Monday, April 14, 2008

taong grasa

normally when i and kahlil see a taong grasa i would tell him not to stare. it isn't that i find them contemptible, but rather growing up in a mental hospital has somehow taught me not to make eye contact with someone who isn't in his or her right mind. assuming that the person could be hostile. i don't want to mess with someone who thinks he or she is being hounded by indescribable creatures. however, it's exceedingly judmental if i had to assume that a taong grasa is delusional. on the other hand, if the taong grasa has still managed to keep his sanity intact despite the kind of life he or she is compelled to live, to stare is impolite.

anyway, one night last week when i opened the gate to let our househelper in there was someone who had made herself/himself comfortably seated by our driveway. s/he perfectly fit the profile of a taong grasa. emaciated form, shabby hair, blackened greasy skin, tattered clothes on his/her back, with several distended rucksacks which i assumed contained all the trash amassed by foraging garbage cans. my immediate reaction was to hurry our househelp in and shut the gate, the taong grasa didn't even bother to look at me; s/he was looking at a faraway distance.

but then it was dark. the faint glimmer from the few stars in the sky could betray my assessment of who has decided that our driveway was a snug place to stay. then my not-so-young, sometimes indiscreet neighbor peeked at our window and and said in his usual roaring voice, "ate len, may loka-loka sa labas. doon na yata matutulog". to which i replied, "oo nga, nakakatakot no?" hearing it, my son, nephew, and niece by impulse dropped their joysticks and ran to the door to marvel at the sight of a taong grasa. i stopped them. somehow my neighbor's statement and mine plus the reactions of the children in the house struck the soft side of me. more than compassion, it was guilt i instantly felt for having judged someone as menacing. and as if i have been suddenly wakened from a deep slumber, i asked no one in particular if the taong grasa had already eaten.

our supper was still being cooked, i had to tell our helper to speed up the cooking so i could offer the unexpected visitor something to eat. in a few minutes the food was ready. i went out and opened the gate, the taong grasa was still there and turned to look at me. it was a woman.

taking a second look at her, it dawned on me then that she was not a taong grasa after all. her hair was shabby, her skin was black, her clothes were soiled. she looked tired and lost. her eyes seemed to tell me "can i stay here for a while?". she appeared to beg rather than apologize for being there. i asked if i could offer her food, "nakakain na po ako" she said. i asked if there was anything i could do for her, she declined to ask for anything except that she wanted to rest there. there was nothing else i could tell her, a mix of compassion and guilt engulfed me.

back in the house, i had wondered what i could do, what could i offer... did she need clothes? did she need a blanket? i told everyone in the house she isn't a beggar, and she was far from being scary. our househelper was infected by concern that she volunteered to go out to ask the woman.

the woman, as our helper had learned, came from caloocan. her house was being demolished along with other shanties in their community at that very moment. i could imagine the fight her neigbors put up to defend their dwellings and how defenseless she was that she opted to stay away. maybe she refused to witness how her tiny abode was ruthlessly crashed by demolition teams.

she lives alone, her husband is in masbate. she said she was going back to their area later in the night when the demolition has subsided. i didn't know why. i didn't know if she intended to salvage anything. i didn't even know if she still had a place to return to. i had wondered how she could go home. it was late and i assumed that where she came from was at least 10 kilometers from our place. she might not be a taong grasa but she looked destitute that i doubted if she would be allowed to get on a bus or jeepney.

our helper went out the second time to ask how she would go to caloocan, if she could take the bus. she said yes, but she would walk on her way home. she didn't say she had no money. she had 3 rucksacks with her, containing plates, pans, and a few clothes. either those were all her precious belongings or it was all that she could carry on her frail back as she rushed to leave her community.

our helper went out the third time, i gave her money to give to the woman. i knew that the amount was more than enough to get her home, but i didn't know where else it could bring her. what saddened and mortified me was that she tried to refuse taking the money. she said it was enough that we didn't shoo her away. our helper urged her to accept the little amount so she didn't have to walk home. she told our helper to thank me. our helper came back in and after a few minutes went out again to check if the woman was still there. she was gone.

it happened a week ago. this isn't the first time that i had offered someone a modest help that i could afford. but this is the first time that i feel contrite. i want to reproach myself for acting like i did, for being scared of how she looked the first time i set my eyes on her, for assenting with my neighbor that she was a crazy woman. for thinking that she would make a dramatic photo subject.

she didn't accept the food i gave because she's already had her fill. she wouldn't take more than she needed. she tried to refuse the money because she could still use her remaining energy to walk home. she could well take advanatage of all the help i to offer but she didn't. to me now, she is a woman who is trying to hold on to whatever is left of her dignity after being robbed of a roof over her head. who knows what else she has gone through, who knows what else she has lost. i feel i am a lesser person for judging her from the outside.

next time kahlil and i see a taong grasa, i would allow him to look... and look beyond what is seen from the outside.