The Unbearable Lightness of Shit Just Happening

First Published 2011 @ Braintropolis

I have no idea what this story has to do with anything — no lessons or morals or point really — but, I figure, I’m getting older, so better than even chance that I’ll forget this eventually, or considering my sensory challenges, the odds of me actually getting hit by a bus while crossing the street tomorrow are better than most. So I better get this stuff written down. At the very least, it may make for an interesting slice of life read anyway. Especially since this all didn’t happen here, in the good old US of A, or even remotely close to now.

I’m not even sure, in fact, when this actually took place. It was probably the week after Christmas 1981, which places me at 15yo and still in high school, living in a suburb of Metro Manila. It was the lull between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I think, a time when the country for the most part took at least a week-long break from working too hard, save maybe for guys like my father who ran their own businesses and bitched that time is money ergo holidays cost them money, so you can imagine what kind of mood that kind of week-long break put him in during the workday. Anyway, no breaks for him, and he was still on the same work schedule that week, no doubt pressuring a small core group of his employees to work that week along with him too. Me? Bored out of my skull at home.

Since Metro Manila still wasn’t overrun by shopping malls then like it is now, the closest good shopping hang out was Makati, the business district, where Dad’s offices were. So I’d taken to occasionally hitching a ride with him in the morning, wasting time doing whatever in Makati alone (I guess I was weird that way), then calling Dad’s office after so he could send a chauffeur to pick me up and drive me home. The chauffeur thing sounds ritzy rich, but for low-income Philippines where cheap labor isn’t exactly scarce, having one for the middle classes on up is very common.

Well, this was way before cell phones. So my M.O. then when I was ready to go home was to walk to the second floor of the old small Tesoro’s building, which was in between the huge (for that era) Makati ShoeMart department store and the sprawling QUAD shopping mall complex. Tesoro’s was (maybe still is) an upscale Philippine arts and crafts and souvenirs shop — aka tourist trap — which took up most of the building; leftover shop spaces were rented out to a bunch of tailors and custom dress shops who, as you’ve probably guessed, also catered to mostly tourists. Dad co-owned one of those tailoring shops, The Corporate Man, one of his earliest business ventures (he must have been in his 20s). So, for my post Makati shopping/hanging out M.O., I’d go to Corporate Man, ask to use the phone to call Dad, then wait around for the car and driver to show up.

Well, that day my pop’s secretary informed me that Dad’s chauffeur, Mang Galing (Mang = Mister and Galing = Very Skilled, but that really was his surname) was on an errand, and it would probably take at least an hour before he could get to me. I wasn’t dumb — “at least an hour” was more likely 2-3 hours — so I told her I’d just take public transportation home.

You see, there was no shortage of public transport. I don’t think I really need to explain why I would have preferred to be driven by a chauffeur in air-conditioned comfort versus taking public transportation, but at least I wasn’t above going the less comfy route, like some people I knew. Heck, I’d been getting around the area like that by myself since I was 12 or so, unbeknownst to my parents of course, since I technically was not allowed to be out on my own (OK, if you really want to get technical, I was supposed to be in school most of those times, but that’s for other stories).

Well, from where I was (ShoeMart Makati), there was a busy bus stop right in front where I could take a bus to the town of Alabang, where I could then transfer to a Jeepney (one of those cool wildly decorated open-air passenger “vans” with Jeep front ends) destined for the town of Zapote — the walled community or “village” where I lived was along the way. Or, I could wait for a bus that traversed the whole route — Makati to Alabang to Zapote — then I wouldn’t have to go through the hassle of transferring rides. Although they didn’t come by as often, I preferred to hold out and wait for one of them

There weren’t that many people at the bus stop. On a normal day, people usually stood around shoulder-to-shoulder, but there were only something like three women standing around that day, loaded with shopping bags, apparently doing some post-Christmas shopping. I was the only guy, and totally empty-handed since I was doing nothing better than just hanging out. Traffic, although not too light, still wasn’t as heavy as normal considering the “holidays.” This also meant there weren’t that many buses, a longer wait in-between each showing up. Dang. It looked like I was going to have to transfer at Alabang.

Eventually a bus arrived, and sure enough, it only went as far as Alabang. It was a normal-sized bus for the Philippines, which is about half-the length of the buses we’re used to in the States. I let one woman loaded with bags through ahead of me. She wasn’t moving too fast though, then I saw why: She was trying to squeeze her way past a number of boxes piled in front around the driver and partly blocking the sole door. On top of the box at the very front sat a policeman — I’m not sure now if he was Philippine Constabulary, but I think he was — and he and the driver were chatting and laughing and smoking cigarettes (they could do that in buses then).

I had one foot on the first step and halfway up the bus, enough to see that the bus only had about half a dozen passengers. The laughing, smoking cop had his hand out, ready to help me on-board, when right behind at that exact moment a Makati-Alabang-Zapote bus pulled up. I waved the cop’s help off and thanked him, then jumped off. I wouldn’t be surprised if I had skipped my way to the other bus, giddy over my good fortune.

Both buses pulled out at the same time, the bus with the cop ahead of us. The bus with the cop pulled over to pick up another passenger at a smaller bus stop, right before the South Superhighway that would take us to Alabang. There were no other people waiting at the stop, so my bus just passed and continued on its merry way.

Uneventful trip, and I don’t really remember much about the rest of the day.  My last memory of that day’s kind of fuzzy — I was asleep, after all. There was a commotion outside my bedroom, not too loud, but abnormal and disruptive enough to rouse me. Dad just got home. My bedroom door opened and he entered in a rush. “What’s going on, Dad?” He stopped, looked at me, then visibly deflated. “Nothing son. Goodnight. Go back to sleep.” He kissed me on the forehead, and closed my door behind him as he left.

I was up before he was the next morning. I’m pretty sure it was a work day, for him and the core group of employees trying to please and impress him anyway. He didn’t sleep much, a practice I’d end up evolving to a few years later (as opposed to “adopting” since it just seemed to happen and wasn’t on purpose). But in my last few years of high school, as his businesses seemed to really start taking off, he seemed to be getting home later and later every night, so finding myself getting up before very-disciplined-let’s-exercise-before-the-sun-goes-up him was becoming more commonplace. I picked up the bag of fresh and warm pandesal on the breakfast table and the newspaper folded on top of my Dad’s plate and proceeded to the den — for some reason the natural light seemed much brighter in there, and the couch was comfy to boot — to read the comics section and pig out on the bread.

Dad got up about 30 minutes later. I think there were a dozen pandesals in the brown paper bag, but I never bothered to count. I did, however, make sure to leave at least two for my pop ever since he went ballistic on me one Saturday morning when he woke up to the bread’s appetizing aroma and found out I had eaten it all. After our greetings that morning, he picked up the bread and the ignored front sections of the newspaper and sat on the window bench next to my couch. Now that I think about it, I just realized we really weren’t coffee drinkers then (now I am, thanks to working at an office, maybe something for another post).

“So, Dad,” I asked, “what was that all about?”

“What was what?”

“Last night…?”

“Oh, that, I was making sure you were alive. I didn’t believe Jesus [Hey-soos the houseboy] and had to see for myself.”

“I guess something happened somewhere…?”

I didn’t have to ask why he didn’t just call the house — we didn’t have a phone. No one but one household that I knew of in the whole village had a phone, and this is something I will definitely write about later.

“You and your comics,” Dad said, as he just shook his head. “Here, look at this,” he added, as he tossed the front section of the paper onto my lap.

I don’t remember the actual headline, and no picture accompanied the smallish single column news item on the side, but the news was pretty clear: a bus it seemed had caught fire on the South Superhighway. The driver apparently pulled over to the right then stopped the bus up against the highway’s chain link fence, blocking the only door and exit. All the passenger windows had metal bars. Everybody perished.

Now is a good time for you to know that New Year’s Eve in the Philippines was a whole night of personal firecrackers and pyrotechnics, none of this “We all sat outside on a picnic blanket as we enjoyed the warm night and the beautiful fireworks display” stuff. Walking anywhere New Year’s Eve in the village was so very not recommended. Not that you couldn’t tell you were approaching people on the sidewalk playing with firecrackers — it’s that not all firecrackers were of the light and toss variety. Some were the type that you put in the middle of the street and you lit with a mosquito coil or cigarette right before you ran as if Satan were chasing you. Usually those were the bigger boom types too. And those boomers didn’t always go off, and since it’s night and dark, no one really tried to go looking for the duds blindly and just left them there for morning… and sometimes, when those duds got accidentally touched or kicked, a little smoldering spark would get a fresh whiff of oxygen and reignite the now shortened fuse, and… You get the picture. This is really why our parents kept us boys from scavenging the streets the next morning looking for firecrackers that did not explode. Not that that stopped us. But I digress…

…anyway, all those explosives were absolutely, positively illegal. Particularly in Martial Law Philippines (this was the Ferdinand Marcos era, remember). Not that that really stopped us from using the stuff — I think the only New Year’s Eve without firecrackers I remember was back in 72, the first year of Martial Law which became law on September 21 of that year, and I remember cars driving around the village with nothing more than cans tied to their bumpers being dragged behind them as the drivers and passengers hooted and hollered as they drove through the otherwise quiet streets. I guess that silly and sad can banging ended in later years when people realized, hey, this was New Year’s Eve, not a damn wedding. However, since firecrackers were still very much illegal, with the police making a show of raiding makeshift fireworks factories at least once every year for the newspapers, even though they were widely available, everyone made a big to do about smuggling the stuff here and there since at the end of the day, they still very much were really and truly illegal <wink> <wink>.

Well, the news item about the bus fire explained that preliminary investigations indicated the bus was apparently smuggling a hoard of firecrackers and pyrotechnics, and the contraband ignited. I do not remember any other details from the article — I wish I still had a copy — save for this: They had difficulty identifying the bodies, they were burned that badly, save for the fact that one of them was a policeman. I still think he was PC, probably the smuggler himself, or at least part of the team. But I’m just guessing.

“So you must have gone home before that accident,” my Dad said, “otherwise you would have seen that bus on fire on the highway, huh?”

That’s when I told him, “Dad, I was on that bus.” Although I told him what I told you, that I really wasn’t fully in, the guy paled (I’ve seen him paler, but he did pale) and went quiet.

I debated whether I should try to embellish the story, maybe worry my Dad even more, enough to get me my own car and chauffeur, or even better, allow me to get an illegal driver’s license like a few of my friends had. I decided the truth was just weird enough to do the trick.

It wasn’t. Shit.