Sunday, July 01, 2012

Watch out

I’M THINKING of carrying two umbrellas.

I need one to keep me from being drenched in a downpour. The other I need to grip, swing fast and bring down hard on whatever jumps out of the pools of darkness in the streets I pass in my nightly commuting.

Umbrellas cost. That’s why I miss the old ones I left back in Cebu. Except for a broken rib or hinge, those veterans could be perfect weapons. And still keep off the rain.

These are strange meditations as I listen to rain drumming on the library roof. According to an article I read in the June 29, 2012 issue of The Philippine Star, fewer Filipino families rate themselves as poor or food-poor.

This is part of the findings of a survey made during the past three months by the Social Weather Stations (SWS).

Last March, 11.1 million families or approximately 55 percent of the national population viewed themselves as poor. From May 24 to 27, the figure went down to 51 percent, about 10.3 million families.

This self-rated poverty was recorded as lowest in Metro Manila (41 percent), and highest in Mindanao (65 percent). In Visayas, 57 percent saw themselves as poor.

These figures don’t console when I’m out on the streets at night.

Or day. My classmate Rea, a network reporter, used to walk to assignments when time and distances allowed. She’s now choosy ever since a colleague got mugged not far from a major thoroughfare. At noon.

When our UP ikot jeepney slows down at a corner of the underbelly of the Quezon City MRT station, Rea jumps off and runs all the way home. At nine in the evening, I don’t think there’s that long a queue for pedicabs on Rea’s street. Why rush?

Rea said her way home is poorly lit. It just takes one dark corner. Don’t give them a chance.

Or give them this, she said, showing her neatly furled, three-fold umbrella. In her grip, it looked like a small club.

Yet, even if you’ve stayed long enough to avoid hot spots like the crossings in Taft—nearly everyone I met has been victimized there at least once— you cannot shake off the knowledge that on the streets, you are watched.

Predators, of course, watch their prey before moving in. The watching is part of the rules of the game.

But prey also watches other prey. To assess if a predator is not disguised as one of us. Or hope that the other prey looks like a better catch than me.

Given the street knowledge that predators always operate in pairs or teams—one to slide off your valuables, the others to smoothly slice your arms or face if you fight back—the net of suspicion can be cast so widely, no one escapes.

Even at the extremes of rush-hour compression, every commuter comes shrink-wrapped in a miasma of self-replenishing mistrust and protective reflexes. Brush a micron of skin by accident and the person will close up like the wild weed whose leaves furled tight when we brushed them in child-play.

Instead of piped-in music, the institution reinforces to keep the paranoia up. As the carriages approach or leave each station, a disembodied voice cautions MRT commuters from blocking the entrance, leaning against the door and lowering one’s guard against pickpockets.

Don’t trust the pregnant woman beside you. Don’t trust. Don’t.

I’ll leave this place much changed. These days, I do some serious umbrella-watching when I commute. Two- or three-fold? Solid wood or metal-reinforced tip?

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 1, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

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