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Ode To Ordeals

By Johannes L. Chua

Illustration by Ariana Maralit

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Like a kid on his first day of school, Gerry San Jose, 56, woke up very early, ironed carefully his white chef’s jacket, and prepared a simple breakfast for his family of four. It was his first day of work after more than two months of quarantine.

At last, he whispered to himself, he can finally earn some money to feed his family with healthier fare. For the past few weeks, their food primarily consisted of sardines. His daughter once quipped that she was already sukang-suka—fed up to the point of vomiting. He also felt the same way and tried his best to put a twist on that fish by putting some garnish or flavor. But it tasted the same ever since—helplessness and hopelessness. At the concluding part of the quarantine, no (promised) ayuda came for his family.

He walked a few blocks and looked at his watch. It was just 7 a.m. The owner of the canteen where he works asked him to come at 9:30 a.m. He was confident that he will be early even though there is just a limited number of buses along Commonwealth Avenue on the first day of June, the start of the GCQ.

At Commonwealth Avenue, there was already a crowd. From afar, he saw a bus arriving. He raised his hands, one among the dozens in the air. It just passed them by, while the few passengers in the bus craned their necks, looking blankly at them who were left behind on the street, as if they were a bunch of outcasts. A few minutes later, another bus arrived. It was deja vu when the bus just zoomed by.

Not long after, it was already 9 a.m. and the crowd grew thicker and became more anxious. Gerry’s excitement waned and turned into frustration. Someone from the barangay arrived and reminded them to practice physical distancing, while those without face masks were told to wear one. A commuter asked if the barangay can help, even just to become useful at that very moment, to bring them at the end of Commonwealth, near the Quezon Memorial Circle. The barangay official just shrugged his shoulders, then left.

It was already past 10 when an open-bed truck arrived offering libreng sakay to people like him, stranded and baked for hours under the sun. Unlike ants to a honey, it was an unruly scene, each one climbing as fast and occupying any space in the back of a truck. Nobody cared, even Gerry, if they were packed like sardines inside a can. Someone asked what he does for a living. There was a messenger, a guard, a factory worker, a seamstress, and another cook like him onboard. They were all smiling, feeling a fleeting sense of relief, to save that P20 because of the free ride.

Gerry still has to take another bus ride to go to Cubao, where he will ride a jeepney to San Juan. He knows that it will be another ordeal as jeepneys are still unavailable. He just closed his eyes and thought of his family. He imagined the lechon manok that he will buy on pay day.

He arrived at work past 1 p.m. He apologized profusely. He saw himself in the mirror, his shirt already creased as if he crossed a battlefield.

***

John Ergota, 22, is junior graphic artist for a design agency in Pasong Tamo. He was hired last October so his appointment paper for regularization was one of the casualties of the pandemic. He also didn’t make it to the last bus ride to Morong, Bataan, his hometown. Stuck inside a dorm in Anonas, he just ate one meal a day. He fooled himself into thinking that this quarantine was his chance to finally slim down—though he still waited if there was extra food from his board mates from the padala of their families.

There was no padala from Bataan for John. His parents are retired workers and he is the youngest among eight siblings. He opened his wallet and only three P100 bills remained. The landlady, Manang Cora, was texting, reminding them to send via GCash or PayMaya their rent payment ASAP, or else they have to “ship out.” One of the boarders said that there was a rent “amnesty” but the old lady announced that she doesn’t care about Duterte’s order as she has bills and pills (for hypertension) to pay.

When John found out that the agency where he works is instructing him to report to work on June 1, it was the best news in a long time. On that morning, he prepared three hours early to ride the MRT, boarding at Cubao station, and exiting Magallanes station.

He anticipated the crowds, the long wait, the physical distancing. He was, by his estimate, one of the earliest at the station at 6 a.m. His optimism gave way to weariness as the minutes went by. He wanted to pee, but he doesn’t want to leave his place at the line. He looked at his watch and it became 7 a.m., then 8 a.m. until he crawled to be near the station platform at 9 a.m., the time he was supposed to be at work. The guards tried their best to enforce physical distancing at the lines, some to no avail.

He felt relieved as he sat on one of the seats inside a half-packed coach. There were plastic covers on seats that can’t be occupied, so physical distancing was assured. He missed riding the MRT. He missed looking at the faces of people, observing them as they start or end their day.

As he thought of an excuse why he was an hour late, he looked around and saw each passenger minding their own business, their smiles (or frowns) hidden by a piece of cloth.

***

Pamela Disini, 35, is a sales supervisor for an apparel brand in a mall in Shaw. Living in Pasig, it was convenient for her to go to work as it only takes two jeepney rides. A single mom, she saves every penny she can, especially during the quarantine when they were only given a portion of their salary. She has been having sleepless nights as bills were piling and the news of her brother losing his job as a barista in a cruise company added to her anxieties.

She was half asleep when she got a message that the mall’s management finally allowed their boutique to open after it passed the “new normal” requirements. She just has to go to work wearing a face mask, undergo daily temperature checks, and practice regular handwashing. There must be no close physical contact with customers, too, so she is worried how they can sell their products considering that blouses and pants have to be “tested” at the dressing room.

Pamela was not worried, however, with the absence of jeepneys. She can take the tricycle instead, walk a few meters, and voila, she would be at the mall’s entrance. So she took up her sweet time, gave her mom instructions on her baby’s feeding time, and even beautified her face after a long hiatus. She eventually wiped off the lipstick she placed, as it may smudge the washable face mask.

She left her house at 9 a.m., an hour early before the mall’s opening. She hailed the first tricycle that she saw. She saw that there was a plastic barrier between passenger and driver, so she felt safe.

“What!” she exclaimed to the driver. “P200 for a short ride?”

She instantly declined the offer and decided to wait it out. The next one charged worse, at P250. She realized that it was “anything goes” as commuters were desperate to reach their destinations. The “law of supply and demand” was in overdrive that morning.

The fare stayed at P200 after she asked around five drivers. Finally, there was one who was charging her for P180. She looked at her watch and it was already a quarter before 10.

She pleaded with the driver to lower it to P150—her money for the entire day, including food, and the ride back home.

“I know there is a city ordinance regulating the fare,” she bluffed. But the tricycle driver didn’t budge and even bewailed how hard it was for them to earn a living with only one passenger allowed per trip.

Maawa na kayo, manong (Have mercy, mister),” she pleaded again, as she saw that a few minutes will turn the clock to 10. She removed her face mask and showed her desperation to reach her work on time.

The driver finally relented, shook his head, and allowed her to ride. She arrived at the mall at 10:30 a.m., penniless, and harried. She had to apply her face powder once again.


Source: Manila Bulletin (https://lifestyle.mb.com.ph/2020/06/10/ode-to-ordeals/)

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