I scrambled off the bus as soon as it reached the station on Harrison. Chicago was cold all right. I pulled the collar of my jacket to cover my neck.

Despite its size, Chicago was easy to navigate. The city is built with very distinct grid lines. Follow the right line and it will lead you exactly to your destination. I walked towards Halsted Street. My hostel was two blocks away. It occupied the second and third floors of an old building in the Greek part of the city, above a restaurant called Parthenon. I reached the hostel in five minutes.

The innkeeper was an old guy who looked like Anthony Quinn on the heavy side. After collecting payment, he escorted me to the second floor. “Put this in the key hole when you leave. Check out time is ten in the morning,” he said, and went back downstairs.

I closed the door and threw my backpack on the bed. The room felt like a spartan cell in one of the Athonite monasteries of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the northern Greek peninsula. There was a small bed, too small for my six-foot frame. Next to a framed charcoal drawing of a Grecian urn stood a desk and a square mirror on the wall. The window gave me a view of the street and the ebony Sears Tower.

The concert would start at eight. Anticipating a long queue, I forwent rest. I walked to the bathroom and washed my face. Then I preened in front of the mirror. I couldn’t face the Queen looking like a hobo. I pulled out my belt bag from the backpack. I stuffed in my wallet, concert ticket, cell phone, maps, lip balm, gum. After deciding for a few minutes, I put in my camera as well. I would think of a way to sneak it in later.

6.

Like ancient wayfarers following the frankincense trail to a sanctuary in the middle of the desert, pilgrims of all ages, ethnic origins, religions, and sexual persuasions would congregate at the United Center that night.

I set off on Halsted Street. I walked three blocks until I reached the corner of Madison Avenue, and took a left turn. I could hear my heart racing. My dream was about to come true. This journey had taken me 24 years to make, traversing different time zones and the expanse of the great Pacific Ocean. It was a voyage of 8,000 miles, and nearly 9,000 days since the first time I saw Madonna in the Borderline video back in third grade. In the intervening years I’ve slipped in and out of faith and nonbelief, sailed across the oceans of lucidity and melancholia, even navigated the sexual topography from being top to bottom to versa. But throughout these constant movements, my devotion to Madonna never faltered. And now I would see her in person, my Salve Regina. But was this the end of a journey? What was I expecting out of this experience? An absolution? An achievement? A proof of devotion? Just like a suicide bomber is convinced that detonating a bomb in a busy Baghdad street is an absolute act of devotion? What if there were no houris waiting in Paradise? What if Paradise doesn’t exist at all?

The sky was turning into the shade of gunpowder. The air became chillier. Many thoughts ran through my mind, probably due to hunger. It had been ten hours since I ate the bagel during breakfast.

When I was a child, I remember how I felt when my brother told me there was no Santa Claus. “I saw Papa put the toys in the stockings,” my brother revealed. It was harder to accept that we were not supposed to celebrate Christmas because we were Muslims. I felt duped. What if Madonna proved to be a fabrication, too? I had no ready answers. I rubbed my eyes to clear my vision. From the distance I could make out the dome of the United Center.

As I inched closer, I noticed that there was nobody outside United Center. There were no long queues, only security guards. I checked my watch. It was only five twenty. I proceeded to the box office. “What time will the gates open?” I asked. “Not until six thirty.” I was early. I was way too early. But there was no turning back. I would just have to wait.

I walked to the other side of the arena, took out my camera, and started snapping photos. Ten minutes later I saw a group of teenagers talking into their camera about how excited they were about the concert. They were planning to do a documentary. But how would they sneak in the camera? It was a predicament that we both shared.

I had to think of a plan, fast. The guards would check my belt bag, I was sure of that. Then it occurred to me that I could tuck the camera inside my briefs. It was unlikely that the guards would frisk my bulge, or ask me to strip. Oh-no! NO! Not in the U.S. of A. It was a good idea. I felt safe.

A Latino couple appeared. The teenagers asked them if they could be interviewed for the documentary. “Where are you from?” “Puerto Rico,” the guy said. “You came all the way from Puerto Rico for the concert?” “If Madonna can’t come to Puerto Rico, then Puerto Rico must come to her.” There were claps of approval.

Somebody tapped my shoulder. “Do you need tickets? I have some.” It was a scalper. “I already have a ticket. Thanks.” I walked away. A strong wind blew. I almost lost my balance. I walked towards one of the canopied entrance. My hands were numb. I took out my cell phone and sent Phillip a text message. “I’m already here in the concert venue, waiting for the gates to open. this is really it.”

A guy walked to the vacant area across from where I stood. He smiled reluctantly. I nodded. He took out his phone and dialed a number. He began talking on the phone with a language I was familiar with: Arabic. He ended his sentences with “Insha Allah.” If God permits.

“Do you want a cigarette?” He offered me. I don’t smoke but I took a stick and thanked him. The Arab-speaking guy left. A plump woman replaced him.

“Do you need a ticket? I have two spare tickets here,” the lady offered.

“I already have a ticket. Thanks.”

“Two of my friends are not coming but I have these tickets,” she explained. Yeah right. I stood there. Wanting to be left alone, I tinkered with my cell phone. I pretended to be sending messages.

“Do you know anybody who needs a ticket?” The woman asked.

“I overheard two ladies earlier who needed a few tickets. They walked that way.” The fat woman took off.

Moments later two men took the place of the woman. They were speaking in Spanish. The slim tall guy wore a sweater with red and blue stripes. The other guy with a bald spot on his head sported a grey blazer buttoned over a generous belly. The slim guy noticed that I was observing them and nodded. I raised my hand to acknowledge him. After all we shared a kinship loosely connected by our mutual admiration for Madonna.

The potbellied guy glanced at me. When he turned to face me, his coat unbuttoned a space, revealing a big silver crucifix. Sensing the surprise on my face, he buttoned his coat again.

“Are you Oblate?” I asked. No response. The Oblate fathers in my grade school had the same cross. “Jesuit?” I tried again.

He laughed and introduced himself: “Father Ramon,” he said, skipping the matter about which religious order he belonged to.

“Are you here to check what Madonna is up to this time?” I pried.

“No.” Father Ramon answered.

The slim guy confessed that they were huge fans since grade school. Both of them migrated from Guatemala. “Ramon here became a priest. I’m Rodrigo. I manage a store ten minutes from here.” I smiled at both of them. I checked my watch. In ten minutes the gates would be open.

7.

The universe is a machine for the making of gods.

-Henri Bergson

United Center is a huge place, occupying nineteen hectares of land north of downtown Chicago. Completed in 1994, it is home to two famous sports teams –NBA’s Chicago Bulls and NHL’s Chicago Nighthawks. It is the largest indoor arena in the U.S. in terms of physical size, which can hold 23,500 people for concerts. A gigantic statue of Michael Jordan continues to draw crowds who want to have their souvenir photo taken outside the arena.

I located my seat at the left side of the arena, about twenty meters from the stage. I chomped on a chicken barbeque sandwich while I perused the souvenir program I bought on my way in. Madonna would sing twenty of her songs.

A Japanese teenager, chaperoned by her father, took the seat to my left. Onstage the technical personnel were testing the microphone and lights. “Bud Light, eight dollars only,” a portly black vendor shouted in front of me as he waved a tall can of beer in the air. A red haired guy occupied the seat to my right. He was holding his iPhone in one hand, and a ticket to Celine Dion’s concert in November with his other hand. “Come on, it’s eight fifteen. Where is she?” An impatient fan muttered at the back. “She’s a diva. She’s entitled to be fashionably late,” another fan snarled at her. I rubbed my hands on my legs. The excitement was killing me. I was hyperventilating.

At quarter to nine, the lights dimmed. The fans roared. Everybody stood. I stood with the crowd, my legs shaking. Out of the darkness a giant silver pinball emerged in the LCD backdrop, navigating the labyrinthine passageways of a psychedelic game machine, until it landed on its goal. Everybody screamed as the glowing lights of the pinball machine parted slowly, revealing the Queen on her throne. I was witnessing an apparition of My Lady, the Madonna, the Virgin.

As the first words of the opening song filled the arena, I held my breath and quite uncontrollably, tears trickled down my cheeks obscuring my vision.

I raised my hands, and tried to shout. No voice came out.

All around me hands were raised, as everybody called out to her, proclaiming the name of the supreme –“Madonna!”

This was the culmination of our pilgrimage. Our bodies, now pressed against each other, were drawn towards the stage, to the object of our collective affection. She whirled and whirled like a nebula of light. We invoked her name again and again and, as though drawing all the energies from her followers, she glowed even more brilliantly like the brightest and hottest star in the universe.


Gutierrez Mangansakan II is a prize-winning independent filmmaker and writer. He has produced more than fifteen documentaries and short features. He edited Children of the Ever-Changing Moon (Anvil), an anthology of essays by young Moro writers in 2007. He is a recipient of international artist residencies and fellowships, including the 2008 University of Iowa International Writing Program.