A dinner with a winner


JOJO was his good, old jolly fellow self that early evening I visited him at his Coconut Palace office Monday. Nothing showed of the ordeal he had been through in his campaign for the presidency, none any of the wear and tear expected of someone who had lost the fight. His reception secretary had texted me three days before, confirming my appointment with him at 5 p.m. Monday, so as early as 2 p.m. I was up and about on a journey from my Antipolo home to the CCP Complex. Normally, I would just take a jeepney up to the LRT Santolan Station from where to take the train to the Recto
Terminal Station, whence to proceed by two jeepney rides to the Coconut Palace. But not wanting to miss out on my first visit to Jojo in a long, long time, I took the taxi that happened to pass by just as I stepped out of our modest farm along Sumulong Highway.

Turned out the taxi driver didn’t really know where Coconut Palace was, and he went on a crazy merry-go-round that had us caught in an endless chain of traffic snarls so that it was nearly 6 p.m. when I finally got—thanks finally to my personal piloting of the trip—to Jojo’s office. I was cursing the driver, believing he had caused my having missed my appointment with Jojo. I remembered an account of the 10-minute wait Microsoft executives and other US IT industry moguls did for an appointment with visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping. That was unexpected of a coterie who won’t wait that long for the US President. Who was I to be waited for one hour by the Vice President of the Philippines!

As luck would have it, Jojo didn’t have to wait. He was so full of guests that afternoon that he was still busy attending to a sizeable crowd of well-wishers as I stepped into the lobby of the vice president’s palace. Having been alerted on my arrival by the gate guard, one of Jojo’s close-in aides guided me to a seat at the receiving hall while Jojo obliged the last crowd of visitors with a photo-op; the crowd repeatedly cheered, rejoicing: “Only Binay!”

It took more or less another 30 minutes for me to be the sole guest in waiting at the cold receiving hall of the OVP while Jojo must first attend to some VIP at his office. The VIP was Congressman Noli Fuentebella of Camarines Sur. When the two stepped out of Jojo’s office, indicating the end of their lengthy discussion, I finally realized the weight of my presence to Jojo. After bidding the solon guest goodbye, Jojo walked up to me, gripped my hand, at once indicating to walk me into his office. But just as soon, he paused.
“Teka… Kumain na tayo (Wait… Let’s have dinner),” he said.

That’s what I got for the 30-minute wait—the thought of being important enough to be invited to dinner by the man who would be president of the Republic of the Philippines—but not as yet. At that moment, I thought I was being honored with the Biblical mandate: “…The last shall be the first.”

Only Binay
As Jojo put it, the dinner site is a typical paluto eatery, which he termed turo-turo in a wharf market on the edge of the reclaimed area of Manila Bay, in Pasay City. In order to reach the site, you need to walk a little distance from the parking lot through an alley teeming with evening shoppers and night crowd just doing the rounds for a look-see, including a spattering of foreign tourists.

Short that it was, the walk was a pleasant revelation. As soon as people recognized Jojo, they crowded around him, like hounding a matinee idol: “Ay, si Binay (Oh, there’s Binay)!”
“Sir, piktyur, piktyur (Sir, let’s have photographs).” And everybody would snuggle close to him for photo-ops with the use of their cell phones, either shot by some impromptu photographer or selfie-style.

Japanese-looking tourists, two gentlemen and a lady, joined in the frenzy, requesting for piktyur, piktyur. Jojo gladly obliged them, and the group responded with their Japanesey head bows of greetings and thanks.

Three matronly ladies rushed forward and immediately pressed Jojo in-between them. “Kami naman, sir (Our turn, sir),” they said, giggling. “Ang seksi naman,” Jojo remarked at one of the ladies sporting a bulging cleavage.” Jojo took out his white hanky and, with his hand, gently pressed it on the lady’s bosom as the camera clicked.

People from all walks of life who were in the vicinity at that moment—vendors, kargadors, promenaders, diners to-and-fro the number of restaurants in the area, including shorts-clad youthful girls out on a pleasant thrill-seeking night—wouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to have their photographs taken with the guy who, as recent as February, was the leading candidate among the presidential contenders in the May 9 elections.

I exclaimed to myself—and voiced it out to Jojo as we walked toward his favorite paluto eatery—“Why, this is no reception for somebody who lost the presidential elections just concluded. This is a rejoicing for a winner.”

A man who had the looks of a proletarian commented to Jojo after having their photograph taken that he was from Isabela, and that the province gave the declared winner of the elections as having earned a pittance: 9,000 votes. The implication was that the rest of the votes went mainly to Jojo.

I asked curtly: “Were your votes counted?”

The eatery was a neat and cozy affair, with but a few diners at the time who all indicated delight at seeing Jojo. It was a veritable coterie that took the long table in the middle of the dining area. Seating across each other, Jojo and I were joined by his close-in security detail and confidential aides in partaking of the simple but delicious native fare of halaan soup, inihaw na hito, and pancit canton. The servings spoke much of what the Vice President is: meek, simple, unpretentious. He had washed his hands at the sink so he could use them in picking at the flesh of the crispy grilled native fish; early on at the start of the dinner he scooped pancit canton into my plate as a prompter for me to start dinner; Jojo had this personal attention to everybody at the table.

I had with me a document that I prepared in the hope that it could be a talking point in our discussion. As an appetizer to this, I shot the first question: “Five o’clock Monday, May 9, you called me excitedly saying, ‘Mao panalo na tayo.’ But by six o’clock the PPCRV Quick Count already had Duterte pulling away on top and you lagging behind at fourth place. What happened?”

Jojo offered me a dish containing calamansi juice.

“Mao, calamansi. Para diyan sa pancit mo (Mao, calamansi for your pancit).”
Jojo elaborates in tomorrow’s column.


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