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Seasoned authors like to grouse about the perils of book tours: the drudgery of delayed flights, the fear their books won’t arrive in time to sell at the event, the indignity of reading to a three-person audience.
No one warns you about the killer escalators.
When National Book Store offered to fly me to Manila in July 2013 for a month-long book tour to publicize my novel The Mango Bride (Penguin 2013), it was like hitting the writer’s jackpot. Twenty years ago, I traded a promising career as an author and creative writing instructor in Manila for marriage and migration to the United States. Life in California was good, but I struggled to keep writing while working through a series of underpaid day jobs. The invitation to return, debut novel in hand, would be a definitive homecoming-queen moment.
I was determined to look the part. I prepared for the trip like a gladiator training for opening night at the coliseum: I lost 15 pounds to make up for the 15 you gain in photos, rehearsed and calendared outfits for each of the 25 scheduled book events, tucked a Tide stain-erasing pen next to the autographing pen in my satchel. Sure, this prep work bordered on obsessive, but by the time I stepped off the plane into the steamy Manila summer, I was ready for every mishap imaginable, from typhoons to coffee stains.
All that advance planning proved useless when the escalator tried to eat my dress.
It happened on the fourth morning. The first three days had disappeared into a blur of interviews, photo sessions and book events, but my hosts left Sunday free so that I could rest up before the next three weeks of campus lectures. I seized the chance to spend the day shopping with my cousin Cecile at a large department store close to the hotel. At mid-morning, shoppers that normally thronged the malls were still at Sunday mass.
We browsed our way up through three floors of clothes, shoes and accessories, and when we had seen enough, we made our way down with our purchases. Flushed with post-shopping bliss, I stepped onto the third floor escalator, feeling very SoCal chic in platform mules and a long gray tube dress I’d bought in Venice Beach. As the escalator slowly descended to the second floor, I leaned a forearm on the rubber handrail and chatted with Cecile.
At first, I ignored the gentle drag on my dress. Manila air-conditioners are often turned up to blizzard strength to combat the outdoor heat, and I assumed it was merely fluttering in an artificial breeze. But then the right side of my dress actually began to slide off, threatening to expose my bra. I looked down and realized my hem had snagged on the metal tread.
“Crap. My skirt’s tangled in the escalator,” I rolled my eyes at Cecile. “I need to be careful about pulling on it. Don’t want to tear this new dress.”
This is just a glitch, I thought. We’ll laugh about it later.
I pulled harder, but I couldn’t get loose. Worse, the metal treads seemed to be drawing even more fabric inside and under the step as we descended. The escalator was winning.
Halfway way down to the second floor, my options became clear: stand naked or squat clothed. I dropped to my knees, clutching the top of my dress. I was grateful that the store was relatively empty.
We can still fix this. No need to make a scene.
I remembered that escalators in American malls had stop/start buttons by their base.
“Cecile, look for the switch down there and turn this thing off.” I kept my voice low, trying to stay calm. No one had to know the escalator was eating my clothes.
Cecile ran ahead to the second floor and poked around the base. “I can’t find the switch.”
The escalator carried me to the landing and I crouched there, one hand clamping the tube top securely against my bra, the other holding my skirt up to prevent the descending steps from dragging more fabric under the comb plate. Two salesgirls by the rack of dresses a few yards away stopped chatting to watch us but made no move to help.
I glanced over my shoulder. Other shoppers had stepped onto the escalator but were too busy texting to notice I was directly in their path. I would be undressed and trampled at the mall.
Clearly I was about to die. Of embarrassment.
At that point I abandoned all decorum. "Hoy! Wag na kayong mag-te-text, sasagasaan mo ako!" I hollered in Tagalog. “Hey, stop texting, you’re going to run into me!”
Most were too startled to do more than do a quick hop-step around me. One man looked up from his phone and swiveled in time to avoid kneeing me in the back.
“Do you need help?” He stood over me, cell phone at the ready.
“Find someone to turn off this escalator. It’s eating my dress!”
My cousin Cecile badgered the salesgirls to call for help. Someone yelled at shoppers on the third floor to stay off the escalator. A small crowd formed a half-circle around me, making sympathetic sounds. I tried to sit up straight without baring my boob.
Thank you for not turning this into an Instagram moment.
Finally the technician arrived. He stuck a key into the control panel by the base of the escalator and switched it off. Another twist and the escalator reversed direction.
The metal teeth spat out the dress hem, stretched out of shape, black with engine grease and loose with a hole the size of a baby’s head.
Thank God for platforms. That could have been my foot.
If this had happened in an American mall, I probably would have asked to speak to a supervisor, requested compensation for my dress, and filled out an accident report. But unless death or dismemberment transpires, people in Manila don’t usually complain to management. Raising a stink over a ruined hemline would have been more trouble than it was worth.
A year later, my Google search for “escalator injuries” pulled up 457,000 articles. Grisly accounts with matching photos of fingers, toes or feet sheared off by the escalator’s voracious maw. A YouTube montage of people tumbling down escalators like so many limbed potatoes. The woman in Montreal strangled to death after her hijab and hair had caught in an escalator. All things considered, I’d gotten off easy.
These days, I’ll get on an escalator only if I’m wearing jeans. I stand dead center of the step, and keep a wary eye on the treacherous comb plate as we approach it. I don’t mind being mildly escalaphobic (that’s the medical term). The bottom line is, I like my toes too much to lose them at the mall.