Why you should care
Because our fears are often unfounded.
Laurel Fantauzzo lives in Quezon City, Philippines.
If you travel in metro Manila, locals say you’re risking your life. It doesn’t matter if you take a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle with a sidecar or the train. It doesn’t matter if you, God forbid, walk or bike. To move through the megalopolis is to pray you’ll survive. But, as my friends instructed me when I moved here, there is a special danger that comes with taking a taxi.
“Look at you,” my Filipino neighbors joked. “A cabbie’s going to kidnap you and sell you into white slavery.”
I laughed along with them, since I’m indeed a small, pale, gay Filipina-American, with a terrible Tagalog twang whenever I attempt my mother’s language. Making fun of myself is a way of surviving here. And since I appear white and from somewhere else, Filipinos tend to think I’m wealthy. I’m often warned I’m an ideal target for crime. Behind my laughter, I quietly calculated how much it would cost to hire a full-time chauffeur, like my wealthier friends do. But my budget as a teacher and a writer won’t allow for my own driver. So I bicycle when I can. But sometimes I can’t show up to school last minute, sweaty, smog-soaked and dehydrated. So, on days when I’m running late, I take the risk. I take taxis.
Attacks from cab drivers don’t seem to follow any particular routine. The only unifying danger seems to be: Hail a cab, and get into the cab. One common warning: Cabbie attacks get worse over Christmas, when the humiliation of poverty rises.
When I get out of a taxi safely, I say a silent phrase of gratitude, like a prayer: Thank you for not shooting me in the face.
One morning this past December, a Filipina woman hailed a cab in a popular city where call center agents work for companies like Dell and IBM. Her cab driver declared a robbery. Then he shot her in the face. OK, that’s rare, I tell myself. But then a few weeks later, a woman from the U.K. took a cab from Malate to Makati — another popular route, where most foreigners in the Philippines live and work and play. The cab driver shot her in the face too.
Now, whenever I get into a cab, I tweet the identification of the taxi so my whereabouts will always be public, just in case. My Twitter feed reads like a series of secret codes: W Africa UVU 388, Lady Ella Txm 952.
During my ride, I try to relax. I look at the back of the driver’s head, and at the small items he keeps on his dash. Usually there’s a plastic rosary dangling. Devout drivers move their hands in the sign of the cross before our journeys begin. Some take phone calls, corresponding with their relatives in the rural provinces, and I try to pick up what they’re talking about: school tuition, forgotten birthdays, when they’ll be home next.
Sometimes drivers turn their curiosity toward me. I’ll see their eyes flick from the traffic-choked roads to the rearview mirror, taking me in; my short black hair, my light complexion, the tattered black backpack I clutch, filled with my student papers and the secondhand iPad worth half a cabbie’s monthly salary. When I get out of a taxi safely, I say a silent phrase of gratitude, like a prayer: Thank you for not shooting me in the face.
On one cab ride, a driver won’t stop looking at me in the rearview mirror. I grip my bag and look out the window.
“You are Italian?” he asks.
He’s half right, on my father’s side. But I say, “No,” hoping to end his inquiry. The driver’s curiosity continues. “Missionary?”
“Hindi naman, po.” No way, sir, I am not a Christian missionary.
He continues his questioning, maneuvering his tiny, dented white Kia around Metro Manila’s hazards: SUVs, potholes, stray dogs, suicidal jaywalkers. I decide to offer him one piece of information, hoping to quell his interest. “I’m Fil-Am.”
“Ah, Filipina-American! Your mom is Filipina, father American!” he exclaims, assuming correctly. “You have a husband? Children?”
My neck tightens. “No,” I say.
He turns back to face the windshield and asks another one-word question. “T-Bird?”
Traffic stops for a full five minutes. The driver turns all the way around to look at me. He could be 20 or 40, in the ageless, exhausted way of Manila’s working poor. He turns back to face the windshield and asks another one-word question. “T-Bird?”
T-Bird is an old-fashioned slang word. It means lesbian.
The driver suddenly confronts me with the choice I face daily: Come out, and risk the dangers of the Catholic country? Or lie, applying needless shame to my truth? I do not know why I answer the way I do, going against the advice of all my local Filipino friends. I feel a surge inside myself: resistance, or maybe it’s impatience. I don’t want to believe every cab driver wants to do me harm. I want to know what’s on the other side of this everyday fear.
“Opo,” I say. “T-Bird ako.” Yes sir, I am a lesbian.
The driver slaps the steering wheel. I jump. Then he begins to laugh and speak in Tagalog.
“I knew it! I knew you were a T-Bird! You know what? I have a lot of T-Bird friends! You want me to help you find a girlfriend? You want a text-mate? I’ll help you find a crush!” I decline his assistance, but I give him a shaky grin.
“I want to marry an American woman,” the driver says. “Maybe you can help me find a wife. I’ll help you find a wife also!”
When we arrive at my destination, I tip the driver 100 pesos — about $2.50. I still feel guarded. But before he drives away, the driver flashes me a peace sign. And I can’t help but feel a little safer in Manila.