this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on May 1, 2001.

Commuting around Metro Manila is tough, even when you’re young. But I guess there are some benefits. I get a lot of exercise, since I go to many parts of the city on foot. And better yet, I get an education of sorts. I learn about all kinds of people.

It’s inevitable that I stumble upon a lot of curious characters, especially the ubiquitous vagrants. I was once shouted at by an insane man as I picked my way through a wet market.

Most of my encounters were quite tame, though. There was this man whom I used to see under the LRT line along Taft Avenue a couple of years ago. His hair was long and shaggy. He had a thick moustache but not much of a beard and he always wore the same yellow shirt, which was filthy, of course, like the rest of him. I probably wouldn’t have taken an interest in him if I didn’t see him at one time mending a pair of shorts. I couldn’t help but wonder where he got the needle and thread.

Another time, I saw him writing on a battered primary school pad, the kind with red and blue lines, using a well-bitten pencil. The next day I saw him again, bending over the pad obviously in deep concentration.

I have often wondered about him. Were I not a cautious person, I would have tried to speak to him, to ask him the questions that were always on my mind: how did he live? I had never seen him begging or trying to peddle anything. Was he literate? What was he writing, or was he simply trying to learn to write? And why was he on Taft?

He could have been a tragic starving artist, or someone who was determined to better his condition, no matter how hopeless it seemed. All I knew was that there was a certain dignity about him, which was uncommon among vagrants. Although he had nothing, he was concerned with things other than survival. At any rate, I don’t remember seeing him lately.

Another peculiar fellow was the one I used to see every time I visited my aunt’s house near Banawe Street in Quezon City. His hair was white and he always had a smile on his face. He walked around waving a hat. The hat was replaced periodically by a newer-looking one. I could imagine him buying a new hat every time he got enough money.

Now I don’t see him there anymore. Perhaps he has collected enough money for what endeavor he was saving.

Another vagrant who caught my attention was a woman, who was heavy with child and carrying a toddler. She used to walk around the Cultural Center of the Philippines. I was struck by how desperate she seemed at first, but while waiting to cross the street, she played with her little one and they were both smiling.

While I’d advise people like her to practice birth control, it touched me in a way I can’t explain. I would have given her the few pesos she was begging for, but I had run out of change.

This reminds me of another encounter with a pregnant woman. This time she wasn’t walking on the streets. I was on an FX stuck in traffic along E. Rodriguez Avenue when a heavily pregnant woman got on board. Everyone looked at her with concern. We could see the contractions of her stomach.

The driver was at first annoyed, especially when she asked what was the stop nearest the Pasig Hospital. The FX was going to Cubao. “Take a taxi,” he told, handing back the P10 she had paid for her fare.

She showed us all the money she had–Quezon City Hospital had asked her to come up with P300 before they attended to her. She didn’t have enough so she was going to the hospital in Pasig since she had relatives who could take care of her there. She had no one else to turn to, she said, because her husband died only two weeks earlier, leaving her to take care of their two children, 5 and 2 years old, as well as the imminent arrival.

Everyone got involved in her dilemma. The woman beside me explained how she could get to Pasig. I offered to take her in a cab once we got to Edsa since I was on my way to Ortigas anyway. Then a man seated on the back seat handed her P200 and told her to get a taxi. I took out my last P100 bill, leaving just enough money for me to get to Ortigas, and suggested she go back to the hospital in Quezon City.

She thanked everyone profusely, carefully got out of the FX, and crossed the street unsteadily. The last I saw of her, she was waiting for a jeepney that would take her in the opposite direction.

Understand that I don’t just help any waif or vagrant who approaches me-only the ones who have stories so amazing that I don’t think they can make them up. A lot of people approach me to ask for money, although I’m far from looking like I am wealthy.

Recently, I stumbled upon two women on the sidewalk who didn’t look like beggars. There they were, sitting on newspapers on the sidewalk close to Megamall, begging passersby to give them 50 centavos. Almost everyone ignored them, but my curiosity got the better of me. I asked them directly, “What for?” Though somewhat shabby, they were clearly not homeless. The older woman’s white hair was well-kept, her toenails were manicured and she wore a couple of rings-not expensive, to be sure, but if they were that poor, why would she have any jewelry at all? The younger woman wore lipstick, and I wondered if they might be hookers, but no, of course not. They were asking for so little money-just 50 centavos from everyone.

They told me their story. They had taken care of the father of a friend of theirs who was working as a maid in Valle Verde. The man died and they shouldered all the expenses of the funeral as well as his hospital bills. Their friend never sent anything, and now they were looking for her so that they could do some reimbursement for their expenses. The problem was that they didn’t have the address or the telephone number of the place where she was working. The subdivision guards were sympathetic but could do nothing to help them. Now, they had spent all their money-and all for nothing. Could I give them 50 centavos? They already had P6.75. They were tired and wanted to go back home to Bulacan.

I took P50 pesos from my wallet and gave it to them. I have been caught in similar situations, but my ATM, credit card, friends and relatives all over the city have always bailed me out. I watched as they went to the bus stop and took the bus out of there.

I wonder about these people I’ve helped-not whether their stories were true, but how they’re doing. I’m a cautious person, as I said, and I never give my name, address or even phone number to strangers. But I’ll always be curious about the people I see on the street, and I don’t mind if some of them ask me for something once in a while. I am grateful that it’s them and not me, and that they ask instead of just taking what they need.

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