Mel Santos - John Steinbeck
Image Courtesy of Falvorwire.com

Last Holy Week, I went to New York to visit my bosom friend, Mel Santos, whom I had not seen for more than 20 years. Seeing him again and noting his vast transformation, I was reminded of what John Steinbeck had written in his book “Tortilla Flat.”

He wrote, “Man capable of the greatest good is also capable of the greatest evil. Who is more impious than a backsliding priest?…”

In the case of Mel, though, it is the other way around: Man capable of the greatest foolishness is also capable of the most pious things.

Mel and I have been friends for 50 years now, and we both know the highs and lows we had gone through all those past years. And I could not help but be amazed over how Mel had transformed himself from a reckless, sometime violent, young guy to a deeply pious man.

I was a new police reporter of the defunct Evening News in 1967 when I met Mel for the first time. Then in our early 20s, we were neighbors in Intramuros, Manila. As young, single men, we were carefree and reckless and were aching for adventures as well as “misadventures.”

Liquor – Ginebra gin or Tanduay brandy – was the potion that brewed our friendship together with another young man, Lito Redoblado. Every night, we would engage in long drinking session, and at length, the drinking became habitual. The urge to drink gin every night was so irresistible that we eventually became alcoholic.

Inebriated and reckless, we would go to Chinatown, drink more, watch comedy-burlesque show and eat pancit canton at our favorite Chinese eatery. Often, we would encounter some low-life denizens roaming around Ongpin and Misericordia streets in Sta. Cruz, Manila.

Mel had then a short-fused temper and would suddenly punch guys who were trying to intimidate or scare us. A pimp who was offering his services to us got a busted lip when Mel hit him with a right straight to the kisser.

There were times when we were brought to a police station after a brawl, but we would be released as soon as the police came to know that I was a police reporter.

For five years, we experienced this kind of dangerous misadventures. When I looked back at those rawhide years, I thank God for having protected us. We could have been shot or stabbed in those clashes with the denizens of the underworld.

Mel and I parted ways when we got married a year or two after Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Mel was employed at Philippine Standard, maker of sanitary wares, where he became a top marketing man. Later, he transferred to Marikina where he built a house.

We would meet on certain occasions like Christmas and house blessings. He later stood as one of the sponsors (ninong) when our first child, Percy, was baptized. For many years we did not meet or hear from each other. I learned later that his wife died, and he immigrated to the U.S.

When my wife and I immigrated to Michigan in 2009, I called Mel by phone, and we were both excited to realize we are now both living in America. I also learned that he is now enjoying an abundant life, and he has much blessings for which he thanks God.   

Last Holy Week when I visited him at his home in Queens, New York, I was amazed at how my friend has transformed himself from the chubby, short-tempered man I knew in the past to one who has shed a lot of weight and who is now deeply immersed in religious activities.

Now a widower for the second time, Mel is chairman of the board of the Body of Christ Christian Church, a non-denominational congregation in Queens, New York which marked its 12th anniversary last year.

During our long chat, Mel said it is time for us to do penance for our sins, trespasses and transgressions. His sincere contrition was so palpable that I realized he had truly changed his ways for the better.     

Last Good Friday, Mel was one of the speakers who expounded on the Seven Last Words of the crucified Jesus. I could not help but shed tears as I watched him deliver his piece. I felt proud of him even while our past misadventures flashed back in my mind.

Yes, Steinbeck is right: Man’s nature is malleable. Man is capable of the greatest evil but he is also capable of the greatest good. My friend Mel is a sterling example.

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