Monday, December 17, 2018

Amante: These quiet streets

(Illustration by John Gilbert Manantan)

GROWING up, you heard your parents warn you against idleness. They sent you to school with promises of escape. You would find better-paying jobs than cleaning up after luckier families or emptying the bellies of cargo ships. Your life would be easier.

You learned early that not all promises happen. Whenever a younger brother or sister fell ill, or whenever your father had to wait longer than usual for the next odd job, you stopped going to school and found odd jobs yourself. Sometimes you sold brooms at street corners; sometimes you sold bottled water or newspapers. Other times you wiped the windshields of cars at intersections and hoped the light wouldn’t change too fast. You saw other families gather near the trash cans of fast food outlets and dig for scraps when the employees weren’t looking, and you swore you would never let that happen to your family.

That family arrived sooner than you thought. You were 19 and she was a couple of years younger, and while both of you had heard about protection, you thought the troubles that had fallen on your peers would somehow exempt you. Or perhaps you didn’t have time to think at all. You swore you would find a job, any job, and figure out a way to make things better. Until then, your girl had to move into the small home you shared with your parents and siblings. You hoped that some of them would make it through high school and find jobs soon; in them, your family’s dreams of a better life still lived.

On some nights, you sat outside with a group of friends to drink and talk. Sometimes you played cards, but mostly you talked. Neighborhood gossip, local politics, something funny that your friends had heard on the radio or seen on someone else’s TV set. It didn’t really matter much what you talked about, but it felt good to sit and talk. You’d seen your father or mother do the same with their friends in their time, and you began to understand how that break from your daily worries helped. You didn’t think of yourself as a “tambay” because you worked whenever you had the chance. You were going to send your kid to school when the time came. You just had to figure out how.

When you heard that the police had told your friends to go home and stop milling about outside their homes, you tried not to worry. You believed the President wanted what was best for his people, so if he thought that some good would come out of keeping people off the streets at night, you were willing to play along. It was tempting to ask why. Why, for instance, were the police so quick to round up your harmless friends out on the streets at night, when they couldn’t deal with some mayor’s grandson who had started a brawl or stop public officials from picking up underage girls in clubs? But you knew better than to challenge those more powerful than you, and there were plenty of them.

Soon, you think, life will get better. That friend of yours who works for the new barangay captain will introduce you to someone who can give you a steadier job, preferably one of those job-order positions in government. It doesn’t matter that you never finished school, your friend said. You just have to do what you’re told. Obedience, that’s the ticket. Obedience and loyalty. If you’re smart, if you want to get ahead in this life, you’ll learn to remember that anyone who thinks differently from you is a threat who must be kept silent, and is probably immoral, too. You’ll learn to keep your questions to yourself.

At night, you retire to that windowless room you share with your wife, your baby, and the rest of the family that depends on you, and it occurs to you that order is safe and silent, like a grave.


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