THERE are many ways to stay grounded. The ways range from reading a statistical report to having beer with the neighborhood thugs. Either way, you’ll get a good picture of the nation’s state of mind.

I took a cab one early, windy July morning on my way to work.

Not long after taking the front seat, I noticed something peculiar about the driver. “Magandang umaga, Pilipinas! ” he greeted me.

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That early, I wasn’t ready to embody a country. I was short of sleep, missed breakfast, and didn’t exactly know how haywire did my hair go. I didn’t reply.

“Asa, boss?” He asked. That, at least, sounded in synch to my idea of a normal morning, sober, direct to the point, matter-of-factly. But just as I felt a bit assured I was going to have a morning on the level, I noticed that the guy sported long hair, wore a fedora and a pair of glasses with round rims. He had a mole on his nose, the size of a lonely mongo.

With an exaggerated gesture, he pointed at a button on the CD player, paused, pushed play, and said, “Ahhh.” The music played.

“Nang isilang ka sa mundong ito, laking tuwa ng magulang mo…” For once, I took an instruction to heart: “Please fasten your seatbelt.” Our friend closed his eyes and repeatedly nodded his head. He was singing, “At ang kamay nila ang yung ilaw…”

We were taking the divine ascent to the flyover’s arch, and he continued, “At ang nanay at tatay mo, di malaman ang gagawin…” I didn’t know what to do, I froze, thinking that if the singing goes bad, big Freddie’s going to drive us both off the flyover right on target—smack into the steamy buns on the Julie’s billboard.

Oh, but he was good, when the traffic slowed, gently he worked the brakes, closed his eyes again and nodded, “Minamasdan pati pagtulog mo…” Can I get a bit of sleep in this state, I asked myself, with Freddie still well on first act.

“At sa umaga nama’y kalong ka ng iyong amang tuwang-tuwa sa ‘yo…” He quickly took the tiny slit of space between a dump truck and a bus, cruised like a child tucking himself in a crowd of adults. Up front, a jeepney took a u-turn, and Freddie just as quickly shifted from gas to brakes, turned to low gear and proceeded to chorus, “Ngayon ay malaki ka na, nais mong maging malaya…”

I must’ve stepped on imaginary brakes on my side of the cab, and wanted to join Freddie, “…di man sila payag walang magagawa…” I found I was too stoned to essay a tune. Instead, I held on to the door’s handle, securing it shut as though there was either heaven or hell on the other side.

He shifted to high gear and stepped on gas. We snaked through vehicles strewn on a decongested part of the road, plunging into breath-taking double-curves on the Philippine highway. He nodded his head, although I didn’t know if it was either for the success of his stunt on wheels or he was at the crux of his concert, “Nagdaan pa ang mga araw, at ang landas mo’y naligaw…”

Then there was red light, the engine whirred to near silence, and Freddie was closing his song, “Nagsisisi at sa isip mo’y nalaman mong ika’y nagkamali…” His voice faded as the light turned green again, and we made our last turn.

I realized I felt better. This country never ceased to amaze me. My good friend Insoy Niñal of the famed band Missing Filemon gave me the task of putting some words on one of his compositions for an upcoming album. New to it, I find myself doing some math with my fingers like a grade-schooler—syllables and notes, you see.

I never had the talent for music. Unlike our good ‘ol Freddie, I drive a bit too clumsily through the traffic of life, devoid of music and a good sense of timing. I’m just a fan.