TEMPORARY FREEDOM from the office chair took me to the streets of Manila midyear last year as a cub reporter. I was young, idealistic, and essentially I had to look for and write stories “fit to print.”
It was July 27, 2015. The President was to deliver for the last time his version of the state of the nation—a yearly event marked more by applause counts, a political red carpet, the praise of statistics and rhetoric.
In the streets, activists, whether lawmakers or ordinary folk, were raising banners with words bleeding for change, justice and equality—whatever these meant. Effigies of the powerful were ready for burning, not as a means of forgetting but as a metaphor to prove that images of power can be reduced to ashes.
Chaos can be a usual occurrence. But who started the riot on the avenue didn’t exactly matter. People marched on the street and other people in Filipiniana attire sat inside an air-conditioned hall while things were being reduced to binaries outside: uniformed men vs civilians, authorities vs activists, violence vs peace and order. The binary of the oppressor and the oppressed was hard to see in the TV footage showing a water cannon being fired and angry men wielding bats.
But I had a different feat to do that day. I was supposed to hunt for facts the way someone at the bottom of the journalism food chain must. I knew all the right places to go to, at least as instructed through a phone call I received from the news desk: Go to the police headquarters and introduce yourself as the new reporter in town. Shake the hands of the police officers. Look for contacts. I did as I was told.
The press office was a good old spot at the corner of the headquarters. It was like a secret society and “neophyte” is an unwelcome term. So that when I first walked through the door, I felt like Wendy trapped in Neverland, or someone who forgot to wear the specified attire for a party.
The routine starts with rising early and enduring two-hour travel that takes me to the mercurial city of Manila. By lunchtime I should have locked in at least one story in my notebook. By 3 p.m., summaries must be phoned in to the news desk, and the stories sent by 5 p.m.
* * *
A routine never hurts anyone; finding the new in the everyday is the real killer. Yet all around me, everyone was trapped in routine. I can close my eyes and still hear the sound of the printer, fingers jabbing at the keyboard, and laughter in a closed-door meeting. I can still sense the thousands helplessly stuck in long lines at City Hall for documents that would legitimize, but never entirely recognize, their existence. Police do their rounds; others are stuck at their desks, waiting for the next disaster.
Time loses us. Time is very tedious. We search the police blotters, the spot reports, and documents for human facts—a departure from the numbers without a name or the oddity in one’s mundane or ugly existence. We look for people in uniform for legitimacy, but we know their mouths speak only data, seldom the truth. For the truth is rarely spoken. It cannot be found in telephone calls and interviews. The news is not the truth, only an interpretation.
I tested the first words of the news report on my tongue: “A man was found dead at a construction site in Binondo, Manila…” It didn’t taste bitter enough, and I dreaded the time my taste buds would become numb.
I often spent the rest of the day in a public transport vehicle—bus, train or jeepney—with a book in my hands. I wondered why not many other people did so and would instead merely stare into space. Maybe because a book is usually met by bad lighting, elbows, body heat, a foul odor, or pollution? Because the increased fare had altered their mood negatively to even give space for literature? Or because commuters always expect the worst about each other—each suspecting the other of preparing to pick a pocket or pull a harassment stunt? You’d hug your bag as if your life depended on it, dreading to lose cash or a gadget. My mom always tells me: “Observe the people around you. Be cautious.” But this cautiousness, as with other circumstances, has evolved into fear. Ordinary fear. Fear necessary to live.
* * *
Around 100 policemen were deployed at Quinta market when I arrived at 9 a.m. The decades-old market was to be demolished that morning, but I saw only the ruins of the neoclassical structure.
Vendors did put up a fight to save Quinta. But their human barricade did not stop the authorities from tearing the building down. In two years, they’d been told, a modernized market will rise on the site.
The vendors were more mad than sad. They were resisting the change because they knew that no matter how fast the city tried to change itself, they could never catch up. They knew they would be just a casualty of modernity.
This is also why I’ve always hated Quiapo’s streets. Quiapo exists in the midst of urbanity, but the smell of trash emanates from its grounds; it upsets my stomach every time. The sea of people drowns me. The sight of the majestic church can’t tame the aversion. But I still pass Quiapo every day, waiting for someone to become a nuisance, carry a lighted cigar, start a fight, or pass leaflets of a bogus company.
A more regular occurrence is the sight of people asking for alms. I found that there are two types of beggars: one who looks “decent” and one who affirms the stereotype. More often the former works, and the latter is met with looks of disgust.
The first type can be found clasping attaché cases, in semiformal clothes, and handing out white envelopes bearing the name of a religious or charity group. The second type comes with palm stretched out, puffy eyes, moaning for loose change: “Ate, kuya, pahinging barya.” They may wipe your shoes or perform a song with makeshift drums. It takes many forms. But both kinds speak of the nature of charity in a Third World country. I wonder what analysis this may bring to the world of marketing, but I’m more interested to know what it says about selective human compassion.
And the rest of Manila has been like that. Grounded by memories of lives forgone, it anticipates the future in spiral patterns—a whirlwind—never mind if it forms a distorted figure on its way up.
Elsewhere, distortion is reality. The concrete jungle is occupied by people with a new calling: consume. They are a different kind of species, living in a free society whose economic spectrum doesn’t extend to the other species of the population. It is blinding, and once you conform, you become comfortable.
To live doesn’t always mean to be alive. I’m still hunting for human facts—but while I’m at it, cities will continue to rise and fall, scientists will have new discoveries that will shake the world, news will fill the 24-hour gaps of the human mind, the odd will break the monotony. And dreams will be broken and fulfilled.
I can only hope I’m looking in the right places.
Mariejo Mariss S. Ramos, 22, says she believes in Maya Angelou’s words: “There’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
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