JOKER Arroyo seldom took the floor to deliver a privileged speech or to interpellate, but each time he did so in the 21 years that he was in Congress (nine years as congressman and 12 years as senator); everybody kept quiet and listened to what he had to say.
Only Joker Arroyo could do that. Well, at least during the 15 years that I covered the legislature, I could not remember anybody else who could have everybody’s ears when he spoke.
Joker was his own man. At work, he was serious, stern, maverick. He minced no words when he didn’t like something, regardless of who gets hurt.
He stood up for what he believed was right, even when no one else was on his side. But at the end of the day, he respected the voice of the majority. That was the Joker I knew when he was a legislator.
He diligently attended public hearings on critical economic bills such as the creation of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), liberalization of the trade industry and the banking system, the deregulation of the oil industry, as well as the privatization of the National Power Corp. (Napocor). He fought for provisions that would benefit the ordinary citizens and against those that would favor big business at the expense of the poor consumers.
Outside Congress, he preferred being addressed simply as Joker, but I got used to calling him Sir, or Lolo. We knew each other since his days in Malacañang as executive secretary to then President Cory Aquino…those days when he would appear at the main door of the premier Guesthouse (where he and the President held office), waving pieces of paper to reporters staking out at the mini-gazebo or under a mango tree a few meters away.
Sometimes he would even shout, “Alms, alms,” particularly on Saturdays when the President seldom had meetings at the Palace and we were practically begging for stories for the following day’s newspaper issue.
Those pieces of paper were executive orders or presidential issuances that had been signed under the President’s revolutionary powers. Between February 1986 and July 1987, there was no Congress to legislate because Cory Aquino abolished the Batasan Pambansa, known then as merely a rubber stamp of Ferdinand Marcos.
Anyway, after the reporters got a story, those with early deadline would rush to the press office several meters away at Kalayaan Hall, others would stay on and engaged Arroyo in small talk. It was during these banterings that reporters found out Joker was often not wearing socks, especially on weekends.
When he was not at work, Joker was a jester. He had nicknames for most people he came across with, or had words attached to certain persons that were often hilarious and at times bordering on insult.
How can I forget how he described a Cabinet member as somebody who looked like an unborn fetus? He said it with a straight face, then he giggled uncontrollably.
At the House of Representatives, he called one reporter Thomas Edison, the inventor. He was teasing him of exaggerating and sensationalizing stories just to be different from the others.
He loved to tease a senior reporter that he was a big fan of himself. That was after he caught him reviewing what he had written, using the old Olympia typewriter. “Why do you like to read your own writing? It sucks… ha ha ha,” Joker said and went around the press working area, telling everybody about it, and even repeating it on other days to tease the reporter.
It was a running joke that one “has not arrived” as a reporter if Joker did not knock on your head, or did not taunt you.
He loved to hang out with reporters at the press room. He liked to taunt and tease reporters, particularly those who appeared scared or timid to ask him questions during interviews.
One time, a junior reporter of a tabloid newspaper was stunned and his face turned red when Joker asked: “Hindi mo ba ako tatanungin kung nalilibugan ako dun sa ku-an…sa ano?” And then he burst into laughter, his shoulders shaking. If I remember right, that was the time Rosanna Roces was a hot topic in the tabloids.
Another time – I guess that was on his first or second year as a congressman – Joker treated reporters to dinner. He did not answer any question for a story. He said it was “happy hour.” The reporters chose a simple restaurant along Commonwealth Avenue. The restaurant had since been turned into what is now St. Peter Memorial Chapels.
After dinner, Joker said the bill was not even a third of his budget for the night. He asked the boys to choose a venue for Phase 2. The late Roy de Guzman, then reporting for Today newspaper, brought the group to a cheap girlie bar near Ever Gotesco mall. Oh boy, what a place it was! At 7 p.m., three fully naked girls were dancing, sitting on men’s laps.
Joker was visibly uneasy, but he played along, but the group did not stay long there. He left a generous tip for the bar girls. Then he asked the girls to choose a place they wanted to go to. Next stop was Chico’s, a gay bar on Timog Avenue.
In the dimly lit place, a female customer apparently recognized him. Abante’s Rey Marfil, currently an undersecretary at the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), was quick to tell the customer that he was “Mama Monchang,” a showbiz personality who appeared as a pimp in a movie. Joker, who was seated at the back, was quiet as reporters teased him and called him “Mama Monchang” for the rest of the night.
Having known me the longest among the other reporters at the House, he felt at ease asking me to do things for him, like waiting at the fax machine for his handwritten press statements and have those photocopied and distributed. Sometimes his handwriting was difficult to decipher and I would have to call back to check with him if we got it right. Later on, he had other reporters do the same thing for him.
On dull days, usually on Thursdays when fewer congressmen attend sessions because that was for local bills only, he would ask what the reporters would have for lunch.
Then Rep. Ernesto Herrera of Bohol usually held press conferences at lunch time on Thursday and had packed food for the media. Joker easily dismissed those as “too pedestrian.” He would send his driver and deliver money that is good for four boxes of pizza for the reporters.
One time, he called me at home just to tell me how pissed off he was because his househelp eloped with his driver.
The last time we talked was in April this year, when I asked him to attend a reunion of the Cory-era Malacañang Press Corps. We haven’t communicated for about five years, but Joker still remembered the little things we used to laugh at many years ago.
It was a long, engaging conversation and we had a good laugh as he described people we knew from way back. I did not have an inkling that he was sick then because he laughed just as he did when he was much younger. But he was quiet when he showed up at the reunion on April 9 in Makati City. He just listened to the conversations, and butted in a few times.
When I heard on Tuesday last week about his death, I refused to believe it until I got a one-word text the next day from his best buddy, Atty. Rene Saguisag: Gone. I cried, and took the postcard that he sent me from Prague in April 1996 with this dedication:
Dear Tita, I thought of praying for you when I visited the altar of the Infant Child of Prague. You see I am very pious. The communists before are now the capitalists. Wow! All the best, Joker.”
How can you not love and miss Joker?