A BUSY night in the barbershop.
Suddenly, the lights go out.
One of the hapless ones still getting a haircut is our 16-year-old son.
His prom is a week away. One part of his head is razor-tamed and slick; the rest, jagged and bristling, looks like the planet’s last threshold of biodiversity.
Even in the dark, I can sense my son is not happy to be introduced to Cebu’s “rotating brownouts.”
Someone predicts lugubriously that tonight’s brownout will last longer than yesterday’s record, three hours.
The men try to bring to life the shop’s generator set. I gather it has as many moods as a diva.
When emergency lights flicker back, Natan switches on the shaver. The thing shrieks tremendously. It cuts exactly four and a half strands of my son’s thick hair, and conks out.
Now it’s not only my son but also his barber whose fuse is about to blow. The other customers walk away, content to still have a full head of hair, or just a head period.
The lights go out. La Diva, the generator, takes centerstage as more men gather around it. Someone suggests adding more gasoline, lighting a match, and torching the sulky thing.
When the emergency light goes back on, the other barbers shout above the generator’s din to suggest it would be quicker if Natan cut Carlos’ hair in the dark; our barber must just disappear as soon as the lights go back.
Will this season of rotating brownouts leave a lasting impression on the state of humor, not to mention business, industry and the stuff we store in our refrigerators?
Will this wipe out the market of electric shavers and power clippers? Resurrect the demand for hand-operated scissors and razors, as well as whetstones, leather strops and the services of the men sharpening blades while riding the stationary bikes stationed along downtown sidewalks?
Although the barber shop is the only lighted place in the street, it’s not the busiest. Next to the sidewalks, where everyone seems to be congregating, the street vendors are doing brisk business selling “puso” (rice wrapped in woven leaf) and barbecue.
Aside from the indisputable virtues of a hot, filling and cheap meal, these street favorites have another edge when one is eating only by the light of a candle or the moon: these are self-contained.
Anything can fall into, or wriggle out of, a bowl of soup. In its sooty suit, “sinugbang isda” is hard to distinguish from an extra-large cockroach that collapsed for a nap among the charbroiled fish.
Even though the tiny slices of pork look more like these were painted on the bamboo skewers and “puso” is transported in the city while hanging precariously from the back of a motorcycle or squeezed between the driver’s crotch and thighs, I would still opt for BBQ and “hanging rice” for street dining in this season of rotating brownouts.
Perhaps because I am not 16 and looking forward to the prom, I am not just tolerant but appreciative of these scheduled bouts of darkness.
I remember when the brownouts of my childhood were called blackouts in my teen years. These were exercises in perseverance, lasting sometimes the whole night till dawn.
My teacher then told our class that when only a section of the city had no electricity, it was considered a brownout. A blackout covered a significantly larger area.
Towards the end of the Marcos rule, when blackouts seemed appropriate backdrops for a dictatorship that was on its last legs, my father said that there was no blackout darker than the insides of the brains of Marcos sycophants and apologists.
In the present, less fraught with shadows but not entirely free of ambiguities, brownouts have become a compound noun.
Does affixing “rotating” make brownouts less of an inconvenience? Compared to the more precise technical term of “automatic load dropping,” rotating brownouts sounds like a technical version of musical chairs.
But when one realizes that the brownouts are rotated because the power generated is not enough to meet actual demands, there’s a message for us all.
And it’s not just directed at those charged with power distribution.
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