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The Joker that I knew

My publication was a weekly throwaway that landed every Saturday morning at the doorsteps of people who lived behind the gilded gates of Makati. The paper delivered in-depth news about local developments that directly impacted or threatened the city’s exclusive communities. Village Voice was Joker’s other way of connecting directly to his constituents, the so-called captains of the industry, the decision makers, the movers and shakers, to find out what bothered their comfort zone.

Back then, Makati was still working on becoming a city. Fort Bonifacio was just being parceled out and plans for a big, mixed-use development that was to become the Global City was just on the drawing board.

There was also a lot of tension in Forbes Park as its building restrictions was nearing expiration date, and some residents proposed to free up housing codes on McKinley Avenue and open it to high density developments such as hotel buildings.  

Privacy and quality of life, the most prized considerations of the privileged few, were at stake and the residents were alarmed. A war ensued, pitting members of the old rich families, the original settlers of the village, against each other. Everyone was involved. The public meetings in the barangay was a virtual boardroom casting coup, where owners of the country’s top corporations and their families – from the patriarch down to the grandchildren – were in attendance.

In short, there was a lot of action in the neighborhood and I was Joker’s main link to what was going on (and his main source for inside stories). This was why we became phone pals. He read the paper on the weekend and come Wednesday afternoon, he would give me a call to talk about the issues (he’s aware that we put the paper to bed on a Thursday so he made it a point to reach me on a Wednesday). My office staff already knew our routine that they would notice if my phone pal didn’t call (or if I didn’t call him). Some of our conversations were rather short, about 30 minutes or less, but we also had some long ones that lasted for over an hour.

One of those long conversations we had was when he asked me to share details of a meeting at Forbes Park that led to a very rare public display of an intense outburst between Don Jaime Zobel de Ayala and Don Jesus Cabarrus that I had witnessed. “What really happened? Magkuwento ka naman (Please tell me),” he requested. Joker liked to hear details, a lot of details, more than I’d care to offer in my writings. May pagka-tsismoso din (He was a gossip). He was a good listener who would constantly break into hearty laughs, making our exchange less formal.

He was makulit (importunate), all right, and his sentences packed sarcasm, which made our discussion all the more interesting. But he was also very accommodating and accessible.

One time I had requested a page boy at the Lower House to grab him from the floor of the session hall to take my call on the landline. It was a hit or miss attempt because I was never sure that he would get up, walk to the back of the hall and pick up the phone. Sino ba naman ako (Who am I). But he did.

O anong kailangan mo (what do you need)?” a familiar voice said on the other line.

I told him that Dante Tinga (then the top banana of Taguig-Pateros) had just issued a scathing remark about Makati’s boundary claim on Fort Bonifacio. “Care to comment?” I said.

I then heard a quick exasperated snort on the other line. And next came the bomb: “Eh tinga nga yun eh! “ He just referred to his colleague’s last name in an accent that literally changed its meaning: tinga, instead of tee-ngah, now meant food stuck in between the teeth.

Pinapansin ba ang tinga (do you pay attention to food stuck in your teeth)?“ Joker declared, reducing the would be Supreme Court associate justice into a piece of an invisible broccoli lodged between his two front teeth. An invisible broccoli that he would flick with his acid tongue without pity.

I laughed and pressed on: “No, you didn’t say that. Can you get territorial, too, and issue a comeback?” I said begging for a usable quote.

Hindi ko papansinin ang isang tinga (I don’t pay attention to food stuck in my teeth),” he repeated as we both hung up, laughing. He went back to his chair in the session hall and I, to my typewriter without a quote from him.

There were plenty of salvos like that.

One time we were talking about Tripa de Gallina, that sewer water catchment area behind the walls of Magallanes Village and how it’s always clogged and floods Magallanes.

“Of course I think of Magallanes and their problem. How can I not? When I take a crap and flush the toilet in the morning, I send something straight down to Magallanes,” he quipped.

Yes, Joker trusted me with his occasional outbursts. As a matter of fact, half of our kuwentong barangay did not see print. I learned how to filter through the useless, controversial, attention-grabbing one-liners and stuck to the real issues. I think that’s what I learned from my dealings with Joker. To see outbursts as an unfiltered betrayal of a person’s human side; something that had to be respected because it had nothing to do with the real issue. But he also taught me how to stick to my guns, to articulate what I believe was just and right. And because of Joker I learned how not to be cowed down by the powerful.

One thing about our conversations, they were very “in the now.” He wasn’t keen on taking me down memory lane and tell me about the glorious past. No talk about the Marcos dictatorship, no talk about his stint as Cory Aquino’s executive secretary, and all that jazz. Joker hardly stayed out of topic. Once in a while though, he would drop light-hearted digs at the personalities in the village that would betray how he really felt about the elite crowd. “Alam mo naman yang mga mayayaman (you know how those rich people are),” was an oft-repeated phrase of his. It was clear that he broke bread with his wealthy neighbors, but it was also very clear that he knew that he was not one of them and had no pretensions about being accepted as one. He was that real.

I asked him one time why he only had one person on his legislative staff.  He said there was no use for more because there’s not much legwork needed at his office. He said he’s not in the business of filing local bills, noting that it won’t even pass committee level because of his being a contrarian. “I am a fiscalizer. My role is to fiscalize, mang-inis kasi diyan naman ako magaling (to get a rise out of people because that’s where I’m good at)."

As for his being a scrooge, well I have one story and it happened at the dawn of the cellphone era. One time I got a call from him, but he was breaking as if there was a washing machine buzzing in the background so I asked what it was. “I’m in my car,” he explained. I gasped, ”You are calling my landline on your cell? Sigurado ka (are you sure)?” I said, concerned about his bill and about his being a kuripot (tightwad). “Sandali lang naman ito (this is not going to take long),” he countered. The call lasted for about 5 minutes.

When I quit my job and decided to move permanently to the US, I gave Joker a call to formally say goodbye and to endorse to him my replacement, Susan de Guzman, formerly of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. I expected him to give me a lecture about my decision and preach to me about love of country, etc. He did not. In fact, it was the opposite. He wished me well and told me, “Ay maganda nga doon (It's nice there)” and went on to say how much  he enjoyed the open space in the US and how envious he was of New York’s Central Park and wished Makati had it’s own version.  

That was the last time we talked on the phone. At Christmas that year, I sent Joker a card from Los Angeles. A first from me. For several years before that, Joker would fax me a handwritten note at the Village Voice to wish me a Merry Christmas. He was thoughtful that way. I think I still have some of the faded thermal paper with his messages somewhere in my file in my garage.

Writing this piece brought back memories of the phone pal that I was truly privileged to know; a personality who I burned the telephone lines with for many hours, but who I only met in person one time (a 3-minute hello and goodbye encounter at the session hall of the Lower House); a public servant that I truly respected for his integrity and lastly, my source who almost always had the last say, and literally, would have the last hearty laugh in our conversations.

Bye, Sir Joker. Have a wonderful forever.

Ruby Clemmons is a former Manila-based journalist. She resides in Los Angeles with her husband and their two girls, ages 11 & 8.