The other three-fourths
Last week, Grace Poe took the MRT from North Avenue to Taft. This wasn’t the first time she had taken a city train, she used to take the LRT to UP Manila in her college years.
She took the MRT at 8:20 a.m., the pit of rush hour, so that she could have an idea of the actual conditions there preparatory to a Senate committee hearing on the MRT last Monday. She heads that committee and the MRT had just suffered a major mishap a couple of weeks ago, one of its trains tearing out of the rails and injuring 38 people.
Her train experience wasn’t unpleasant, Poe reported. Apart from having to queue up for 40 minutes and the elevators not working, the latter presenting a trial to the elderly and the disabled, she had little complaint. Of course, she said, it might also have been because the MRT people prevented the usual rush-hour crowd from storming into her coach—she took a women-only one—when they learned she was there. When she herself learned about this, she said, she remonstrated mildly with the officials, saying, “I called their attention to it nicely and explained that I needed to experience the plight of our passengers.”
Well, I myself, who take the MRT to Makati on the occasions that I cannot avoid it—I lose a good part of the day to drive and look for parking space there—can swear that for the other coaches at least, the experience is far less pleasant. I’ve taken the MRT at rush hour and have had images from Dante’s Inferno flash through my mind, having to wade through a tangle of arms and legs and bodies in the throes of anguish—on really bad days your chest would press into the back of the next person each time you take a deep breath, giving you whole new insights into the expression “packed in like sardines.” Still I prefer enduring this ordeal for 20 minutes to traffic one-way for two hours.
I leave the results of the Senate hearing on the MRT for some other day. My own interest here at this point lies in this: I’m glad a senator has taken the MRT, however it was to do an assignment. I’ve been proposing this for a long time, and commended a group some months ago for recommending the same thing. Specifically compelling government officials to take public transport at least once a week. It’s not as facetious as it sounds however initiating it, and certainly enforcing it, will be the hardest thing in the world. It should improve governance by leaps and bounds.
Quite apart from giving public officials a better appreciation, or at least understanding, of public transport, which is as vital to the lives of most Filipinos as rice itself, making them take the MRT, or indeed the jeepney or the bus, once a week should give them an appreciation, or at least a glimpse, of the way “the other half lives.” That is the idiom, referring to the lower classes as seen by the well-off, except that in our case, that is not just the other half, that is the other three-fourths.
That is most Filipinos, who are the laborers, the factory workers, the sales ladies, the mechanics and electricians, the clerks, the jobless looking for jobs, who teem in the city, who take the train and the jeepney and the bus. Who are prey to the pickpockets, the snatchers, the hold-uppers, the last getting bolder and more plentiful by the day, not least near the Inquirer. The only thing they haven’t held up yet is the MRT. But that may be speaking too soon. That is not to speak of the rapists, the swindlers, the kidnappers and sundry halang ang kaluluwa waiting in the shadows.
Compelling public officials to take public transport regularly, or even now and then, should give them an idea not just of the state of the public transport system, it should give them an idea of the plight of the poor. Who knows? Maybe it might lessen corruption, giving public officials some awareness of the value of what they regard as “loose change,” which is the fare in buses and jeepneys and trains. And what a heinous thing it is to steal that fortune from them. Stranger things have happened, as Malcolm Gladwell notes in “The Tipping Point.”
Paradoxically as it may seem, given the teeming numbers of the poor and their obdurate presence, they are often not seen in this country. Their sheer abundance and ubiquity make them invisible. Their very plight makes them unseen, our natural tendency being to turn away from the bloodstained face of humanity until it disappears. We’ve gotten so used to the sight of beggars, children sleeping in streets, the tangle of arms and bodies in hovels beside creeks and under bridges we no longer see them. Public officials most of all.
I still remember how Francis Tolentino took violent exception to one of Dan Brown’s characters describing Metro Manila as the “gates of hell.” One of the things that apparently made it so being its hellish traffic, quite apart from its hellish poverty. An exaggeration? Maybe. But try taking a train or bus or jeepney at rush hour, and see if the experience alone of being thrown into the throng in the streets, quite apart from the sidewalks or the bus stops, even before you board those things, doesn’t make you ask if it’s not literal. Wade through a tangle of arms and legs and bodies and hear mouths cursing, if not the damned weeping and gnashing their teeth as they burn even on rainy nights, and see if you do not catch glimpses of the gates of hell.
I’m glad Grace Poe took the MRT last week, however it was only to prepare her for the hearing on the MRT last Monday. It should have given her insights into more than what lies behind the city’s premiere transport system. It should have given her insights into what lies behind the billboards that proclaim unabated growth.
The better to prepare her for bigger things.
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