OFFLINE: Misunderstanding the plight of jeepney drivers and operators

Throughout the years, I look back and find that I have known a handful of jeepney drivers. I can recall at least four, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of sharing a drink or two. Or three or four.

I am by no means an expert on jeepney drivers, but I can rightfully claim that I sure as hell know more about them than the government officials who make life and death decisions over their livelihood.

The strike called by jeepney drivers and operators this week was not something that they decided on a whim. For most of them, the steps that government was taking to “modernize” jeepneys made no sense.

I will not reveal their real names as I do not their permission to do so. But I assure everyone that all are flesh and blood men who drove, and in one case, owned, the jeepneys they drove in order to make a living.

The first one I will call Mang Indo. I met him when I was in my early 20s, and living a directionless life, getting drunk almost every night. He had somehow found his way to the family compound in Pasay, and if I recall right he had asked permission from my father to park his jeepney at our 321 Protacio St. place for a few weeks or months while he was looking for a more permanent place to park.

At night, before he went to wherever it was that he lived in Pasay City, he would sit in his small, old jeepney smoking cigarettes. My cousin who was living in one of the houses in the compound took pity on him and invited him to join us for a few shots of cheap gin.

Mang Indo told us of his hard life as a driver of a jeep that was owned by a local entrepreneur. After paying his daily ‘boundary,’ or the rent he paid the owner for the use of his jeepney, what was left was what he lived on, to pay for rent, food, and the education of his two daughters. Those girls would occasionally come pick up their dad if he had stayed too long, drinking with us young guys.

He often spoke of such weird things as his belief that the world was soon coming to an end. “Gugunaw ang mundo,” was the term he used for the apocalypse that never came.

We lost touch with him after he found a more permanent place to park his rig.

One of the Pasay barkada that I did have was someone I will refer to as Ponggo. I was a couple of years older than him, yet he seemed a mite more mature than the rest of us. While I was done with college, he was still studying at Southeastern College. Like some of the guys, Ponggo lived in Decena St.

He occasionally drove a tricycle, which a relative let him drive to earn pocket money. He would later graduate to driving a jeepney. He had the same arrangement as Mang Indo, but only drove a few days a week.

Back then, his work ethic told us that he could go places. He was fairly intelligent, had a wicked sense of humor, was not good looking and knew it, but was the kind of guy you wanted on your side if trouble ever erupted.

Ponggo drove that rig for a couple of years, and we learned that after he graduated from college, he was able to land a job as a detailman for a drug company. He was assigned to some faraway province. Sadly, I learned that he had passed away some years ago, and no one knew why. The most commonly accepted reason was that he had a heart attack.

Then there are two jeepney drivers whom I was really close to.

One came from a prominent family down south. Mau as I will refer to him was a bit of a wild child and he had eloped with a girl that his family did not approve of.

So he upped and left, and for some reason he ended up driving a jeepney. He said he was not ashamed of his work. He just wanted to prove to his family that he could make it on his own.

He, too, was a jeepney driver for a few years, until we heard that his family had asked him to come home. By then he had a small family, and his experience as a jeepney driver made him a more serious person. He now manages one of the family’s many businesses.

Finally, there is a favorite drinking buddy whom I will call Chiz. I was related to him by affinity, and we were drinking buddies for decades. He and his wife owned a stall in a public market, but Chiz felt it was not earning enough. So he bought a jeepney on installment, with a little help from his US-based dad.

I rode that nice jeepney with the usual loud sound system many times. I saw that he was earning a pretty decent income, about as much as a manager of a medium-sized company.

His jeepney had twice the capacity of Mang Indo, with 18 passengers when full.

He would qualify not just as a jeepney driver, but an operator, since the unit was his. He finally sold it when he was heading for the States, where he now lives in blissful retirement.

These four jeepney drivers whom I know or knew will tell everyone that this modernization plan of the national government, while certainly well-intentioned, cannot work.

Of the four, only Chiz could conceivably join a cooperative and raise the one to two million pesos needed to buy a modernized jeepney. But that would mean that he would only be co-owner of the fancy looking new jeepneys, which are in fact mini-buses.

Yeah, we used to have mini-buses plying the streets of Metro Manila, until some bright government functionary decided they were not sensible public utility vehicles.

In truth, a good many jeepney drivers can be considered as classic small or medium-sized business owners. Their jeepney is their business, and they operate it their way. They decide when it’s time to change oil, have a mechanic fix the kinks that come as their rigs age, or dress it up to look like a mini disco.

Even when they buy a second-hand jeepney, they are proud of their “king of the road.” Many will have that mandatory sign that says “God knows Hudas not pay,” or maybe “Katas ng Saudi.”

The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board are almost always run by functionaries who may have some executive ability, but I know of no LTFRB head who knows that it’s like to drive or own a jeepney.

So every so often, they will come up with some odd idea that seems sound, but which jeepney drivers know will not work. And when that happens, the drivers and operators will have no choice but to call for a strike.

That’s what’s happening this week. The government regulators just don’t get it. And the public is the one that is inconvenienced, but they grudgingly support – or at least understand – the sad plight of the tens of thousands of jeepney drivers who only want to earn a decent income. If only the government would let them.