Monday, January 09, 2006

"We're Not Bad People."

He was about six inches shorter than me, his hair had considerably thinned, and his tiny eyeglasses did little to dispel the effect of his age. As the traffic moved around us, I noticed that he was wearing a blue shirt... although I could merely have been mistaken about the color. It was dark, after all.

"We're not bad people," he told me, and I realized that a little girl -- presumably his daughter -- was hugging him about the knees. A tall woman, close enough to look like his wife, hovered in the background. All three of them were watching me intently.

"You see, sir," he said, "we thought that you were a Chinese or a Japanese."

"No," I said, "I understand what you're saying."

He breathed what seemed to be a sigh of relief. They had been walking around since 4:30 in the afternoon, he explained, because they wanted to drop by the church across the street. The pastor there was a friend, he said. By the time they arrived, however, they found out that he had left work early, and so they decided to go home.

It was only when they reached the station, however, that they realized that they were out of money. "This is the first time it's happened," the old man said, "and we should have checked before we left. We went back to the church to ask the pastor's secretary for fare, but by the time we got there, she was already gone."

The little girl was still staring at me, as though I was some foreign ogre to be feared.

"So...?" I asked.

He told me that they lived somewhere in Bataan or something like that. In truth, I wasn't really listening. Chances were good that, in the encroaching evening of the business district, there would inevitably be one or two people who find themselves trapped by the lack of funds.

My mother used to tell me this story: Once, many years ago, there was this beggar who came to their front door to ask for money to buy food. My mother was only a young married woman then, and she felt sorry for the poor man. So she told him to wait there, and went back inside for her purse.

On the way back out, she ran into my father, who asked her what she was doing. "There's a beggar at the front door," she told him, "and he's asking for a little money so that he can buy food."

"Don't give him anything," my father said. "He's just going to take advantage of you."

But my mother ignored him then, and gave the beggar some money. And the man thanked her and went off.

The next day, the man appeared at the front door again. Once again, he asked for money to buy food, and once again, my mother went inside to get her purse.

This time, however, my father was waiting. "Why not," he ventured, "just give him some food to begin with? We have some bread left over." And my mother agreed that this was a good idea, and gave the beggar some pieces of bread from the kitchen. But when she returned, my father beckoned her to the nearest window, and said, "Watch carefully."

And as they both watched, they saw the beggar spill the bread onto the street, curse a couple of times, and walk away.

My mother never forgot that lesson, and neither shall I.

It was foremost on my mind when the old man finished his story. "All we need is a little money," he said, "just so that we can get home. We've been here since 4:30."

The woman behind him remained silent. The child at his feet remained silent. All three of them were still staring at me.

"How much do you need?" I asked.

"We only need 82 pesos," the man said. "We're not bad people. We just want to go home."

I didn't want to spend more than a few minutes thinking about my decision, so I pulled out my wallet and offered a rumpled 100-peso bill.

"Thank you," the man said, taking it from my hand. "Thank you," the woman said.

The child said nothing. She just walked back to her mother.

"Go home," I told them, and listened to the old man thank me one last time before we parted ways.

Ten minutes later, I'm now sitting in an internet cafe among the dozens of gamers, trying to decide what I learned on this ubiquitous day. I find myself wondering who they were, and where they are now.

Perhaps they're on a bus back to their home in Bataan or someplace like that. Perhaps they're simply having dinner somewhere. Perhaps the man is playing the Lotto with my one hundred pesos while his two companions wait patiently for him to finish.

I can't decide how I should feel. Maybe I should have ignored them and kept on walking, and maybe I should have given them a bit more than just one hundred pesos so that I could be sure that they could make it back to their place.

The chances are good that, on any given evening in the traditional business district of the Philippines, there would be at least one person unable to return home due to a sudden lack of funds. The chances are just as equally good that we've met some already, or that we'll be meeting some soon enough.

The man told me that they weren't bad people. I'm not sure as to whether that's true or not; I just gave him some money.

What do you do when someone stops you in the middle of the street and asks you for money so that he can get home? You have to assess the situation, of course. You have to figure out whether his story's believable or not.

Have we fallen to the point, then, where we must be suspicious of each other's intentions? Or, at the very least, suspicious of our own actions in this regard?

Are we bad people?

...

...

I don't know.

...

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I live in New York City, and I walk past various beggars like the one in the first part of your post every day. One day a beggar entered the subway car, requesting money for food while bursting in profanity. He walked into the next car quickly (he was still swearing), not noticing that several people were pulling out some money to give to him.

On second thought, I realize that there is little connection between the anecdote I just typed and your post. Sorry.

jeff-reiji said...

I remembered Batman's line, it's not about who we are, but what we do.

I strongly agree with him. We become suspicious of the people around us because we know there's a valid reason to be suspicious of. I mean, I've experienced that myself and I learned that that some people aren't really worth saving or pitying, the hard way.

I know this isn't really making sense at all.

If I were in your shoes, I would probably give at most, 20 bucks, Then tell the person 'hope this might help your way'.

Sean said...

Anonymous: I figure that there's more of a connection than most people think. Besides, I think it kind of tells us something. :)

Reiji: Nope, your inference felt much more to the point: If we're so suspicious of each other that our generosity gives way to pure instinct, then are we as bad as the people we avoid?

jeff-reiji said...

I don't think so. We're just making sure if the person we're helping is really worth helping. :)

kat said...

There was a lady before near our street asking for fare home so she can see her ailing son. But since I saw her the week before doing the same thing, I couldn't help but feel suspicious... or maybe she just wasn't able to pull enough funds for a trip home? I guess we can't help but be suspicious of people like these, because we hear about others who resort to these kind of "tactics" to get money. I can't help but think "if I don't help them, does that make me a bad person?"

Sean said...

Reiji: That, I think, is the usual rationalization. There could simply be a fine line between generosity and gullibility, in that case.

Kat: Funny thing, really. There's a spot near my house that always seems to be occupied by a family of three -- father, mother and son. They spend each morning and afternoon just sitting there and asking passers-by for money to help them get home to the provinces. The strange part, however, is that they've been doing it for over two years now...