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Commentary

Voyeur

05:07 AM June 05, 2018

The occupation of the slice of sidewalk began innocuously. You were somehow trapped by traffic in the immediate area at more or less the same hour each day — when the light was only just starting to fade to black — and thus were able to note the same woman engaged in roughly the same activity each time.

Sometimes sitting on her haunches, sometimes slumped, her back resting on the wall, she straightened scrap papers and old newspapers and flattened pieces of cardboard, then tied them up in orderly bundles, mechanically, methodically, the bundles growing as the days wore on. It was evidently a recycling chore that would end with hauling the stuff to the junk shop and getting paid in exchange, and then the cycle would start again.

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In time you ceased to watch her exertions and focused on the woman herself. Incognito behind a dark car window, you noted the ample hips and fat arms that had never known gym work, the wild hair, the crease of dirt in the cleavage, the sooty blouse and frayed shorts. She was sullen, glancing sharply at passersby who dared use the sidewalk on which were scattered the detritus that she had collected and was now preparing to trade. Her body expressed annoyance at being inconvenienced; she would not yield the space.

The kariton wedged between her and the street came to your attention: long and bristling with more paper and cardboard as well as household odds and ends, a blackened frying pan, chipped plastic basins, and two plastic water gallons hanging from the sides. You concluded that it served as her refuge when she called it a day, or a night. You imagined it parked in a suitably private place, herself stretched out in it and grasping at the luxury of being dead to the world, draped with a tarp as cover against misfortune and men’s eyes.

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One day in the twilight you observed that the kariton was now on the sidewalk and flanked by tall piles of paper and cardboard. Two tattered giant umbrellas shielded it and what it held from the pedestrian gaze. The woman had fashioned a small nook by the wall—laying a piece of cardboard on the ground as though it were a tablecloth—and was absorbed in what appeared to be the beginnings of supper on a couple of tin plates and a pot.

Standing whining was a boy, surely her son, naked as the day he was born, scratching at his tiny manhood. At once the woman turned and looked straight at your dark car window, seemingly trying to make out the face behind it. Startled, convinced that she was being resentful of invaded space, you averted your eyes.

The next afternoon you observed that a large tarp had been neatly draped on poles to complement the attempt at privacy provided by the umbrellas. Now a man, surely the woman’s partner, was visible. Tall and strapping, he tugged at the tarp like so, as though checking for gaps. He had apparently managed the semblance of order, performing the role of protector of hearth and home. The rains had come, after all; thunderstorms were not uncommon after the searing heat of the day.

The enclosure had an opening through which one crawled in. The man bent to get inside. The rubber slippers left by the “door” provided a poignant detail.

You strained to catch a glimpse of the interior in the dying light, craning your neck and regretful that the traffic was moving. Voyeur-like, you so badly wanted to see how the woman had fashioned shelter in this neck of the woods, a refuge where she would put her son to sleep and then lie down beside him and her man, while outside a sudden storm raged.

It has become a ceremony — perhaps in the way the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen walked through the London neighborhood of the poet Sylvia Plath: “I go past her door every other day when I walk the dog … I tend to pause and gaze at it, imagining her walking to the top of Primrose Hill.” Your approach to that slice of sidewalk that has become home to the woman, her partner and her son is fraught with expectation. Stalled in traffic, you inspect the state of the tarp that serves as her roof. You watch her emerge, fanning her whining boy, and you imagine them sweating in the sweltering heat.

It is not known exactly how many homeless families there are in Metro Manila. The latest official count was 3 million in 2011.

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