They called Tita Maritess the bus lady because she gave bus passes to all the Filipino commuters and I guess, within the span of three days, I was one of them too now, memorizing my daily morning and evening route. I would repeat it over and over, the 125 to the 460 to the purple or Red Line, and then the 720. And then reversed and back again. It was two hours just one way to get to work, and I would often lean my head against the dirty bus window, watching the veins and arterioles of the most congested city in the U.S.
The first day I began taking this commute, my cousin, Ate Lynn, told me she would ask Tita Maritess if she could get me an annual bus pass. I studied the faded blue picture of my cousin’s own TAP card, the slight frown on her tanned face. The sun’s glare made it hard to read. I shrugged and told her, “Sure,” but I felt almost inappropriate in my need.
Before, I couldn’t even imagine myself doing this commute everyday, the waking-up-before-dawn and home-after-dusk kind, the people I always saw, silent and brown, disappearing into Los Angeles barrio anonymity. I used to walk past them on streets and not even turn my head. Now, I would watch from my bus seat the emerging city skyscrapers, indifferent to the hundreds—maybe even thousands—of commuters clenching and unclenching their fists, the rigid tension a mousetrap, our exhaustion in the city smog.
The next day Ate Lynn shook her head. “Tita said they’re getting really strict about giving out these passes now.” I nodded coolly. It made sense, and I didn’t want to push any luck I had. After all, this entire situation felt like one strange fluke after another. I had just moved back home and would spend most of my days lying in bed with my dog, watching light crawl from one end of the room to the other.
“You have to find a job, anako,” my mother said to me, wondering about all those years I spent at Berkeley, and what was I showing for it? I didn’t know what I wanted, and so when my cousin offered to forward my resume to her boss, a wealthy doctor in Beverly Hills, I immediately jumped on it. I was hired within three quick days to do back-office assistant work with her. Now, my days seemed to stretch on endlessly.
I spent most of my commute thinking about the gathering dust of my college degree. This year the days had felt especially hot, wrapping moisture around my neck. Sometimes, I would stretch my fingers out and notice how clean and soft they were, hands that were only callused at the base of my left thumb from the pen I had held through sixteen years of schooling. Other times, I would watch my cousin and notice how many Filipina women she seemed to know. She always seemed to be running into one or another almost daily.
I thought a lot about this transit community of mostly older Filipina women. I knew exactly who they were—Filipino migrant workers. That these women were often working below the degrees they had obtained. That they were, more often than not, chronically underpaid and overworked. That many of these women had left children and families behind. That the separation would balloon to never-ending years, from weekly phone calls and Skype sessions, to the balikbayan boxes slowly getting filled throughout the month, as if that could fill the spaces of someone long-past gone. Trading these empty spaces for material goods. My cousin once told me receiving tin cans of Spam was almost like a show of class.
Those first few weeks I started working, I also thought a lot about quitting. Running from stop to stop, I would arrive at work already tired and sweaty. I felt exhausted and invisible, my voice cracking from disuse, the rinds of my eyes darkening as my body tried to catch up to this routine. Coming home every day, I thought if I kept as still as possible, I could disappear from any of these moments as the 460 caught traffic, the bus driver braking and starting, reeling us forwards and back again like struggling fish.
Yet, every time I thought of quitting, I felt shameful. Ate Lynn had been here since 2011, and whenever she talked about leaving the clinic we worked at, she would say how hard it was. Her entire family relied on the money she sent back to Olongapo. I would wring my hands around my wrists over and over, feeling the bones, as I listened to her. She made me think about these other women she had known for years, like the one with two daughters in the Pinas. She was an LVN and seemed to always be looking for extra work. “I’ll let you know if I hear anything,” I heard Ate Lynn tell her once. There was another one who lived in a cramped space in Koreatown, sharing just a room with several other people. I only met her once, but I could see the exhaustion ringing her eyes. There was also Sheryl from work, who always seemed to be one of the first people in and the very last one out, and Veron too, who had been at our clinic for more than ten years now, and even though she had received her permanent residency, she would still come in for a few extra hours to do bookkeeping.
Often, my cousin would say, “After I get my Green Card, I will stay for six months and then leave.” But we watched as the months came and went, and even after receiving her permanent residency, time just kept passing.
Ate Lynn must have known Tita Maritess for quite some time now. I would see Tita Maritess often at the 460 stop of the Norwalk Green Line Station, wearing long scarves and patterned blouses, button-ups with swirling flower patterns. She had a kind face—would always come over to say her kumustas, the easiness and familiarity of their conversation making me feel even more awkward as I stood there dumbly.
Ate Lynn told me Tita Maritess had been doing this for awhile now, whatever this was. “During Christmastime, she always gets the best gifts from everyone!” Ate Lynn said, and later I would remember her saying that as she picked out kitchenware at the commissary for Tita Maritess. I didn’t know too much about Tita Maritess, other than that she lived at the apartments right off Imperial, next to the San Gabriel Riverbed I had grown up riding my bike through.
Ate Lynn was an OFW. That’s what she called herself: Overseas Filipino Worker. I thought about all the different papers she had to process, the lawyers she must have hired, and the fees she must have sent out. Late on Saturday nights, she would Skype her family, her brother’s children always screaming and laughing. “After my Green Card, I will bring them here,” she said, but all I could think about was how long that waiting period would be, the way time stretched and elongated itself over and over—how often we made plans for the future but were never able to quite keep them.
Maybe this is why Filipinos always have a desire to create families no matter where we are. How easily everyone becomes your Ate or Kuya, Tito or Tita. How much easier that must have been when your real family was thousands of miles of ocean and a shoddy wi-fi connection away. How much easier to make-believe kinship in a foreign land because the woman you sat next to on the bus everyday for five years reminded you of your mother. And maybe the last time you had seen nanay was right before you left, as you turned to move away from her, disappearing into the throng of bodies all gathering to leave or to return. She must have been crying then for the thousands of miles. How silly it seemed for me to think of this and the way my mother cried when I first left for college. It was only 400 miles and a one-hour plane ride, but that hadn’t stopped me from swiping my own eyes as I rushed through airport security.
I was once told the Philippines’ greatest export was our people. That weighed heavy in my mouth, like stones.
Weeks later, right before the first monthly bus pass I bought would expire, Tita Maritess pulled my cousin to the side and I pretended not to notice as she gave my cousin her old bus pass. “I already have a new one for next year,” she must have been saying as she slipped it in my cousin’s hands. Later, I took it awkwardly into my own, observed the photo of Tita’s smiling face and reddened cheeks.
“Just don’t take it out of your wallet,” Ate Lynn said. “And anyway, when they check TAP cards, they don’t really look at the faces.” That still didn’t stop my heart from pounding the first time security scanned the partially hidden TAP card in my wallet. I looked over at Tita Maritess, who was already speaking to someone else, and found I could not even muster a “thank you.”
Now, whenever I saw Tita, I would give her an awkward smile, the kind that was closed-mouth, lips mashed together, and a small hand wave. “Thank you,” I tried to say, but it only came out in a nodded head and tightened shoulders. It made me think about how often this must have happened, how much easier it could be for the other commuters. How did those she helped return their gratitude?
I wondered how many different Filipinos she met through the years, and how immediately she must have recognized kapwa in the way they kept in motion, the embarrassed way their tongues stumbled over uncertain English. How long did it take, if even at all, before they shifted back into words they knew so well, finding the language of home? Yet, my tongue only held answers of diaspora.
How long did it take before Tita Maritess’ kaibigans began to call her the bus lady, to come over on birthdays, and to send gifts during the holiday because that’s what you did when you felt utang na loob, when you took this small gesture of kindness that saved you maybe hundreds of dollars on bus expenses a year, money that still went away as remittances for your family in the barrio anyway, and gave your thanks.
Because even if the bus ride was two hours just one way, even if your ankles swelled and sometimes you got shin splints from running connection to connection, this was part of the greater experience, the one that really wasn’t my own.