Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Monarch of Mabini Street

It’s true that he never remembers my name. I can hardly blame him; what purpose could there be in memorizing the name of a occasional foreign visitor who never gives him money or food? Still I give him a hard time about it, because I always remember his, and I like to pretend that my friendship means more than a few pesos or calories.

JR is a “so young,” one of those kids whose age should reflect a life of long schooldays, free weekends and jackstones. So young to be down and out. And sometimes he’s a "too young,” as if there is an age requirement for panhandling. Maybe at twenty he can settle respectably into a begging life, but for now JR is just too young for this.

But I’ve seen younger. There are hunchbacks in Iloilo who can’t be older than five, and they’re out plying the streets on a daily basis, turning their infirmity into food if they’re lucky. Nicole is maybe eight and not a hunchback, but she already speaks in a low, inflectionless croak which never fails to disturb me, because I can’t imagine the trauma that would cause a child to sound so counter to her sweet-tongued fellows. Though I still see her around Iloilo on occasion, she doesn’t recognize me anymore. The memories of the food bestowed and impromptu English lessons conducted have faded, and rightfully so. They weren’t that important to a kid whose life revolves around begging.

And of course there are the grimy, rash-ridden infants swaddled in dirty cloths and held up by mothers to ferry passengers as proof of their destitution as well as their priorities – help my baby, not me. The babies are too youngs, but really they’re not, because it’s their newly minted status that makes them valuable. Makes them marketable.

Unlike them, JR roams his street independently, except when his kid sister is in tow. I can’t remember her name. Manila has hundreds of thousands of street kids, and it’s easy to let them fade into the scenery, allow their dirt-smeared faces to morph into nothing more than an extension of the blighted urban landscape. I’ve asked her name, certainly, several times, and right now I’ve got that itch in the back of my head that means a bit of information is just out of my memory’s reach. It’ll have to stay there. I don’t remember.

Not that JR himself is particularly memorable. He never does anything interesting. I high-five him as I pass along Mabini Street on my way to the Malate Robinson’s Mall. Sometimes he doesn’t bother asking me for money. I prefer that because I don’t like turning him down, and I always turn him down. I tell myself that I’ll buy him food someday, but I’m always hurrying somewhere or etc., etc. Excuses are easy.

Once he wasn’t just begging. He saw me walking from the north and quickly displayed his little box of gum: today he was a salesman. I wondered where he got the gum. Maybe he has a parent who roams a separate street and scraped together enough pesos to try a new tactic with his or her son. Perhaps this block of Mabini Street was once the domain of JR’s mother or father, and the few squares of cracked concrete are his royal inheritance.

But I don’t believe it. I can’t envision a parent, much less two, for JR and his sister, or a home in which they can take shelter from night chills and typhoons. Especially on this one day, the day with the gum, when he looked and acted every bit the self-made man. The proud entrepreneur. I like to believe that I saw a glint in his eye that day which said I’ve got it all figured out. At twelve years old, or ten, or whatever. I want to think he’ll always be all right, this old man of Manila, whether or not he’s got a family and a home. Because he’s a smart kid and streetwise.

That looks ridiculous even as I write it. I didn’t buy any gum.

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