Life In The Coffin

The Coffin was a 6 x 2 meter room located in a boarding house meant for a family of five, but which had been sufficiently partitioned to accommodate twelve tenants at a time. Its walls, made of thin lawanit wood, were the color of a demented mustard yellow, the more to give the illusion of light, joy, and general perkiness. These walls were peppered with tiny holes, such that in the darkness, rays of pinlight would aggressively trespass from the room next door. The first time I had come across these holes I immediately plugged them with modelling clay, but every now and then new holes would be discovered, making me feel like I was in an indie movie involving neighboring voyeurs who mutually spy, whisper invitations for late night fellatio, and eventually fall in love.

There were eight other boarding houses in the compound, which was well-known along Orosa Street for the barbecue joint situated at its entrance. At the time, the barbecue joint was fondly called Kantunan by its patrons, who were mostly medical students, hospital personnel, and employees of Robinsons’ Ermita. If budget was tight one could order a cup of rice, a piece of roasted hotdog, house water. Or as the name implied, a pack of instant canton. On pay days one could feast on a smorgasbord of liempo, barbecue, rice, a side dish of salted egg ensalada, and a bottle of Coke. And for those who were really in a celebratory mood, there was that most deluxe option on the menu: stuffed pusit. Regulars were quick to complain, however, that the quality of the food has slowly been deteriorating through the years. The last time I ate there their signature longganisa had transformed into a mass of coalesced blobs of hard fat. The liempo cuts had gotten thinner. The squid was no longer as fresh, or as boisterously stuffed. Frequently the meats were served burned at the edges, such that the younger generations have unofficially changed its name from the quaint, playful Kantunan to the medically concerning Nitrates.

I had stayed in The Coffin for five years, living there all through internal medicine residency and medical oncology hell-owship. Its proximity to the mall and the hospital was its prime feature. Only two other tenants had stayed there longer, most only renting for a few weeks or months, so almost everyone around me was considered a stranger. On my way to the bathroom at 3 am, I would eye with fear and suspicion the unfamiliar shirtless men drinking coffee or walking in the dark, only to learn that they were seamen undergoing training in the nearby training centers. Initially there was an effort to be friendly, but with the rapid turnover of these tenants I had decided not to bother with anything more than a polite half-smile. Very few people knew I was a doctor, and ambush consultations in the middle of brushing my teeth were few.

Occasionally I was left with no choice but to strike a conversation with people I’d hardly seen around, such as when I had to ask Mrs. Conchita Mirasol, a 58 year old housewife from Bay, Laguna, if she could lend me a screw driver. I had locked myself out when I went to the shower, and she was the first person I saw while I was shivering outside The Coffin like an idiot. This endeared her to me, as I had initially found her to be completely infuriating for always taking too long in the bathroom. If there was a queue of pails outside, for sure it was Mrs. Mirasol taking her sweet time. Eventually I learned that she had decided to rent a room in Manila for her cobalt treatment in PGH, totally shaming me for my annoyance. The concurrent chemotherapy and radiation treatments had been causing severe diarrhea, forcing her to take control of the toilet.

The other transient I had gotten to know well was Mr. Raymond Tomano, one of the shirtless men I had seen snacking at 3 am. While walking to the hospital one day I saw his son, Roy, a nurse from Cebu, lighting a cigarette by a tree along Pedro Gil. His eyes were swollen from crying. Roy had just talked to their oncologist, and he was informed that the screening test results had excluded them from the clinical trial they were hoping to be qualified for. Mr. Raymond Tomano had been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, and they couldn’t afford the P200,000 needed for his monthly chemotherapy. The very next day they decided to go back to Cebu to continue supportive care at home. Roy texted me a few months later that Mr. Raymond Tugardo had died peacefully at home.


I had labeled my room The Coffin not because a few tenants had gotten terminally sick or died in that boarding house, nor because of its size, but because whenever I opened my eyes in the morning there was nothing but total darkness. And it was perpetually silent, the honking of the cars and the laughter of the raucous Ermita crowd filtered by the multiple rooms flanking The Coffin. I would wake up at 12 noon after a long duty, and everything would still be pitch black, with no indication that outside, Manila was burning from the afternoon summer heat.

The Coffin was located at the far end of a long, narrow corridor. There were no windows. From the main door of the boarding house the floor along the corridor would slightly slope down, terminating on the door of The Coffin. I found this to be a significant architectural finding when I was woken up one morning by the very strong smell of trash. When I stepped off the bed my legs had gotten submerged in water. It had been raining since 5 am, the caretaker, Ate Lilith, said. They were not calling it a typhoon, merely a habagat. The downward slope of the corridor floor had funneled the flood directly into my room, bringing all kinds of trash and excrement with it. However, other than extreme weather conditions, or the prospect of fire, the location of The Coffin had made me feel secure and protected. It was abominably ventilated, the air always smelled like soaked wood, but it was my own private dark fortress, a place to retire to after a long day of hospital work. No house invasions in the middle of the night from vagrants or robbers had ever happened during my stay.  The only invasion was from cockroaches.

Categories: Blogs

4 replies

  1. Wonderful piece, Doc! Having been to the Ermita area, I could visualize the setting — with Manila’s denizens going out and about.


  2. Beautifully crafted, but you crush our hearts in the end with stories of patients with cancer. So that was where they stayed during treatment.
    I remember eating there, too, on a budget many years ago. The al fresco set up of plastic chairs and tables did not deter my friends and I—we, medical students who knew enough of gastrointestinal physiology to trust our gastric acids to exterminate any harmful microorganisms, should the food be improperly cooked. But no such thing. The restaurant’s stuffed pusit, eaten with rice fresh from the kaldero, and a cold Coke on the side, was delicious.


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