Notes on Public Transit

1 – Shit on Wheels

The bus seats were melting. Tan foam, blue cloth, and yellowing covers were collapsing, ready to get lost among feet. The checked curtains barely filtered the sunlight flooding through the windows. The air was humid, stagnant, unbreatheable. A cockroach crawled over someone’s shoe. We were all thinking: why do we put up with this sordid state of transportation, this dilapidated excuse for a vehicle?! We looked outside the windows, even if the sun blinded us, even if all we could see was a bit of our neighbors’ profile, a sliver of cheek, an ear. Anything to avoid each other’s eyes.


2 – The Boy and His Envelopes

The child alights from the vehicle like a thief, lithe and nimble. By his oversize tattered clothing and filthy bare feet, you think to yourself that yes, maybe he is a thief. Maybe at night, he lurks in a dark street corner, waiting for a lady with a handbag to walk by and not see him. He steps into her shadow, maybe, and guts the lady’s handbag with a knife, expertly drawing a slit on its underside. And maybe when the lady returns home or rides a jeepney, her hand will fumble inside her bag for a wallet that is no longer there.

His eyes are too big for his face. He puts an envelope on your lap. When you look down, you discover that the envelope is the thin flimsy kind, the almost transparent one that door-to-door solicitors use. Those envelopes, they always make you conscious of the amount of money you’re putting in. Coins are out of the question: they seem offensive because they create so. much. noise. A twenty looks decent.

The dirty envelope is a note addressed to no one. The note is not written for you. It is not written for anyone at all. But still, you read it. The words are misspelled, the letters thin and small and scared-looking. You do not laugh when you see him by the estriba, sitting on the foothold, waiting for you to make up your mind.

Don’t give him money, you were told. If you do, he will huddle under a bridge with a plastic bag of rugby in his hands. He will inhale it, the solvent, brown and sticky and sharp-smelling like antiseptic. It makes you gag.

Don’t give him money, you might need your loose change later.

Don’t give him money, you might be supporting a crime syndicate.

Don’t give him money, he might–

He stands up and grips the hand rails because the red light has switched to green. With a slight frown, he collects his envelopes. He takes the one on your lap and he jumps from the jeepney, into the chaos of the street, as if someone is chasing him.


3 – Hellish Wednesday Mornings

I hate Wednesday mornings. If you take the northbound train to Quezon Avenue every day, you probably know why. On Wednesday mornings, the UP jeepney queue is inexplicably longer than usual. The line coils around the steps of Centris Mall like a Slinky. On extreme days, the line reaches the alley leading back to train station: it twists there until you can no longer see the unlucky person bringing up the rear.

To bring up the rear, during hellish Wednesday mornings, is a very unfortunate position to be in. You know the feeling. Of looking over the tops of people’s heads, trying to locate where the start of the damn line is. Of constantly checking your watch because the knowledge that your prof locks the door at precisely 8:45 am drives you nuts.

The only consolation for any person at the end of the line is the option to ride a taxi instead. The queue for taxis is tolerable, somehow, even if you’re bound to pay a fare that is 10 times what jeepneys charge.

One of the downsides of taking a taxi is getting a driver who will only add to the hellishness of your Wednesday morning. By this I’m talking about:

  • Cheats – cabbies who suspiciously tell you they don’t have change for your 100-peso bill
  • Snobs and/or Grumps – cabbies whose furrowed brows and frowning mouths indicate the sourness of their mood (and perhaps, the darkness of their soul)
  • Drifters – cabbies who drift, as in Nascar drift, along Commonwealth Avenue
  • Creeps – cabbies who ask you uncomfortable questions (on separate occasions I was asked “How young are you?” and the creepy and unimaginative “Do you have a boyfriend?”)
  • Unlikely combination of A-D

But sometimes you get lucky.

I ducked into a taxi and the fat, smiling driver immediately asked me, “Hija, bakit sobrang daming tao?” I explained to him how hellish Wednesdays are.

“Ayyy sobrang dami talaga o.” He laughed. “Pambihira! Ngayon lang ako nakakita ng ganyan!” He laughed again. A big belly laugh. I laughed, too.

“Dati may hinatid ako sa Rizal. Nagulat ako. Sobrang daming tao pa rin!” The country has a population problem, we agreed.

“Saan ka nakatira?” I told him I lived somewhere south. “Anak ng siopao! Ang layo naman!” I laughed again. I didn’t know what to say.

But after a few seconds of silence:

“Kahit saan ka talaga magpunta andaming tao!”

I wasn’t sure if he was about to say something profound, if he was just filling up the silence. I felt like I had to take part in the conversation, so I told him about journ school, about the stress, about not finding time for a healthy social life. He told me to have fun, that I am young and that the world is mine to explore.

When we finally arrived in front of the MSI building, he told me he hoped to see me on TV someday, like Korina Sanchez (but of course!). He rolled down the window as I was about to climb the stairs, and he waved goodbye. I wished him plenty of passengers and a pleasant Wednesday before he drove away.


4 – Turnstile Girl

A good feeling is when you help a clueless, lost-looking girl in a school uniform insert her train ticket right side up through the slot in the turnstile so she can get into the platform without embarrassing herself, and after you show her the proper way to put in the ticket, she smiles at you with her eyes crinkling and all her teeth showing.


5 – ‘People are afraid to merge’

Wear sunglasses on your way to work. Ride a bus and sit by the window. The seat in front touches your knees. Push the headrest; it doesn’t budge. The bus conductor asks where you’re going. Tell him. Hand over a fifty. Wait for your change and your bus ticket. Look out the window. The man behind you pulls the curtain towards him. The cold makes you shiver but the sun is on your face. Take out a paperback. A stranger sits next to you. He says sorry. Don’t ask why he’s apologizing for bumping into you. Remember: people are afraid to merge. Reach your stop. Up and leave.


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