As in nothing happened

This was my column on the date indicated above.

I presumed they were husband and wife because I chanced upon them one night eating dinner from the same plate; actually a woven basket inserted into a plastic bag. They were eating with their hands, which were also enclosed in plastic bags like gloves. The overuse of plastic bags presumably provided convenience as washing dishes or hands were done away with, but those plastic must be bad, very bad for the environment. I learned later on that Marilou and Renato were in fact siblings.

I don’t really know how I became their regular customer. I bought flowers from them a couple of years back because what appeared to be their regular spot on the sidewalk just happened to be a good place —for me, at least—to stop and take respite from the gauntlet that tests the faith of every pilgrim that kneels before the picture of the benevolent Lady every Wednesday. I made their acquaintance amidst the undulating sea of pushing and heaving mass of people, while dodging cars painstakingly inching their way in and then out of the area while spewing toxic fumes for everyone to inhale, and while fending off vendors of all kinds of wares and using all kinds of vending contraptions and marketing gimmicks imaginable.

I became their suki (regular customer) and the arrangement worked well for us, or so I thought. Being their regular customer had some advantages. It meant I didn’t have to sift through the bundles of flowers in their plastic buckets, they just handed to me what always turned out to be the freshest, best pick of the lot. It also meant no price increases regardless of the fluctuations in the prices of flowers due to special occasions (flowers are also subject to the law of supply and demand and thereby become more expensive during special occasions such as Valentines Day and All Saints Day). And I thought I was helping them.

I learned later on that the siblings were part of a large family that lived and operated in the Baclaran area. A friend wanted to buy a relatively huge quantity of flowers for a special occasion and I thought it would be a good idea to get the siblings to be some sort of a middleman between my friend and their suppliers. They directed me to a stall on a side street where they got their flower supplies. The “suppliers” turned out to be their parents. I learned that other siblings and cousins also “owned” various other spots around Baclaran where they also sold flowers. What I initially surmised was a very simple business enterprise, which I thought produced a measly income, turned out to be a relatively well-established business that had been in operation in the Baclaran area for decades. The whole family was involved in the business including in-laws and even relatives visiting from the province.

From the siblings I learned that most of the sidewalk vendors that operate in the Baclaran area are connected to each other in some way. Moreover, I learned that many (though certainly not all) of these vendors work like extended distribution outlets of some of the stores that operate inside the shopping centers around the area. The authorities had this brilliant idea of building malls around Baclaran supposedly to entice the vendors to stop appropriating three lanes of a four-lane street as the display area for their various wares leaving pedestrians, vehicles, carts and everyone else to fight tooth and nail for the remaining lane. The vendors bought the stalls inside the malls, turned them into storage and resting area and then continued to lay their merchandise right on the streets. Small wonder that these stalls inside malls and even some of the stores located in the side streets and alleys continue to operate even despite the absence of human traffic—they merely function as storage places or as suppliers for the vendors that continue to clog the sidewalks around Baclaran.

Of course there are vendors that operate independently, plying their wares on their own. But most of them are part of a network; their size enables them to afford paying bribes and protection money. Authorities have been trying for years and years to clean Baclaran of its illegal sidewalk vendors but to no avail.

It seemed they finally succeeded a couple of months back. For quite sometime this year, Baclaran was totally bereft of sidewalk vendors. The authorities even succeeded in dismantling the stores that were able to build semi-permanent structures around the church. I remembered watching in disbelief one Wednesday evening at streets that were so spacious people could actually walk to and from the Church without having to simulate an obstacle course! That was when I learned for the first time that Baclaran Church actually had perimeter fences and that the streets were actually wide enough for vehicles and pedestrians to co-exist peacefully if only those illegal vendors didn’t appropriate for themselves the sidewalks and the street itself.

At another time, I would have felt empathy for the vendors because I would have romanticized their situation as just another way to make a living. Unfortunately, I have already learned at that point that they weren’t really as hapless as I originally thought they were—at least many, if not most of them.

Marilou and Renato and their siblings disappeared from their allocated spots and I had to trudge a few meters on to a side street to buy flowers from their parents’ stall. The other vendors disappeared into side alleys although I noted they became more creative playing hide and seek from the authorities. It was almost hilarious watching them push makeshift cabinets and clothes hangers with wheels and the way they would quickly bundle up their wares when a mobile police car entered the area. The authorities also built concrete and steel structures for pedestrians around the perimeter fence of the Church to discourage vendors from ever building stores right next to the church. Jeepneys were rerouted to pass through the area presumably to further discourage the vendors from hijacking the streets once again. For a month or two there, going to Baclaran on a Wednesday became relatively easier, more convenient, even relaxing.

Alas, some things are too good to last. Authorities relaxed their tight watch over the area and eventually disappeared. The vendors started to trickle back into the area.

They were back in full force last Wednesday. The jeepneys have stopped passing through the area because doing so would mean getting stuck in traffic for hours. The vendors have not rebuilt the structures that used to lean on the perimeter fence of the Church - or at least not yet, but they have started to appropriate spots around the church, staking claims on the choice spots. Even the gates of the Church are now almost impossible to pass through as the vendors have blocked the paths with images of various saints as well as those of Snow White’s dwarves.

Marilou and Renato and their siblings are back on their spots. They were their grinning at me last Wednesday. As if nothing happened. As if nothing happened at all. I asked them in jest how they were able to get back to their posts. They told me how authorities always go through the motion of cleaning the area during the elections and right after each new administration is sworn in. Pasikat lang, (showing off) they said. But now they are back. Pera pera lang naman yan, (it’s all about money) they concluded.


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