Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Uncharmed

The announcement came at around 5 in the afternoon. “How do you feel about the President coming over and bringing dinner?” Vic Agustin, chairman of the editorial board, asked us editors seated on the H-shaped tables. My first impulse was to eye the egg pie and the silvanas that I had brought from home. Sayang naman. If I had known there would be dinner, I would have left these treats to the kids who were bound to be hungry after their day in school. The second was a feeling of relief that I had decided against wearing my flip-flops to work that day. I had on black slip-ons, something I had not worn in quite a while. It still revealed a lot of flesh but was much dressier than the flip-flops. I had on jeans and I black polo t-shirt, the one that said “No woman should die giving life”...hardly corporate, but certainly the look of a thinking person. The shirt was from my NGO,pro-reproductive health bill friends.

It was a busy day,not only for me but for the entire desk. The guys have not yet quite decided on the banner. For my part, I had been dealing with another request from one of my columnists who somehow felt entitled to ask for little favors from the office, specifically from me, and who had to be turned down really politely, and really effectively if it was possible, if he was to be reminded of certain basic courtesies. On that Thursday, this columnist was asking of I could print, IN FULL,his article of two thousand seven hundred words. On the bright side, I was getting to practice my assertion skills. Diplomacy, too.

Things began turning funny when my boss started obsessing about the bathrooms. See,my office is in Port Area,Manila, right by the passenger piers. Standard Today prides itself in being an AB paper, and I've heard feedback that while it certainly can't compete with the Big 3 in terms of circulation and ads, we are one of the more intelligent, and better edited, broad sheets. But we certainly can't boast of the best editorial offices. Indeed our fixtures are worse than those of government offices, and outdated,too. The walls, which used to be grimy, are now painted in too-bright blue and yellow. Small roaches crawl over the tables, the chairs are rickety, and the bathrooms are decrepit – and smelly. My computer needs to be turned on by an assistant an hour before I arrive just so I could work smoothly at once upon getting to my seat.

I just do really love my job that's why I am able to get past all these.

Anyway the Palace people started arriving. They checked the names and the offices and the bathrooms. All too soon, the President was there. Thankfully she confined herself to the conference room up front and did not quite find her way to the sweat shop that is the editorial department. (I was worried my computer would hang while the Facebook window was showing.) The company's executives and the most senior editors went to the room ahead, finished or not. That hour was witching hour in our trade. I was wrestling with my columnists, and I was among the last who went to the conference room. When I arrived, there was an empty chair where my name tag “Adelle Tulagan, Opinion Editor” was propped on. I sat down, and soon dinner was served. The president was small talking with the others on the GDP figures that were released earlier that day. I was happy to see shrimps on the plate. Hmmm. Fancy.

There was wine, too, and my colleague Sarsi said it was good. I didn't touch it. Not that I did not want to, but I have this thing against consuming alcohol in public. I attacked the food while listening to the conversation among my office mates and the President, who did not look as old and as puffy as I had expected her to. She was very pleasant, and she had a captive audience. In the meantime, I was asking myself: What's the deal?

It was, of course, part of the charm offensive we've been hearing about. She's on her way out and the general sentiment is that she is not going to be missed. I wondered how complex such a small fellow could be. (This was the first time I'd seen her up front except the time I ran into her,when she was on her way out of and I was on my way to the wake of Raul Roco, my former boss.) All those vile things they say about her! All those shady transactions and that legendary temper! I looked at her closely and saw nothing but a woman making an effort to be nice. Sincerity? Innocence? Honesty? Frankly, I really couldn't tell. I did not see these, but I could not say for sure they were not there either. What was the truth, anyway?

Soon the conversation became lighter. The lifestyle people asked her if she was able to see some movies lately. What restaurants did she like, and how did she hear about them? When she asked our managing editor where the Tomeldans come from,I took my name tag and hid it away from her view. I was worried she would ask me if I was from Pangasinan. What was I supposed to do if she did? Tell her, and everybody else, that yes, the Tulagans were from Pangasinan, and the former Congressman Tulagan was the uncle of my husband, but I have been separated for the past three years and a nullity case is pending, and that I am really a Chua, but that is my mother's last name because I was born out of wedlock, etcetera etcetera. How complicated can an explanation about a name be?

The dinner lasted an hour and I did not ask a single question. I did not want to. I was content on observing the President, especially her facial expression as Mr. Agustin talked about a certain phone call to an election commissioner, and how everybody called commissioners all the time. But Mrs. Arroyo's face was blank. Alas, despite the niceties, the great food and the very obvious gesture of reaching out to the media, the President failed to connect with me. I had expected that somebody in that position would be so charismatic that one would be a convert after one has seen her, dined with her. I remained neutral. I do not dislike her, because I do not have enough firsthand observations to claim to know her, but I am not a fan, either.

So neutral, in fact, that when the whole thing was finally over and we were on our way back, she smiled at me as I was about to go out the door, and held out her hand. I shook it, smiled and said thanks. The thought of telling her my name and rank did not even cross my mind until I was back on my table and finishing up on my editing tasks. I decided it was not much of a loss.

A bright point: at least, much to my boss' relief, the President did not have to use the bathroom.

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