Sidewalk Sleeper

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Freezing… rests his head in a pillow made of concrete, again
Oh, feeling… maybe he’ll see a little better set of days
Oh, hand out…. faces that he sees time and again, ain’t that familiar
Oh, girlfriend… he can’t have when he’s happy, he looks insane.

– Pearl Jam, “Even Flow”
Ten, Epic Records (1992)

It wasn’t depressing; it’s still one of those normal sights whenever I go back to my apartment late at night.  She sleeps there, along with her very few possessions and the pile of junk she has collected from the afternoon.  Perhaps she’s made of sterner, sturdier stuff than most of us do; very few of us ever had to have to sleep on a pile of cardboard boxes and plastic sheets.  Amidst the noise of tricycles and jeepneys still plying their routes in the wee hours of the morning, she sleeps, gathering what energy she can when the Sun rises.

She’s the kind of person, I guess, who would take both the high road and the low road at the same time.  She would be picking up recyclables like cans and plastic from trash bins and gutters and garbage piles, but she probably would be the kind who would tug at your sleeve at the Andok’s outlet just by the corner.

I can only speak so much – or write so much – about her experiences, and perhaps the woman has it better than the rest of the homeless in the Philippines, much less the world.  It may be possible to think of so many situations and reasons – and yes, even excuses – why it is but right that they’re there sleeping on cardboard boxes, and why we’re here sleeping on proper beds.  Sometimes, it’s more convenient to settle for injustice and unfairness because justice and fairness are ideals so difficult to believe in, and are so difficult to attain.  That something like a person’s right to shelter is given up in the name of compromises and, of course, excuses.

I think the reason why some of us can be so disparaging – if not apathetic – of the plight of the homeless is that none of us ever have to live their lives.  None of us have to sleep on cardboard boxes, none of us have to scrounge junk for a living, and none of us have to go through the suspicions of people who think that poverty is just life as you make it.

Jorge Luis Borges writes that people should treat whatever happens to them as a resource; even the most negative of things, like disappointment or humiliation or defeat, are like clay that we can use to shape our art.  I’m not obsessed or preoccupied by poverty; rather, I am distracted by it. Poverty is the white elephant in the room that none of us want to talk about: either people have talked about it at length before, or people don’t want to hear about it.

For some people, though, there is no white elephant, and there is no room.  There’s just that sidewalk with a pillow made of concrete.

* – Photo taken at Guadalupe Nuevo, Makati City; April 11, 2009, 1:32 AM.  I’m a bad photographer, sorry.

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