No one warned me about the criminals, swindlers and the beggars that made the grimy, smelly Quiapo underpass their natural habitat. My initial experience there, decades ago, was with this guy cradling a saint made of plaster. He came up to me and asked for donation of any amount for his church. In exchange for my donation I get to keep the statuette. Although I told him I wasn't Catholic he dogged me with the steel determination of a rabid priest at an Inquisition.

Out of sheer frustration, plus I was getting unnerved, I relented. I took the statuette from him and handed over P20.00. He took the money, told me it wasn't enough then grabbed the saint from my hands. He left as if I had insulted all the angels in heaven. That was actually a good thing. It would have killed my zealot Protestant mother to find a Catholic saint in my room.
I was at the pit recently looking for Tibetan dzi beads that would supposedly bring me inner tranquility. Quiapo's underground remains pretty much the same. If I squint my eyes, it is not hard to imagine myself in a post-apocalyptic Mel Gibson movie. In the last stronghold of disfigured humans and roaches that survived a nuclear Armageddon.

Here, where there is more misery per square inch than any place I know, the country's poorest play out their lives totally invisible to politicians - except during campaign seasons when they come in droves promising false salvation. But something always lures me back to the city's underbelly.

That would be the people's will to do anything to survive another day. Be it putting children or the elderly, afflicted with a wide array of physical illnesses and deformities, on display to eke a few cents worth of pity from the devotees walking out of Quiapo Church. Peddling a few pieces of sickeningly fragrant flowers strung together. Hawking plastic insects or translucent rubber balls with colorful lights inside. Tempting passersby with pirated DVDs, medicinal herbs, talismans and, of course, religious icons. Or stealthily stealing wallets.

Quiapo's underpass reeks of the jaded wisdom of an aging whore who has seen it all. Many of its inhabitants know they will never make it out of this dank hole. Many of the people who stay in Makati will never see this dank hole. Yet they refuse to curl up and die. They take the toxic lemons life dealt them. They make a bitter elixir. They down it. Then they get on with the business of survival.

It isn't the inner tranquility I was hoping to find. But wisdom, no matter how acrid, is still wisdom.