Note: Manong or Mang is a term of respect and familiarity for older men, typically men who are old enough to be grandparents. Ate (pronounced ah-teh) usually means older sister, but is also used as a term of respect and familiarity, typically for women who are older but not quite old enough to be parents or grandparents. These are terms usually used to address street vendors or owners of small, neighborhood shops/businesses that are an acknowledgement of being identified as part of a community.
Jeeps in this story refer to a standard form of public transportation in the Philippines - left over from World War 2 by American troops, they became a way to fill in the growing need for public transportation post-war and have since become iconic symbols of ordinary Filipino life.
The song at the end of the story (as well as the words from the title) is Manila by the band Hotdog, an anthem from the 70s and 80s during the peak of Martial Law rule by dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Manong Jun wipes the sweat from his forehead, and takes a deep breath into his lungs. He carefully parks his cart on the side of the street, determined not to jostle the delicate eggs.
“BALUT!” he hollers as loud as he can. “BALUT!”
The umbrella hoisted over his cart shades him well enough from the glaring sun, but he can feel his skin roasting in the heat wafting up from the hot pavement and the blasts of black smoke from passing jeepneys. He can taste the air on his tongue, hot and acrid - such is the air in Manila, he thinks to himself. He imagines his lungs to be blackened on the inside, from having breathed the same hot air since he was a boy.
His breathing is laboured behind his cheap cloth mask, but his eyes crinkle with a smile as he swiftly exchanges the hot eggs for handfuls of cash and coins, change rattling in the jug he’s tied to his cart. He looks for the same crinkles of smiling eyes sitting above equally masked faces, but finds only a few. He wonders when he’ll be able to see an unmasked and uncovered smile again, or if he’ll even live to see one once more.
The summer months are usually when he makes the most profit - after all, Western tourists are always excited to try the infamous balut. It’s funny really, how foreigners seem so intrigued by the Filipino way of devouring an unborn chick whole, with chili sauce no less! But Manong Jun has seen no curious Americans this July, just more masked faces that were as browned and tired as his. Still, he must continue. His limbs are tense, wondering which hand will pass him change that may infect him, or his family should he bring home the virus.
Another bus roars past him, and his heart sinks at the sight of black dust settling on the eggs he is selling. He desperately attempts to dust off the eggs - he may sell his wares for dirt cheap, but he will not allow his customers to eat the dirt off the street. He knows under his cheap plastic gloves, are wrinkled, bony hands as dark as the dust he sweeps off the eggs.
He watches a young boy who had just bought balut from him, perched on the sidewalk under the brutal sun. The boy doesn’t seem to mind the heat, and is happily slurping at the now hollow egg. His shirt is far too large for his tiny frame, and the straps of his sandals are held together by bits of tape. His forehead glistens in the sun, with tufts of curly hair bleached orange by the sun. Manong Jun knows instantly this boy is no stranger to the streets.
“Hoy, bata!” Manong Jun scolds. “Ba't ka naglalakwtsa? Umuwi ka agad. Ang init-init tapos may covid pa! Baka magkasakit ka!”
(hey, kid, why are you hanging about? Go home now. It’s too hot outside and there’s also covid and you might get sick)
Manong Jun pulls out a clean mask he had been saving for later, and hands it to the boy.
“Eto, suotin mo na 'yan. Diyos ko, mga bata ngayon. Di mo ba alam na may virus?”
(Here, put this on. My God, kids these days. Don’t you know there’s a virus?)
The boy takes the mask, thanking him and sprints away. Manong Jun shakes his head in dismay. Oh, to have the bravery and stupidity of the youth.
“BALUT!” he yells once more.
His voice echoes in unison with Ate Sarah’s across the street. Ate Sarah is sitting on her short wooden stool, squatting by her fruit cart. She swoops her pamaypay (large handheld fan) over her produce, batting and swatting away any pests that would dare come close. The fan is not kind to her hands, the woven leaves rough on her skin - but her skin is rougher, callouses on every joint and fingertip.
She has no umbrella, and she is at the mercy of the sun. Her mother had warned her it would be a hot day, but she insisted on leaving the umbrella at home. Ate Sarah had told her mother she would be able to handle the heat today, but the truth was she knew her mother needed that umbrella more - her walk to the clinic was not a short one, and her mother was nearing her seventies and needed to make it to her monthly doctor’s appointments. Ate Sarah would sooner burn all day under the sun than come home again to see her mother collapsed on the floor, unmoving.
She tells herself that she is lucky - at least she has her fan. Every once in a while she can afford a few seconds of waving her fan in her direction, instead of her fruit cart. Manong Jun across the street has to stand all day with his boiling hot eggs, even if he has an umbrella. She also has a better mask than Manong Jun, a fancy one that doctors use. She’s considered sharing her supply with Manong Jun, feeling pity for the flimsy handkerchief the man was using, but she knows she and her mother need them more.
Her heart feels heavy - every man and woman for themselves. She sneers behind her bright blue mask. Kababayan? Countrymen? No summer heat wave could ever make up for the cold hearts of her supposed fellow Filipinos. Ate Sarah knows she is one of them. Even as she watches Manong Jun offer a mask to a little street rat, she knows that Manong Jun is the exception, not the norm.
Mang Boyet approaches her cart, careful to maintain his distance as he examines the fruits.
“Ate Sarah, buti nalang ang dami mong saging ngayon!” he says cheerfully. “Narinig ko sa news na mabuti raw para sa immune system,”
(Thank goodness you have lots of bananas today, I heard on the news those are great for your immune system.)
“Mang Boyet,” she sighs. “Di naman gamot 'yan para sa covid!”
(They’re not a cure for covid.)
Mang Boyet chuckles. Ate Sarah doesn’t have to try hard to glare at him. The sun is so bright that she has to squint just to look up at him. The man has the most ridiculous mask on - it’s a black cloth mask printed with massive cherry red lips, puckered into a seductive pout.
“Kahit anong konting tulong sa immune system,” he shrugs. “Isang kilo, Ate.”
(Whatever little help I can get for my immune system. One kilo please.)
She carefully weighs exactly one kilogram, and puts it in a plastic bag for Mang Boyet. He offers her 200 pesos, and shakes his head when she moves to give him change.
“Sa 'yo na ‘yan,” he insists. “Para sa nanay mo. Di 'ba may dyabetes siya?”
(Keep the change. For your mother. Doesn’t she have diabetes?)
“Uy, 'di pwede,” she huffs. “Sayang ang sukli mo!”
(Hey I can’t take this, you’ll lose too much change!)
He simply laughs and walks away, waving back at her as he climbs back into his jeep. Ate Sarah is thankful for her mask - she’d never hear the end of it if Mang Boyet caught her smiling.
Mang Boyet spies on Ate Sarah from the sideview mirrors on his jeep. He can just barely make out the slight crinkle in her eyes above her mask. He chuckles to himself, happy to have made the usually grumpy young woman smile.
He quickly wolfs down one banana, ignoring the grumbling in his tummy. He has no time for more, and it would be better to bring some more fruits home to his family. Whatever he can do to keep his wife and children healthy, he will do.
He grabs a cloth and a spray bottle filled with bleach, and clamors into the passengers’ area. On his hands and knees, he meticulously begins disinfection. No corner, no spot, no nook or cranny is left untouched and wiped down with bleach. He is shaded by the roof of the jeep, but the heat inside is stifling. His hair and shirt are drenched with sweat, and he doubles back to make sure he hasn’t dripped any sweat onto the floor or seats of the jeep.
His heart sinks at the seats marked “X” with duct tape, and the plastic barriers he’s had to put up in his jeep. Once he would have been able to fill his jeepney with as many as 20 passengers at a time, all crammed together on the benches of his jeep - now he’d be lucky to have 8 or more.
It was once a grudgingly accepted ritual of the Filipino people - the discomfort and hassle a shared struggle that had become an inalienable part of the Filipino identity. In the harmony of slick and sweaty limbs crushed together in a space that should not have been able to accommodate so many, the exasperation of passengers who had been promised seats for at least 4 more, but found not more than 2 feet of space left on the benches, the camaraderie in passing crumbled bills and handfuls of coins from passenger to passenger to driver, the unspoken trust a golden rule in the commute.
Mang Boyet climbs back into the driver’s seat, taking a few seconds to catch his breath and cool down. The coin box on the dashboard is painfully empty, save for a few pitiful pesos - yet he smiles. The sweat trickling from his forehead mingles with a single tear as he gazes on the photos stuck to his coin box.
Three small photos, a young woman with a cap and gown, and two young men with a maroon sash and wearing a barong, bearing the ultimate symbols of Filipino pride having graduated from the country’s premier university.
“Salamat po, 'tay,” his youngest had said. “I am who I am because of you.”
(Thank you dad)
He starts his jeep, and makes his way out of the parking lot. He sings to himself, driving his jeep proudly down the road to the line of passengers waiting to board. His jeep glints in the bright sunlight, paintings of his son’s favourite superheroes on each side of the jeep. Years ago his boy had insisted on painting the entirety of the Justice League on the jeep.
“Iingatan ka nun, 'tay!” he had gushed. “Napakalakas ni Superman, he’ll keep other cars from crashing!”
(They’ll keep you safe, dad, Superman is so powerful)
Every year, Mang Boyet had refreshed and repainted the images of the Justice League, much to his now grown son’s embarrassment.
Passengers start to board the jeep, and Mang Boyet turns on the radio, turning up the volume as loud as it can go. He sings along boisterously, earning some cheers and chuckles from his passengers as he continues along his route.
“Hinahanap-hanap kita Manila
Ang ingay mong kay sarap sa tenga…”
(I look for you, Manila, your noise is so pleasant to my ears)
The wind gushing in from the open window does little to cool him or his passengers down, the hot air whipping their faces. He sings louder, and for a while he and his passengers forget the heat and the grit of Manila.
“Mga jeepney mong nagiliparan,
Mga babae mong naggagandahan!”
(Your jeepneys that fly by so fast, your beautiful women)
“Para po!” a passenger cries, rapping a fist on the roof of the jeepney. Mang Boyet hits the brakes, and the passengers barely flinch when the sudden stop nearly lurches them forward. The passenger clamors out of the jeepney, throwing back a quick thank you. Mang Boyet wipes the sweat from his forehead with the small towel draped over his shoulder, and cranks the jeepney forward once more.
“Take me back in your arms Manila,
And promise me you’ll never let me go…”
Promise me you’ll never let me go.