Arbeit macht frei

I felt like a concentration camp inmate yesterday. Slowly dragging the whole Sunday from twelve  in the afternoon till Nine in the evening doing stuff for the bosses. With my laptop and Powerpoint decks as substitute for ball and chains, I slowly Arbeit macht freitrudged  the lonely hill of data dumps and graphs till just before i wrote this dying worker’s brain fart. Leaden-eyed and with my mental sinews flaccid, i faintly remembered the camp motto on all the labor camps that jolly ol’ Adolph  had installed on all the gates welcoming those to be gassed: Arbeit macht frei (Work makes one free). Funny but I seem to agree. Work drowns away the pain of time and senselessness. It puts things into perspective just like a poor man’s Prozac to life’s depressions…it brings about a semblance of purpose and order. It takes away  the feeling from the fact that you are about to be burned to a feathery grey chaff of an existence. I guess atleast the architects of the gas chambers got it right on that point.

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Taxi Tales

I’ve been riding taxis for about a month now and contrary to what I expected, I had lots of fun doing so. Beyond the dirt and grime accumulated in my sweaty brow and the mocking stares of passengers of cabs I failed to flag down lay a Taxi Talescollage of stories & experiences that taxi drivers happily tell between traffic jams and wrong turns. Their accounts are weaved and embroidered both with their own personal experiences and their passengers as well. These interesting and sometimes disturbing short narratives hang and flow like a beautiful tapestry, a rich display of the urban Filipino experience.

 It all started in the wee hours in the morning September 26th when the weather spawned a monster named Ondoy. The beastly freak laid waste to majority of Metro Manila while its murky waters devoured many vehicles including my father’s brand new car. With my Dad left without a way to go around, I volunteered to lend him my own. I work in heart of Makati and live near Mandaluyong where there are no garage to terminal shuttles and jeeps had short routes. This left me no choice but to ride taxis.

This is how I got to meet Toryo…or Goryo. I honestly couldn’t remember his correct name. Blame it on my selective or fleeting memory and I’ll plead guilty. But what I do remember with great clarity is his dark story about a co-driver. So for now  let’s  just call him Oryo.

Oryo was of the extroverted kind. After the grim days of Ondoy, his incessant chirping and jovial disposition was a welcomed relief. He talked about how his brother-in-law spent two days in the roof of their shanty with his wife and ten month old son. He  lamented on how they were sold “relief food packages” at P20 bucks a piece by crooked barangay officials. He was very thankful that his own family was spared by the floods. Oryo was also very appreciative of the fact that he now had a new employer given the harrowing experience he had with the last one. Now people must know never to mention such phrases like  “harrowing experience” or “mysterious goings-on” to a person like me. Doing so would be like dropping a lollipop on my mind’s pavement where armies of curious ants zestfully await. With the ants now fully engaged… the prodding commenced.

Oryo had been a Taxi driver for only less than 2 years. He was once a Masiao (Filipino illegal betting game) operator but has since retired when another mayor got voted in his town and given that the new public servant had another team handling his interest… it got “too hot” for his crew.

 Taxi was nowhere in Oryo’s list of alternative jobs. But a good friend had the better of his opinion and convinced him to try it out. He enjoyed the job.  Blessed with an extroverted nature and great PR skills, he jelled sweetly with his operator, passengers and co-drivers…well almost all except one. You see Oryo didn’t have one unit all for himself. His operator had a shared system called “Half-set”. In this simple scheme, one driver handles the day shift while the other covers during the dark. Oryo handled the day shift.

For one year and a half everything seemed fine with his partner. The unit transfers were smooth. No long conversations, problems were pointed out and solved quickly and without qualms. His partner though withdrawn and often pensive always made sure that the unit was crisp and clean ready for Oryo. And as far as he knew the guy never failed to pay the boundary fee in full.

It was quick whiff at the start like a sickening sweet smell that he couldn’t fully describe. He initially dismissed it simply as bad cargo. Might just be market meat juice that spilt over from an old lady’s plastic bag that his partner failed to shampoo off…as so he thought.  Weeks passed and the smell got worse. To the point that poor Oryo couldn’t drive without the windows open. He confronted his unit partner about it and he always got a vague explanation about passengers spilling drinks and food. His partner was so good in his excuses that somehow after every confrontation, he always got the feeling that he was the only one smelling it. It got so bad one day that a lady passenger got so disgusted about the stench that she begged him to stop midway to their destination to transfer to another taxi.

In one shift he lost three consecutive passengers to the strange smell. At the end of that day he only had a take away of P100 after the boundary was collected. That’s when he told his operator of his plight and was given permission to follow his partner to catch what was going on during the night shift. After all, the taxi unit’s welfare was in the best interest of the operator and rarely did they have a driver so concerned about a corporate asset.

He started hounding his partner starting from the garage in Pasig. He was quite astonished when the target vehicle just went zoom past flagging passengers. With its lights out and with the HIRE tab off, the cased out unit went flying through Edsa down to Makati rolling across Taft and then finally slowing down the approach of the Philippine General Hospital. The old yellow Toyota XL then slowly crept towards the emergency parking bay. The driver went down and nonchalantly smoked a cigarette as if caring nothing about time or loss of passengers. That’s when a group of crying women appeared huddled around two men bearing a shroud covered stretcher. They approached the driver and lovingly transferred the corpse of an old man to the reclined passenger seat of the taxi. That’s when his partner handed a baseball cap (which he later learned was a ploy to deceive the toll way guards) to one of the women who carefully placed it on the head of the cadaver after gently kissing its forehead.

And that’s when it dawned upon him…his partner was driving dead bodies to the provinces. The dreaded stench was caused by the death fluids dripping from the lifeless passengers. Later did he find out from other taxi & van drivers haunting the hospital parking grounds that this practice was quite normal and popularly considered as a cheaper alternative to hiring ambulances or hearses. They said that poor folks from the provinces just can’t afford the cost of transporting dead relatives back to their hometowns. According to the modern-day Kharons sipping coffee under the hospital waiting shed, hiring an ambulance will cost poor folks a cold ten to twenty thousand. Hearses are out of the question too because of the paperwork involved. Using a hearse entails a different set of permits for every municipal en route. This is why the only alternative to the grief-stricken poor is to hire a taxi.

A taxi transfer contract costs around three to five thousand bucks which is both quite fair to the grieved and the driver. Most specially the driver who can go home with good full day’s worth of take right after just one traffic jam free run. Who could blame Oryo’s partner for taking the deal then? After all isn’t he also helping our financially challenged brethren on top earning a good days pay? Isn’t his “Diskarte” an acceptable maneuvre in our impoverished economy and the survival based Filipino urban culture?  Moreover, isn’t this just a symptom…a way around the anti-poor laws and unfeeling government regulations? The stench that terrorized Oryo so much as to make him flee to another employer also spelled the doom of his partners  taxi driving career. But beyond the deathly haunting scent lies the deeper and farther reaching stench of government apathy and neglect.

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