Manila – I cried on the second week of the hard lockdown in mid-March last year. It was the first time I cried in public, on a roadside, facing a padlocked church and a sealed off street.
The tears came after I encountered two men who begged me to buy the green mangoes they were selling. They said they were construction workers paid on daily rates but were suddenly out of work due to the strict lockdown. From a market, they bought mangoes to re-sell. They had been walking, carrying the bags of mangoes.
They hadn’t eaten anything since the night before. They had sunken eyes and looked dirty. I bought a bag of about seven mangoes for 40 pesos. They wanted me to purchase more, so they could buy canned sardines for their families who had nothing to eat. But I told them I had heavy groceries to carry apart from the mangoes, and had to walk to my place because there were no means of transportation.
I gave them a few hundred pesos each, all I could offer. They looked embarrassed, but they accepted the money. There were a few people going to the supermarket and I wanted to ask them to extend help to the men, but I couldn’t. I headed home. I said I was sorry but assured them that people will buy their mangoes because the supermarket’s fruit and vegetable racks were empty.
But as I walked on, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t unsee the look in their eyes. I could have done something more. I choked up, bent down, my hands on my knees and sobbed. After a few minutes, I was jolted by the honk of a passing car. I could see the empty street as my eyes blurred with tears. There was no one else with me on the stretch of the roadside. I wanted to stop by the church, but it was closed, too. I took comfort in the embrace of the deserted street as I wept, walking.
More than a year in and out of various forms of quarantine but still on lockdown, my encounter with the two jobless men still haunts me to this day. The memory will stay with me for a long time. I remember them every time I buy from former salaried workers-turned-street vendors rolling carts of fruits and vegetables.
I remember them when I encounter people begging for money to buy food, some of them holding cardboard signs stating their need for daily food. I give whatever I have, apologizing that what I hand them is far less than what I wanted to give. I always feel happy when they thank me because I felt I’ve done something valuable.
I understand the assault that the absence of resources can cause on one’s dignity. I have experienced hitting rock bottom in the middle of my professional life. It was unbearable that I had to ask for help. It was devastating, undignified and left deep lesions on my psyche. But it proved that kindness can come from people who are struggling and who don’t even have much.
The two men who suddenly had nothing provided my first gaze at what the coronavirus pandemic has done to our lives. People who don’t live comfortably had to suffer even more. They belong to the huge body count of those of us who want to be saved— who wish things were going to be different and better someday. It’s turning out just fine, and I take comfort in the reality that we were able to salvage what was left of ourselves.
Diana G. Mendoza is a journalist based in Manila. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org