COMMENTARY| When Guilt is Good

Say it’s raining, but just a bit.

Say there’s just the right amount of rain, spattering windshields of cars trying to fit into the crush of the four-hour long traffic jam of private cars and public transport.

Beyond the usual agenda of getting home, or grabbing dinner, maybe there’s the extra tinge of panic to get to the last of the Christmas sales.

There are extra people squeezing in between the cars; mostly pedestrians (coincidentally jaywalkers) who have given up on the slower-going, brave carolers asking for donations for some charity or other, and the ever-present street kid hawking lanterns or walis tingting, traversing the streets with renewed vigor, sniffing after looser wallets and seasonally-generous fingers.

I have money in my pockets, but not a lot of loose change. What I do have is paper money that would do them a lot more than it would do me; I’m just a kid home from college, just back for Christmas break – when the parents are mostly grateful and a great deal more forgiving. Right now my responsibilities amount to getting home before anyone else does, eating what’s on the table and not spending too much of the money I didn’t personally earn.

Meanwhile, some of these kids have never even known the insides of the cars they tail and hound, and yet here we all are, avoiding being hit by the same cars and people.

I pass an old woman as I climb down the overpass. Her long gray hair straggles free down her back; she’s motionless, but breathing, bundled in layers and layers of clothing so old and worn one can’t avoid describing them as rags.

She’s sitting alone, her arms wrapped around herself, (though raining, it isn’t necessarily cold) vacant eyes staring off into space or just nothing.

For a brief moment I consider touching her. Maybe touch will break the spell.

Maybe she’s not a person, maybe she’s a fairy in disguise, a little bit lost; a diwata with dangerous tricks up her sleeve. Maybe she’s visiting grandmother, aware of exactly where to head, but the rain is proving to be a problem.

Maybe, most likely, she’s just an old lady, alone and hot and probably hungry, stuck in a public place and yet largely ignored.

However, the mind leaps bounds in the blink of an eye, and I don’t stay to linger. I never even stopped. There’s a surplus of people in front and behind me who gave (or rather, didn’t) just as much.

Not far from where the overpass meets land again is a market, in front of which is my stop as I wait for a jeepney to take me home. It takes a while before the right one comes by, and when one does, it’s full and already speeding away.

I find that my gaze keeps coming back to the fruit stalls at the market forefront. I scan their wares, seeing wrapped watermelons, overripe mangoes, oranges, avocados – I eliminate them all, pesky seeds, too-hard rinds. The only bananas in sight are of the native stock: thick, coarse, and often boiled before eaten. I know where to get the yellow ones, which mildly sweet and easy to peel, but I have to squeeze past stalls with fish that have lain around all day or pushy vendors desperate to get rid of their wares. Asthma, allergies, a sensitive nose, and parents with jobs to pay someone else to go in my stead stood between me and my mission. I’m not yet sure how I find myself raising my voice to a vendor who’s rolling her eyes and seemingly intent to ignore me, or how I walk away with the last bunch of blessedly yellow bananas that I know from experience might brown on the outside but stay edible for a long while.

I’m back. This time, there’s no line of pushy people behind me, or even in front of me to pretend to follow. I stand squarely in front of the old lady, and she doesn’t even notice me. Is she blind? Is she deaf? Is she crazy? Should I just leave the plastic bag and hope she doesn’t think it’s a bomb?

I touch her shoulder, placing the bag by her feet.

”’Nang, saging po. Baka gutom kayo.”

She comes alive.

Her eyes are alert, and she’s half pushing the bag away, half drawing it in, protesting. “Wala na maiwan sa’yo!”

But it’s too late, I’m pulling away, and bidding her a late Merry Christmas, and she barely gets to thank me as I’ve left the overpass and am moving even farther than the loading area.

I can’t even turn to see if she follows me, though that’s an irrational thought. Tears threaten and my chest heaves, not from disdain or revulsion, but self-directed disgust and unbridled self-loathing. It wasn’t an act of charity, or a justification for the meaning of Christmas. It was condescending pity married to filthy guilt and not my conscience that got my feet to move.

In this case, the end justifies the means.

Posted in Opinion