20 January 2013


He was sitting with a little girl at a table next to mine inside Chowking. He wore a crumpled army cap, a provincially (as opposed to metrosexually) tight grey t-shirt, a pair of ripped jeans. I assumed that he, too, was waiting for the orange chicken lauriat. The day had slowed down in the hours after lunch and so, it seemed, had the service. But when finally my food came his didn’t. He hadn’t ordered anything.

His name is Joel. He is from Lucena, Quezon, a provincial city southeast of Manila and north of Tayabas Bay. Early in the morning he, along with the little girl, his daughter, took a Philippine Rabbit bus to see the big city and visit the Children’s Museum. On their way to the museum Joel realized that his wallet was missing. It had been stolen. By whom he did not know; he did not even feel anything when it happened. He was thus left with no cash. The two hundred dollars that he, a repatriate, had brought for exchange were gone, too. He had to call the bank to cancel his credit card. But how was he going to make his way back home? The bus conductors refused to give him a ticket in exchange for a promise. The cops to whom he reported the theft could not do anything apart from write an entry on the blotter, because what more could be done? This is life. People’s wallets get stolen all the time—especially in this part of the city, on these streets, which can be dangerous, harsh, and unkind, preying on those who look clueless, who do not look and act and sound like Manileños. 

I am a Manileño. When Joel told me his story it was not my first time hearing of such a thing. I had never fallen for it. There are different versions. Sometimes it’s a mother who has to pay a deposit to the Philippine General Hospital so that her sick son or daughter can be admitted. Sometimes it’s a public school student at the bus station who has simply run out of money for the fare. Sometimes it’s an impossibly attractive young woman who is supposed to have fled her abusive husband. (She isn’t fooling me.) The story invariably closes with a plea for help, then with me turning deaf and walking away.

Joel’s daughter has asthma. While her father and I talked she slept with her head rested on the table, next to his yellow-cased iPhone, her shiny Captain America action figure, and the pink, patterned JanSport backpack that contained her nebulizer. I’m guessing she’s about eight or nine. She had been looking forward to visiting the museum, he said, but now, after some hours of despair, neither of them had the energy to even do anything, apart of course from wait for the in-laws in Lucena to call and confirm if anyone was coming to pick them up.

A part of me believed nothing that Joel said. It’s the part called common sense. But another part reached for my wallet and gave the money that common sense was too pained to give, and which Joel had not asked for. I hope this helps, I said, handing the peso bills out discreetly, under the table. It felt odd to do that; it felt almost illegal—a crime against reason. What was I thinking? Joel thanked me profusely—he was actually teary-eyed—while quietly I wrestled with the terrible thought that I may have been conned. 

But if I have been conned, so what? Isn’t it more okay, isn’t it healthier, to let your guard down at least once than to never let it down at all, ever? To know you have a heart, however foolish; to feel you’re alive; to learn in very sudden fashion that you can get struck no matter how thick and high the walls you have built to protect against it. Essentially, to be reset to default; to be unclouded by adult doubts and suspicions. Others can laugh. But the cost of a bus ticket to Lucena is a price I’m willing to pay for a temporary yet necessary disengagement from cynicism, from a deep Manileñan distrust of city men and women. When I got up to leave the restaurant, Joel told me that I was a decent man, and whether he was putting me on or not I took it that he meant ‘decent’ and not ‘stupid’. Let father and daughter make their way home.

Related: “Thieves in Our City

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