(Above, prewar Philippines Free Press editorial cartoon)
Today is Blog Action Day, with the theme of Poverty.
I am republishing an article I wrote in two parts, the first when I was still in college, the second, a decade later upon rediscovering what I’d written a decade earlier…
Apology not accepted
YOU were standing by the jeepney stop in front of the Faculty Center. How you got there, I don’t know. It was early afternoon.
The weather was pleasant. I was in one of my endless sophomore years. You had on one of those simple dresses of 1940s cut, which the modest of means never gave up wearing long after the originals which had arrived during Liberation had out served their usefulness. I think your dress was a pale yellow; I know it was scrupulously clean, and I wondered whether you used Superwheel or Tide, or Perla and starch.
Funny. It was a pleasant afternoon but you had one of those little collapsible umbrellas, the most inexpensive kind, made of the thinnest nylon the manufacturers could inflict on their consumers.
A slight breeze lifted a wisp of your white hair, which you patted back in place. You had a half-smile -did I imagine the twinkle in your eyes, perhaps? You looked like a woman with a sunny disposition. Perhaps it was just the softening effects of age.
When you were young, your family and friends probably told you that they found you pretty, because of your fair complexion. Did you marry? Were you courted, in school? And what did you do over the years, I wonder. What sort of jobs did you hold?
Students hurried past you; occasionally particularly indiscreet passers-by stared at you, but you just stood there, looking around. You must have been used to being stared at, because of your skin. I have never managed to find out what your skin disease is called -if can be properly called a disease; maybe medicine has a more exact term for what you had. I’ve seen pictures of people -all elderly, if I recall correctly- with the same affliction. Little globules (of what? solid flesh? skin with something underneath?) covering every inch of the body.
Globules in the shape of lumps, others in the shape of small nuts which seem to have sprouted on the skin, ready to fall off. Growths whose composition I have always wondered about -growths which reduced you to a mass of protrusions and made you a sight for the idle to gawk at.
Disconcerting, how your affliction managed to shock without provoking disgust. Or maybe i’m wrong. In remembering the day I saw you I might be retroactively censoring my real feelings. Yes, I was disturbed. How can you live with such a disease, with such disfigurement, made all the more startling because no one can fathom its origin. You have no scars. You’re missing no limbs, you have nothing that can be attributed to the effects of a birth defect or some tragic experience. Although of course having your body covered in strange lumps and bumps must constitute a tragic experience in itself.
From the little I know -mainly from the testimony of an old man in a news article I clipped and since lost- you were not born “that way” (what a phrase!). What provoked the growths? The depredations of age gone more completely awry than usual?
Then you went up to me.
“Can you spare some money,” you asked, gently.
Flustered, I said no.
You smiled. And said. “I’m sorry.”
I said, “it’s ok.” And then I walked away.
The feeling one has when one’s soul wants to vomit: why did you say sorry to me? You should have said, “apology not accepted”.
YUKIO Mishima once wrote, “I came out on the stage to make an audience weep and instead they burst out laughing”.
Since you apologized over my apology, I have encountered many who remind me of you, though none exactly like you. Just the other week, and what has it been -a decade?- since we briefly met, I saw a man with no legs, sitting on the sidewalk by the wall of Camp Crame leading to the LRT, holding a plastic cup.
He was looking up at another man, dressed neatly in a kind of dutifully-washed-and mended polo shirt. The man was engaging him in conversation. Was the man a writer, perhaps, or simply someone on his way to work, engaging the man with no legs in conversation?
People rushed past. They gave the two troubled looks. What is more disturbing: to see a man with no legs begging on the pavement, or a countryman pausing to converse with him, man to man?
I saw that scene only briefly. We only see such scenes briefly, if at all. Just the other day, there was the scene, awful, and heart-breaking if only we weren’t so used to it. The parade, my writer’s mind tells me to call it, of the dispossessed. In front of St. Paul’s College, Quezon City, there is, day in and out, a man in his early fifties, piteously deformed; almost, it seems, a Thalidomide baby condemned to advanced years. He has become such a fixture that surely every person passing him by day to day has come to memorize his every twitch, his slack-jawed fatalism. On some days, a sign hands around his neck. Over the holidays it said, “Merry Christmas, God Bless you.” I gave him coins once. He tried to say thank you. Part of me was glad he was incapable of mouthing the words.
But of that parade, and they come in every shape, age, sex, and size -there is the blind old lady, with white hair, clothes of charitable origin, whose gaping eye sockets mercifully cannot see what her seeing-eye guide, probably a granddaughter, sees minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. The knock; the look of muted pleading; the counter-knock from the impatient, saying, “your petition is dismissed”; the shuffle on to the next vehicle.
Yesterday there was a man. He was missing a hand. He did the ritualized shuffle, too. Knock, plead, suffer rejection, shuffle on to the next, repeat. Around him and ahead of him swarmed children doing the same thing. One child was particularly passive; she knocked on one window, was rejected, sat on the sidewalk and sulked. Some others made it a game. One little girl got no coins, though a motorist handed her some crackers. She smiled the smile of a Pacquiao.
That man, though. One motorist was particularly curt. The man reacted with a look of rage. I have seen that look of rage more often now, than ever before. I never used to see it. He was not even given an apology. But as for his condition, he could at least express his hate.
circa 1994 and 2004. It is 2008, and they are still there, in front of St. Paul’s.