by Ralph Catedral
She told me her name is Judy. She’s a young mother of one, and currently unemployed, although that’s not going to be a problem anymore. Her days of nothing-to-do are numbered. A bank hired her, and she’s about to start next month. Her husband owns a small business—he leases out vehicles to clients who want the service. He’s making enough for his family, but Judy still feels the need to work.
“Ayoko namang pati make-up ko hihingin ko pa sa kanya (I don’t want to ask him money for my make-up),” she told me, her unmistakable Bulacan-Tagalog accent floated around the curves and crevices of her words. She confessed she loves wearing make-up, but since she resigned from her work as a call-center agent somewhere in Makati City—she hated the graveyard shifts, and got tired of irate callers pestering her all night long; the British are alright, but the Americans are really rude—she was robbed of her sacred morning ritual that includes applying cosmetic products on her face.
On that particular Wednesday, Judy woke up at four in the morning. Two hours later, she was falling in line right behind me in one of the National Bureau of Investigations (NBI) stations. All for the sake of a piece of paper that says: No record on file. It’s a requirement before we can get work. By the time she got there the line had become an unruly serpent of diabolical size. Blame it on the people who were there since two in the morning. Deprived of sleep and hammered down by boredom, they were hardly the paragons of civility.
I, on the other hand, came prepared. I saw the news on prime time t.v., and the sight of people packed like sardines in a can, sweat mingling with dust under the heat of the noonday sun, was hardly encouraging. I brought a piece of banana, crackers, and a bottle of water along with a book, Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. I resolved not to complain. No matter how difficult queuing proved to be, I said I would try to finish my book and make friends.
Sherry. That’s the name of the woman before me. She’s short and stocky, and she has a great set of teeth. She communicates strength, fortitude, and a generosity of warmth when she smiles. Last year, she worked in Hong Kong as a domestic helper. She told me her employers are good people (they didn’t abuse her or withhold her salary), but she left anyway because she couldn’t bear cleaning the windows of her employers’ condominium unit on the 17th floor. She was no Spiderman.
“Natatakot ako, baka kasi mahulog ako (I was afraid I would fall),” Sherry said. I thought her gentle, unapologetic confidence is inspiring. She will be leaving for Cyprus in a few months in order to take care of someone else’s family in exchange for money she could send to her own.
We were deep in serious talk when the heavens started to weep, and the rains came pouring down, a harmless shower at first, and then an angry torrent a few seconds later. The serpent of a line broke out into a hundred little pieces only to reemerge once more when the rains stopped, only this time, those who were at the tail managed to squeeze themselves in front, while those at the head found their fortunes reversed.
And then Lea began her litany of complaints. Her strong female voice soared up high before it got lost in a concert of other voices: male, female, child, adult, college graduate, high school dropout, rich, poor, and everyone else besides. Lea said she’d been in a lot of NBI stations for the past seven days.
Judy, Sherry, Lea and I. We were brought together by a certain need, our meeting one another dictated by the very minute of our arrival that morning. Had I come a few seconds later, who knows whose interesting lives I’d be privileged to get a glimpse of, whose stories I’d write on my mind to be gathered and arranged later in a succession of paragraphs.
After we met, we began looking out for one another other. Like a spy straight out of a novel, Lea would scour our line and call on anyone who dared to get ahead at our expense. While she did this, I made sure no one sneaked in to take her place. When one of us had to pee, someone else stayed behind as a lookout.
We also cracked jokes, shared food, made suggestions on how to improve the queuing system, and offered unedited summaries of our lives. You could say that in that brief period, we’ve become friends.
In the book I was reading, a gigantic wave had just swallowed a fishing boat, feeding the insatiable hunger of the vast, dark ocean. All six crewmembers are now buried in the depths of the Atlantic, their lives suddenly ended, never to go on again. Like the countless other vessels resting on the ocean bed, each of their stories has become a relic. Soon, they will become cold, hard facts in a newspaper article, an insignificant footnote in history except to those whom they matter most—their families and their friends.
Human beings are proud, but there’s nothing that could reduce the best of us into a small, insignificant lot than nature scorned. Or bureaucracy. Or long lines in government offices, for that matter.
It was dark when I finished my book. By then I could already see the window where our fingerprints would be scanned and photos taken. Had there been a helicopter hovering above us, I wonder what we all looked like from up there. Probably a collection of unrecognizable dots, faceless and nameless, growing more invisible as time moved deeper into the night.
I guess that’s what happens when you look at people from a distance. You see real people as though they were dots. You forget that each one of them has a story and a history to share.
I think about Judy, Sherry, and Lea. I know we would probably never meet again. They have husbands to come home to, children to feed, nephews to baby-sit. We all have lives to live, separate and independent from one another just as it was one day before we met.
An NBI employee finally told me to come back after two weeks for the release of my clearance. I grabbed my things, and managed a hurried goodbye to my friends. I walked home, taking one step at a time back to my own life, praying that somehow life would be kind to me and my one-day friends.