I smell of oatmeal, she said to herself, as she vainly tried to hail one cab after another on the crowded Makati street. She hadn’t had time to moderate the amount of oatmeal-based skin lotion that her dermatologist had prescribed for her pruritus – a fancy word, as far as she was concerned, for the itch that violated her entire skin every single blessed day of her harassed life. What really got to her was not the itch on her external skin, the largest organ of her body, but the itch down there, on the most sensitive organ of her body.
She wouldn’t have been on the street this early, or this late, had it not been for her driver who had texted that he had a bum stomach and could not come in today. She would have been, as she had every single weekday for the last ten years, sitting comfortably on the back seat of her old Mercedes Benz, putting on her make-up, sifting through the papers that she had brought home from school, getting a few more minutes of much-needed sleep. Her work as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of Saint John Paul University was not really that much, but with six hundred teachers and five thousand students knocking on her office door at least once every semester, she had no choice but to work in the car. The two-hour ride to the university – which should have been only a half-hour, were it not for the traffic that defined and defiled the streets of Metro Manila – was a chance to rest or to work or to daydream.
Daydreaming had become her most precious escape from having to read through undergraduate theses that she had to sign as Dean. There was really no need for her to torture herself with the two-hundred-page manuscripts – most of which had been cut and pasted from various Web sources anyway – that students had routinely submitted as partial fulfilment of the requirements of their degree programs, as the formula went, but she had unthinkingly issued a memo last year to all teachers that she wanted personally to see if her university had become a diploma mill. It was her fault that she wanted to micromanage, or as she once overheard her secretary say, she was nothing if not obsessive-compulsive.
She had to get to the university board room in less than an hour. The Executive Vice President of the holding company of the richest tycoon in the Philippines was going to meet her, together with her own Executive Vice President. The tycoon wanted to get an honorary doctorate from the university, in exchange for a library building that he would build named after himself. She wanted to be there to object to such an obviously mercenary arrangement. She would have every right to object, because the degree would be Doctor of Arts and Sciences, and that was the very name of the college she managed. There was no such degree to begin with, but then, there was no library building either. My loyalty to my university ends when my loyalty to academic excellence starts, she repeated as a mantra to herself.
At the moment, however, she had to think not of academic excellence but of getting to the university at all. I have no choice but to ride a jeepney, she told herself, and jumped up the first jeepney that looked like it could squeeze in an extra forty-year-old female. She shouldn’t have worn her favorite skirt, but it was the first thing she could get hold of in her stuffed closet. Had she worn slacks, she would not have felt so exposed with her pale legs, still shapely as her driver kept flattering her when they were in bed, attracting so much attention among the males in the jeepney.
There were eighteen of them passengers in the jeepney, two more than the jeepney could accommodate comfortably. It was rush hour, and it was not unusual for two or three men, sometimes women, to hang on for dear life standing on the step board. The jeepney had two seats, more like benches, that faced each other. Everybody stared past each other, pretending not to notice that they were not only packed like sardines, but smelled like sardines. Well, she didn’t smell of sardines, she thought, but of oatmeal.
The jeepney wound like she expected it to through the streets of Makati. Makati’s streets were, at least, still recognizably streets, where motor vehicles could move faster than joggers. When the jeepney got to the city of Manila, however, the streets ceased to be streets but more like parking lots, with vehicles hardly moving, if at all, and people moving around the vehicles in steady streams. There were more people on foot than in vehicles; these were beggars, vendors, pickpockets, snatchers – the very people she wanted to avoid by moving to upscale Makati.
There were pedestrians who at least looked like they were really going somewhere, but it seemed to her that most of the street dwellers were just moving around the virtual parking lot, selling various things to the passengers of jeepneys, tricycles, buses, delivery trucks, horse-drawn carriages, and cars. One can buy anything on Manila’s streets, one American tourist had once written, leading to massive protests on social media from Makati’s rich residents, who had never been on a jeepney ride through Manila and who were in complete denial of the state of poverty in the metropolitan center. She had followed the barrage of insults on Facebook both against the American and against the Manila mayor, but it was only now that she saw, just a few inches from her face, a real street vendor selling not cigarettes, not bottled water, not newspapers, but condoms.
Then there were the beggars. They came in very imaginative forms. One had an amputated leg and walked around with an umbrella for a crutch. One had an eye that was obviously supposed to be blind, because there was a massive red spot where the eye should have been; she could not tell if the red spot was only red paint, but it sure was gory. Another was really blind, or at least pretended to be really blind, and had a tree branch that served as her walking stick. One had a baby in her arms; the emaciated baby did not look anything like the presumed mother, who was much fairer and had larger eyes. She had heard of beggar syndicates that passed babies from one woman to another, or even deliberately blinded or maimed beggars to make them more pitiable. She knew, however, that it was against the law to give money to beggars, so she did not budge when one of them nudged her.
A passenger got off at every street corner, apparently because no one wanted to walk one meter more than necessary, but someone would immediately come up and fill in the space. To pay the driver, passengers had to pass their money up the benches through the hands of other passengers. Nobody seemed to mind, she thought, as she herself took a fifty-peso bill and passed it on to the passenger nearer the driver. I have to tell my mathematics professors to research on the native way of counting, she reminded herself, for surely jeepney drivers must have a system of remembering who went in and who went down, how much the fare was according to the number of kilometers each passenger stayed on board, not to mention deducting discounts due to students and senior citizens. Since she was neither a student nor a senior citizen, she did not expect any discount. Not knowing how much the fare would be, she decided just to give a large bill and hope that the driver would not give her change in too many small coins.
A street vendor came up and sold the driver a garland of flowers. They were sampaguitas, common white flowers easily made into necklaces by the homeless. She noticed that the driver gave the boy too many coins for such a paltry necklace. The driver hung the necklace on the rear-view mirror. She had heard of the contributions the police extracted from every jeepney driver, and this must be it, she thought.
After what seemed like an hour but was really only five minutes, the jeepney driver suddenly uttered what seemed like the cry of an ape standing over a fallen prey or Tarzan finally beating the poacher in one of the old movies she loved watching on television.
Then the driver spat something yellow on the windshield. It didn’t look like sputum, because it looked rock solid, like a piece of food that one would cough out after having been subjected to a Heimlich choking rescue maneuver.
The driver must have slammed on the brakes, because the jeepney lurched forward and she was pushed against the woman to her right.
“Sorry,” she instinctively said, but no one paid attention to her, not even the woman, because they all saw what was happening to the driver.
The driver had suddenly turned green, literally, then crumpled like a rag doll.