Friday, May 16, 2008

The Last Coffee Boy (fiction)

I worked with a British company during the mid 60s. It was a rather large multinational whose businesses spanned more than half the world. What was said of the British Union Jack at the height of British imperialism that the sun never sets on it may also be said of the company emblem. It is a venerable and respected institution whose base of business were essential fast moving consumer goods, although its businesses at the time of my employ had extended itself to services and industrial products as a result of business integration. But even at that time the company was beginning to divest itself of non-core business as monopoly was becoming a bad word and a high awareness of anti-trust was rife. In the early days it was rumored that they were also in the slave trade as a corollary and a necessary adjunct to the vast plantations they owned not only in the colonies but even in the Old World. It was just a rumor and not a validated fact.

What could have been a carryover of the British colonial practice was the presence of a coffee boy in the office. This peculiarity may not be ascribed solely to the British but to the other European imperialists such as the Dutch, the Spaniards and perhaps other nationalities who at one time had a colony in the East. One could chance upon old daguerreotypes, wood block prints and sepia photographs of boys in servitude to their colonial masters. There would be a young Malay with a salver of tea, fanning their masters with an “anahaw”, helping remove the boots of a bemoustached gentleman who affected a genteel pose of patting his boy on the head as one would a puppy. Other depictions would be of young Chinese boys complete with topknots in similar servile postures serving tea and crumpets to foggy old gentlemen of the colonial dispensation.

Mang Diego was one such coffee boy who served coffee to the managers and the directors in the Marketing Department. After the second world war and much more so in the sixties he would be considered an anachronism. A throwback from the glory days of the colonials. I wouldn’t really describe him as a boy since at the time that I got into the company he was already an old man with a slight limp and was just a few years towards retirement. His uniform was white pants and a white starched short sleeved shirt which may have been a permapress as it seemed to maintain the same efficient neatness from morning til going away time.

He had a quiet dignity about him as he wended his way starting at the far end of the corridor where the directors were and with unhurried gait negotiated the long corridor going towards the cubicles of the managers. He had this well oiled trolley laden with coffee cups and saucers at the top part, On the shelves of the trolley were the cookie jars, two of them in fact, one containing lemon cookies and the other chocolate ones. Beside the jars was a large thermos bottle and two small bottles one with sugar and the other the creamer. These were the tools of his trade which he plied for more than a decade in the corridors of the art deco office building. Coffee was served once in the morning and again by early afternoon.

There is nothing to like about Mang Diego. He gave no special favors to anyone neither did he ask one for himself. Everyday he pushes his trolley down the corridor stopping at rooms and bringing in steaming hot coffee in cups and always with a cookie. The kind of cookie he served was unchanging. If you started with chocolate cookies then you will get a chocolate cookie every day of your stay in the company. This seemed like a nonnegotiable aspect of the coffee service. He was unerring in his coffee mixtures to the individual preferences of those he served. I have never heard of any body complaining about his service. Coffee is coffee and it would not be a big deal if one day he put in one sugar cube less. So there he was, a constant fixture in the office doing his rounds like clockwork

Mang Diego could have been a supervisor in the warehouse were it not for the accident that he had. Heavy wooden palettes fell on him when a forklift accidentally knocked down a tall stack of palettes while swinging a load of detergent cases near the loading bay. He sustained several contusions and fractures and was hospitalized for a month. On his discharge from the hospital he was advised by the personnel manager that he may not be able to function in his former role. He had a concussion as well as a mangled leg that gave him a permanent disability. The postion of coffee boy was offered and he accepted it. He didn’t feel grateful nor beholden to the company for having kept him despite his condition. It was his conviction that the company owed him rather than the other way around. He was serving the company when the accident happened. The wooden palettes that fell on him were company property and the forklift operator was an employee of the company. They are their extensions and it was only right for them to redress the harm done to him.

It worried him that he would be retiring in a few months having reached the mandatory retirement age of sixty five. All the years that he had worked he had never imagined a situation where he was not with the company. He was a widower at age fifty six and his two children, both boys are now married and living separate from him. Valuing his independence he refused his youngest son’s offer for him to stay with him when his wife died. That was nearly ten years ago and he survived his aloneness through all these years.

Money was the least of his concern since he would expect a big windfall upon his retirement. He had put in more than forty years of service. The company’s retirement benefit provides one and a half months salary times the number of years served. Thus he would have a multipier of sixty on his last monthly salary of his employment. This was the main sum but the accumulated sick leaves and the unavailed vacation leaves conversion to cash would add a few more to his final take. His monthly salary as coffee boy was not much because his job class is the lowest in the company. He had worked it out. With a borrowed calculator and with the help of the secretary in the Personnel Department he added up all that he would receive and this caused him a happy smile. Never in his life had he held such an amount and in a few months the money will be deposited in his payroll account.

Used to spending all that he earned he has never planned out anything in his life. By the end of each fifteen day interval the salary he received was almost always spent. He was regular in sending money to his children to help out in his grandchildren’s school expenses but as of last year his sons told him to stop sending because they have moved up in their respective careers .

Not being the neighborly type he was not able to establish a group of friends in the small eskinita that he lived for more than thirty years. Social interaction was confined to officemates and even this was limited since most of the office personnel were young marketing men. He associated with the the third party office maintenance crew and some of the secretaries but they where acquaintances, familiar people but not friends.

The problem of what to do in retirement was the source of his anxiety. One night he sat up in his small dining table and with paper and ballpen started to generate a list of the things that he can do once retired.

He wrote number one. Stayed a while at it, scratched his head with the ballpen and looked around as if in search of inspiration. He scribbled “buy a car” but quickly scratched it out realizing that he didn’t drive.
A trip to Antique to visit relatives…but he can’t recall any relative’s name who might still be alive. He didn’t scratch it out and let it stay and proceeded to writing number two.
Give a party to his associates in the office, his children’s family and other relatives in the city. That was okay but that would only be for a day. He let number two stay.
Number three…buy a small lot in Laguna and build a small house where he can raise chikens, pigs and grow a vegetable patch.. That is a great idea. He thought of uprooting himself from the small living space he had in the eskinita in Sampaloc, sell the rights for the place and add the proceeds to his stash.
Number four was getting a bit fancier, a trip to HongKong would be nice… he has often heard the young men in the office talk of the wonders of travel and he thought that maybe just once before he is unshackled from his mortal coils experience exotic delights.

The night wore on and he was still at it. He had listed all sorts of things that he may want to buy or do, a new watch, fighting cocks in Laguna, bicycles for his grandsons, dolls and doll houses for the granddaughters, a colored television, a betamax and many more. Midway into the night he listed number forty six, investing in a sari-sari store…that was good thinking…he would probably get preferential rates from the company. Another item added as number seventy four was bankrolling a business that was proposed by his son about two years ago which had to do with recycling used tires. He also put on note, number seventy seven to provide for the schooling of his grandchildren. The list was going beyond eighty. He marveled at the number of things that he imagined he could do. His mind was as lively as that of a new graduate faced with mind boggling possibilities for the future.

He was surprised at his stamina. Not even for a moment did he feel tired or sleepy. His adrenalin was pumping. At the entry of a new item in the wish list his heart would throb in excitement. The remarkable thing about it was he seemed to have lived each wish as they were written down. At daybreak he had filled in three pages of ruled yellow pad. By then exhaustion crept up on him. All the excitement and the agitation was too much for the frail body of a sixty five year old. Living and experiencing a lifetime of one’s dreams and wishes in just a night was delightful but taxing. He had a smile of satisfaction on his face when he stood up from his chair and hobbled towards his bed to rest his tired body.

Mang Diego did not report for work that day. Normally he would call in sick to inform personnel of his indisposition but no such call was made. When he did not report for work on the second day, again without informing personnel, the department supervisor decided to call his son whose number was listed in their records as the one to call in cases of emergency.

Towards the afternoon the son called to inform the office that Mang
Diego was found dead in his bed. According to the coroner the time of death was placed as mid morning the day before.

His sons saw the yellow ruled pad papers on the dining table containing the list of all that he wished to buy and do once he gets his money. It was a rather long list. It must have been an overwhelming experience to write down all that one desired and all that one wished knowing that all these are now within the realm of possibility and may soon be realized.

Both sons took turns reading the list. They couldn’t help but suffuse a tear as they read the items in the list of what their father wanted to do for them. The list was a testament of love which was not openly expressed during his lifetime. The list included fantasy-like wishes together with the mndane ones. What caught their attention was what looked like the last entry which was written in strong block letters with exclamation points. It was as if, at last, he found what he really wanted to do.

It read “Kapihan Ni Mang Diego!!!” This was framed to represent a signage and beside it some rough sketches of people drinking coffee on tables. A trolley was added beside the tables.

He was truly the quintissential Coffee Boy prefering to serve coffee to the last drop

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