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LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - March 27, 2021 - 12:00am

The ukulele player.

I first saw the ukulele player one summer when I was still studying at the university. I was running after my youngest sister who had bolted out of the pink Saint Joseph’s Church in Antipolo, where we used to live. She wanted to pee outside, and I was running down the concrete stairs when I met him.

He was a lean man in dirty clothes, his hair like straw reaching down to this shoulders. He harmed no one. His world spun around the ukulele that he gently held in his hands.

When the churchgoers began singing the “Our Father” in Filipino, the strings of his ukulele also picked up the tune. Soon, its sound merged with the voices of the people raised in a hymn to God.

The ukulele player suddenly opened his mouth. I waited for a voice to come out. But nothing floated from his lips, neither a whimper or a whisper. His ukulele said every word for him. When his music played, his face cracked into a toothless smile.

And for a moment, a strange fire lit his eyes, suddenly alive with hope.

The old soldier

I thought he was a beggar when I first saw him. But my father told me that the old man was a retired colonel in the military service. With pain in his voice, my father added that the old man’s children had asked him to draw the lump sum of his retirement pay. He did so, but after his children had borrowed all the money, they just abandoned him.

That afternoon, after my classes at the university, I went to Cubao to get a ride home. I was already sitting in the minibus in the Cubao terminal, reading “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway, when he arrived. I saw him enter the bus slowly.

The fatigue uniform he wore was crumpled. The patch on his right shoulder was half-torn; the colored threads hung loose. A faded brown leatherette bag was slung on his shoulder. His right hand gripped a rough-hewn wooden cane. He quivered when he walked. His lower lip protruded slightly.

He sat behind the driver. His white hair was thinning, and small black spots dotted the back of his head. For all the shabbiness about him, there was a vague sense of pride in him. He held his head high. Chest out, stomach in. He looked as if he were still The Colonel returning the salute of his soldiers.

When the minibus began to move, the conductor jumped inside, a thick wad of tickets in his hand.

“Badge?” he asked the old officer.

The old officer raised his head and looked the conductor in the eye. Then he nodded firmly. Only the soldiers and policemen who lived in our village in Antipolo did not pay the bus fare. All they had to do was to look glum and flash their metal badges, and the conductor would skulk away, tail between his legs.

After an hour, we reached the village. The old officer alighted in Gate 2. A kind couple living outside our village had taken him under their wing, my father told me later.

From the corner of my eye, I saw him cross the wooden bridge, then walk on the road hemmed in by the tall cogon grasses that seemed to stand in attention, as the old officer walked past them.

Pandemic chatter

I now live in a village between Quezon City and Caloocan. In front of our village are clusters of taxis and motorcycles, all waiting for the now-precious passengers to hail them.

On the few occasions I left the house to buy my provisions, I would hear them talk. One of them said that the prisoners nowadays are luckier.

“And why is that?” asked another driver, waiting outside his white cab.

“Well, at least, they have free board and lodging in the prisons, while we wait and wait for the passengers that now rarely come.”

And they all burst out in laughter. But it was the kind of laughter that is tinged with pain. I have seen several jeepney drivers begging, and it is a sorry sight. My cab driver and I would fork over whatever bills we have for the palm outstretched outside the window.

I also went to the mall just once this week for a business transaction. I sell books online, and one of my buyers – an old friend – said we would buy a book of musical theater and would also like to see me. I obliged him.

There was hardly anybody inside the mall. The food gallery, which was usually humming with activity, was almost deserted. You could still buy food and take them out, but you cannot sit down and dine anymore.

Many of the shops were also boarded up. I thought of the sales crew. They were all daily wage earners: no work, no pay. Now that the shops had been closed by a new round of lockdowns, where will they get the food to put on their tables?

It’s not just food but money for the other, usual needs. I just got a message from one of my campaign wards, whose son is in the hospital. He was asking for help to pay for his son’s medicines. So I sent him whatever amount I could spare.

I had also arranged my library and took out books that I could sell: expensive coffee table books, fiction and nonfiction that I had hardly touched, or poetry titles I had read. I sell them and donate most of the sales to food packs that Ladlad Party List gives to our old and abandoned lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Filipinos. Or I send out new children’s books to my nephews, to give to their children who need to replenish their reading fare. When the courier comes to pick up the delivery, I give him an extra P100 to tide him over for lunch. I also buy food from street vendors and don’t get back the change for the bills.

These are terrible times; images of suffering abound. The vaccines we had ordered aren’t here; there is no coherent plan from those who govern us. We have been left to fend for ourselves. To each his own, then, in these days of grief and rage.

*      *      *

Danton Remoto’s novel, Riverrun, has just been published by Penguin Books. It is available at Shopee Philippines and worldwide at Amazon.

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