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Monday, February 7, 2011


THE CARDBOARD LOOKS old and cheap. Dirt and dust have already stuck to it. Some of the letters written on it are noticeably fading. It stands along the grimy sidewalk, resting on the concrete column near the corner block. Once in a while, the “massage service” advertised on the cardboard, reading:


[Literally translated as:

Sprained ankles
Body pains due to cold weather
Strained hips
Headaches and
Numbed feet and hands]

does catch the eyes of some of the sidewalk pedestrians passing by.

This is what exactly happens, right this very moment.

The curious passer-by approaches, his eyes lock on the sixtyish man who then abrutply rises from the old worn-out office chair with broken caster wheels. With practiced dexterity, the older man begins to preach the instant cure and comfort his kneading brings to the pained muscles, aching joints, sore backs. He answers the “how much” query with a ready toothless smile: “For 25 pesos only.” “It’s not much if you consider the prohibitive prices those in the spa and massage clinics charge”—the prepared words he spews out as a follow up.

The inquirer pauses, ponders for a moment, then checks his watch.

Not wasting time, the toothless masseur gently places a veined hand on the asker’s shoulders and guides him to sit on rickety backrest-less office chair.

Once seated, the now officially deemed client drops down the rubberband-bound bundle of folded papers on the pavement in between his feet. He bows his head, closes his eyes and relaxes, trying to feel soothing rubbing on this back and shoulders.

While his kneading hands press and squeeze and pinch, the old masseur’s eyes roams. He looks ahead, searching the faces of the hordes of sidewalk amblers, trying to make eye contact with them. He nods his gray-haired head, raises his eyebrows, gestures with the slight jerk of his head to the oncoming pedestrian who may have unintentionally met wandering eyes of the masseur.

The passing pedestrian, however, appears to ignore the toothless man’s gesticulation. As he passes by the seated patron who is now tilting back his head in reaction to the masseur’s gentle pressing of the tender area around the neck, the pedestrian shoots a glance at the sidewalk massage session. He has hardly taken a few steps past the masseur when, suddenly, he stops and steps back. He watches the kneading session, then abruptly feels the pain on the small of his back with a hand. He looks around, then approaches the toothless masseur. He gazes down at the cardboard sign that is now lying flat on the pavement, dwelling for a while on the price of the massage service. As he peers at the seated customer who is now stretching wide his arms, the prospective client digs deep in his pocket. He fishes out a crumpled 20-peso bill, asking the toothless masseur if he can have the massage service at a reduced fee.

The reply comes out of instinct: the wizened old masseur beams, then utters a “no problem” remark. “If you could just wait for a while, sir,” he says as he gives his present customer some gentle slaps on the back, the concluding part of his massage service.

As the new client takes a seat on the wobbly office chair, the sound of rapid footsteps approaches. Somebody is running along the avenue, at the periphery of the sidewalk.

The toothless masseur freezes momentarily. In a few seconds, he bends down and rises, throwing something into grubby garbage can that stands beside the concrete column which is just inches away from where the new client is seated. He strikes up a small talk, discoursing something on the need of tired field workers to get once in a while some calming and relaxing massage. “For better blood circulation, muscle relaxation,” he adds.

Some seconds more, a commotion of some sort grabs the massage customer’s attention.

“Snatcher? A pickpocket?” he asks nonchalantly as he slightly contorts his body in response to the rubbing his small back is getting from the masseur’s gnarled hands.

“Could be,” the wizened toothless man replies. The 15-minute massage session now concludes; the masseur stuffs the bill in the pocket of his week-old, unwashed trousers. He shakes his tired hands, rapidly clenching and unclenching them. He paces the sidewalk, surveying the area with his bloodshot eyes. He goes back, takes a seat on the decrepit office chair and then fixes the cardboard sign back to it proper position. Legs crossed, hands folded across his lap, the toothless masseur takes a breather from his work to allow his hands to rest and recharge.

Not far from where the sidewalk massage clinic stands, a rusty pedicab remains stationary at the corner block. The driver is inside the “cab” of the taxi bicycle, dozing off. He has not had any passenger for more than an hour already. Suddenly, he gets startled, roused from his slumber. A canned beverage has just been thrown at him. As he climbs out of the cab, he sees her casting a frown at him. He responds with an upraised hand, with the middle finger extended, and spits out an expletive. He goes back inside the cab, depresses the lid of the can, and drains the cold beverage. The minute he gives out a burp, he throws the empty can down to the clogged gutter. He pokes out his head, straining his eyes toward the area of the sidewalk that fronts the abandoned moviehouse.

She sees the pedicab driver’s head, notices his scowl, but decides to ignore him completely. She is munching a gum she has begun to chew for more than an hour already. She pushes the strap of her wrinkled dress back to her shoulder. She is uneasy; she has been standing there in her spot for several hours already, yet she has not had any customer. She decides to take a seat on the old shaky plastic stool near the lobby of the deserted moviehouse. Once seated, she reaches back, grabs her grimy bag and pulls out a lipstick and an old vanity makeup mirror. Tenderly she rouges her dry, cracked lips, then licks them with her scarlet tongue. She sighs as she stuffs back to her bag her things. Then she senses something. An approaching pedestrian. She looks up, her eyes displaying a winking-cum-flirtatious gesture. Parting her lips into a half smile, she lets one strap of her dress slide down her shoulder again. Alas, the effort proves futile. The passer-by cracks a smile at her, but hurries off. She watches the man walk away, her lips curling, her face frowning. A check on her watch: it is only four in the afternoon. Maybe later, she tells herself, when night falls. She stands up and walks, her legs inching forward in a semi-crisscross way, in the distinctive manner of fashion or catwalk models. Some passers-by catch her attention, but then she ignores them this time. She stops after a distance, peers down at the crude stand that displays cigarettes and candies and newspapers. Her slender hand gingerly grasps a pack, takes out a stick of cigarette and stuffs it in her mouth. The teenage vendor looks up at her, then hands to her a disposable plastic lighter. Turning around, she looks ahead: the usual throng marching to and fro in the sidewalk. Maybe in the evening, she assures herself again. She raises her head, puffing out rings of smoke in the air. She still chews on gum.

There is another deserted moviehouse in the nearby building along the avenue. In the area fronting it, two women are sitting, one on a decrepit chair and the other on a low crudely-built wooden stool. They occupy a portion of the sidewalk that does not obstruct the pedestrians’ path. The older woman (she appears to be her sixties too) who sits on the wooden stool is busy scraping the dirt off the toenails of the other woman whose foot is now perched on sixtyish woman’s lap. Once in a while, the sextagenarian would dip the scalpel-like steel she holds in the small bottle of cuticle remover resting near her feet. Then, she mops the scrapings that have accumulated on her client’s toes off with a small dirty cloth. In a little while, she will be painting a new nailpolish on the cleaned toenails. An income of fifty pesos for a combined manicure and pedicure service along the sidewalk beauty salon will help her fill her and her brood’s stomachs later in the day. It is not really a bad day for her today; she now has her sixth customer. The previous day, she had only two. Right now, she has finished the task; she begins to assist her customer in putting on her sandals. Her hand clenched on the folded 50-peso bill, the old manicure artist stands up, pushes both the chair and the wooden stool near the concrete wall. With her slippered foot, she shoves the gathered dirt against the wall. It is her station, her work station; she has to make it clean and appealing to the next customer. Right now, she arranges the cardboard sign that she, too, has; she sets it resting at the bottom of the concrete wall where it displays the service she offers:


But then, she feels a pang at her stomach; she still has not eaten her lunch. She has been busy with too much customers. Hands on her hips, she looks over at the corner block where she sees a parked fishball vendor. She starts to march toward the block, but then she pauses. Looking over at her work tools, she is undecided to leave her work station. After a minute, she walks, certain that nobody will take interest in her articles of commerce. Her belly now filled, she walks back, her eyes searching out the faces of the pedestrians on the sidewalk. Checking her watch, she feels suddenly tired, her back aching. Time to go home, her mind tells her. She ponders for a moment. This day is quite good; there may still be a number of customers around. She decides to stay for a while; now in her work station, she stands and waits, trying to make eye contact with the passers-by.

The dusk is now gathering. Across the avenue, some of the shops have already begun to bring inside the merchandise they have displayed all day long on the sidewalk. Chances of further sales at this time of the day are now slim. By now, those marching along the avenue are hurrying for home, wanting to catch their rides on the elevated trains and on the jeepneys plying the avenue.

In the avenue itself, the cars and jeeps and taxis crowd every inch of the asphalted street. The bulk of the commuters gather near the intersection; it is there where they want to get their rides than in the designated jeepney stops. The traffic enforcers continue to bark and blow their whistles at the stubborn jeepney drivers who drive at a snail’s pace. Once they see that their jeeps are already filled, the drivers then and only then begin to hasten their pace. They punch and blast their horns, their faces abruptly showing impatience at the turtle-moving jeepneys ahead.

Then, too, getting a piece of the action are the “barkers” who populate the spots where the commuters are gathered. Their job being to “bark” to the commuters—informing them of destinations where the jeepneys are headed and prodding them to “go get inside the jeepney”—these “barkers” have become regular features of the avenue. They earn a clean living out of the thousands of jeepneys that traverse the avenue: their efforts are recognized by the jeepney drivers, and for their services, they are rewarded with a couple of coins, depending on the volume of commuters they are able to “deliver” inside the jeepneys. In one day, a “barker” can generate a hundred peso income, or even more, depending on how much time he spends at their “work stations” and on how generous the jeepney drivers are in giving the rewards.

Also, the avenue is not complete without the presence of the ubiquitous ambulant cigarette vendors. They roam the area at will: they stay and wait at the corner blocks or at the intersection, their arms cradling a rectangular wooden box stuffed with packs of cigarettes, candies, chewing gums, peanuts packed in small plastics and a few pieces of cold bottled water. Their eyes are trained on the jeepney’s rear. Once a jeepney stops, the cigarette vendor races hurriedly, as if he too is scrambling to get inside the jeepney. Once the last passenger gets inside, the cigarette vendor, in a boastful show of his fast reflexes, makes a mighty leap, his feet landing on the rear steps of the jeepney, his hand grabbing the rusty steel handhold. He, too, “barks” to the seated passengers: “Sir, cigarette?” Once in a while, he does get a customer. At times, he does not. Once his business inside is done, he stands back on the rear steps. Seconds later, he releases his grasp on the handhold and springs upward, his feet making a forceful touchdown on the pavement just inches away from the oncoming jeepney. Then he scurries back to the intersection. Some vendors, though, decide to stay on the street area: they raise an extended finger, making an inquiring signal to the jeepney drivers if they want to buy a stick. At times, the commuters themselves patronize these vendors: they receive some sort of royal treatment: the vendors bring up and gently stuff the cigarette stick into their waiting mouths. In half a second, the vendors’ swift hands whip out a lighter and light the cigarette tip.

[Read the entire story in the forthcoming book TREE AND OTHER STORIES by AMADOR F. BRIOSO, JR., to be available in June, 2011, in selected bookstores in Manila. Another book, LOVE AND DESTINY, a novella written by the same author, will also be available in June, 2011. The author's previous book, "YOU FILIBINI?" Stories And Other Writings, is currently available at all Powerbooks bookstore outlets in Metro Manila.]