CHRISTMAS is that time in the city when your longest and deepest conversations are with the strangers you are marooned with inside a traffic-stalled jeepney or while shuffling along the inevitable queues that hiss and sprout from this hydra-headed season.
As the resident errand specialist in our household, I have learned that a book is most useful in a queue: I gnash fewer teeth when I lose myself in chapters.
There is one tiny flaw to this principle, though. It is nearly impossible to have a Zen moment when one is trapped in a low-ceilinged “comfort” room jammed with ladies, often with tykes, whose body wastes are screaming for immediate release.
Running a close second to this apocalyptic scenario is waiting in an ATM line when the bank employees suddenly draw the blinds and lock the ATM door from the inside, without giving any explanation at all to the folks queuing in the softly drizzling twilight.
Shock, confusion, dismay, anger, one or two expostulations of genuine worker’s angst—a mishmash of emotions runs up and down, electrifying the line where I, admittedly, immediately count and find that I am the 7th person anticipating to step over the threshold and walk away with my yearend bonus or pay.
Seventh is not so bad, I console myself. It’s the seventh day in the week, when one meets up with one’s God who, as usual, extends His usual credit line for another disastrous run of self-indulgence.
Then, lapsed Catholic that I am, I figuratively slap my forehead and groan: Sunday is first day of the week; the seventh falls on a Saturday, when twin writing deadlines fall. Since newsrooms at crunch time resemble more the blood-soaked temples of ritual human sacrifice than the solemn and serene sacrament celebrating the Christ’s Passion, I instantly feel every muscle tense, every instinct kick in to respond to that locked ATM door.
Flight or fight? Looking around, I see indications that my queue companions have also turned feral and rabid. Someone from inside the bank parts the blinds to take a peek, perhaps wondering when we will start to uproot and snap like twigs overpriced lampposts, hurl cars through the windows, and launch People Power 4, the Holiday Edition.
Then I notice the white, splotched with red, neck of the man before me. A Caucasian, I almost groan. Any minute now, this neo imperialist will turn and launch, spittle and all, into a tirade about Third World banks and trash economies.
To my horror, those black-clad Hell’s Angel’s shoulders do swivel around to face head-on my unspoken xenophobia. The red-faced devil stares down, deep, deep into the pit where I cringe and am 50-percent away from completing a faint.
Somewhere under that red-haired bristling bush obscuring his mouth, a smile breaks: this is the fourth ATM I’ve tried this afternoon. And I thought I was lucky to come upon the shortest line in the city. But I guess, I just don’t have any luck, eh, mate?
Strangers—kind, humorous, concerned—are sometimes what’s best about this city. A jeepney can just be a mere box where a clutch of people are temporarily forced to keep company to reach destinations.
But the unexpected happening—a sleek brand-new car being clamped and towed away—stirs up my fellow passengers. A young man chortles that the rich owner will have a rude surprise. But the women titter like roosting birds: poor fellow! A mother holding bags of groceries hopes it was the owner, not the driver, who made the parking violation.
Two elderly women in old-fashioned dresses discuss why the owner was not allowed another chance “kay Pasko man (because it’s Christmas).” One of them worries if the owner knows where to claim his vehicle. A plump girl, cracking boiled peanuts, predicts the owner may never find it again.
Though initially preoccupied with being late, I say that the owner will be traced through the car’s license plate. This greatly pleases the ladies in dresses. The car is so shiny, says one. Her companion pats her knee. After hearing mass at the Basilica, she says, “palitan nato ug inganang trak-trak si Armand (let’s buy him a toy truck that looks exactly like that).”
The best thing about Christmas is being home.
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* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 23, 2007 issue