It was raining hard a couple of days ago, when I had to get a package my mom delivered via waybill at the Victory Liner terminal in Cubao. I was late going into Philcoa, where the jeepneys bound for UP Diliman were about to ferry its last passengers for the night. The paper gift bag contained new socks, the official one-of-a-kind t-shirt for The Marocharim Experiment, and two big apples. I suppose my mom bought those apples for better reasons than to make the delivery worth its weight.
Philcoa is a most depressing place for me, because of all the street children who roam around Citimall selling sampaguita, or begging for loose change or a bite to eat. I guess it’s never a feeling I’ll get used to, knowing that a jeepney ride away, you’ll see spoiled brats at SM walking around with big robots or giant stuffed dolls. Or that another jeepney ride the other way round will take you to a University where problems like these are addressed on a daily basis. I kind of lingered about, wondering if there’s any sense in selling sampaguita strands at 10:30 in the evening, and when it’s raining a bit too hard for children to wander about.
Two little girls were selling – or at least attempted to sell – the sampaguita at the doors of McDonald’s. I don’t know if they were there to sell the flowers, or if they were there to take a whiff of French fries and burgers. I figured that I’d rather give them the apples; I don’t eat fruit anyway. Besides, maybe giving these two kids the apples may lift up my spirits and stop my irrational depression over the normal, no-surprises poverty of the Philippines. Besides, if I do want to buy fruit, I can afford it even with my measly salary.
Then I saw faint smiles and tears in the girls’ eyes, and I ended up even more depressed.
* * *
Poverty (or child labor, for that matter) is never something solved with a couple of apples. You can give the poor children of this country all the apples they can possibly want in life, and they’ll still be poor. There will always be that call for a more comprehensive, systemic solution to poverty, but we have to realize that the poor will always be there. The poor need our help. Charity is not a virtue; rather, it is a need.
Charity is often lost in our lives these days, where a premium is placed on hard work and being industrious. Yet it is not without an in-your-face reality that some of us are blind to. The irony – no, the sarcasm – of it is that you’ll never find a harder worker than a kid who sells flowers in the middle of the night, where there’s no need for them because the churches are closed. The paradox – no, the oxymoron – of it is that while we think hard work will have its just and fair rewards, the hardest workers among us end up working for chump change. The doubt – no, the hypocrisy – in it is that those who rant and rave about “work ethic” are those who don’t have jobs to begin with. The sad thing – no, the disgusting thing – about it is that those who speak a lot about “charity” are often those who can give the most, but give the least.
Yet giving two apples to two children will never solve anything. I’m just one guy. I know I’m more than capable of giving two kids two apples, but that’s all I could do for the day. Apple-giving is not my responsibility: The State is tasked with caring for and looking after the health and well-being of everyone, not the least of which the children of its taxpayers. Yet no one will take responsibility for it: not their parents, not their teachers, not those who treat them as invisible nuisances on the way out of a fast-food joint. No one cares anymore; no one will find the oddity, the absurdity, and the injustice of sampaguita-vending and apple-giving in a stormy evening at a strip mall. It’s always about the big things, the “macro-perspective,” The System.
* * *
Then again, maybe I’m depressing myself too much. Maybe I’m allowing myself to be so affected by something that has nothing to do with me, and I have nothing to do with. It never makes me feel any better anyway, knowing that I may very well be condemned to the depression and pity that come with makeshift homes, with street children, and with the unsolvable problems of a nation. Maybe we’re all better off just ranting about what should be done, when in fact there’s little that can be done, and little that is done.
The next day I told my mom I was able to pick up the package, but I had to make up a little lie that I did taste the imported apples. The truth was, I gave the apples whole. I wonder what those apples tasted like, but I can console myself that two kids who never had apples before had one big apple each… and a few small strands of sampaguita are freshening up my room.