For lunch money
October 1, 2012
October 1, 2012

It’s almost like a game of patintero to these kids: dodging cars and jeepneys steamrollering their way through Taft. In contrast to their more well-heeled counterparts at an elite university nearby (many of whom are seemingly programmed to squeal at the sound of every car horn) these kids revel in them. Taft Avenue, for all its noise and pollution, is their playground.

One of them is Jaycee, an eleven-year-old lives not far from the concrete chaos. He and his little barkada – Renzo, Jorich, the twins Ronnel and Rommel – trod the geographically short if socially impenetrable distance between their more modest homes, to the intimidating façades of the upscale establishments that line Taft. When asked why they bother, they answer in chorus, “It’s for our lunch money!”

For years, they have begged for their lunch money.

The kids know every building, every crack, and every friendly face they come across on Taft Avenue as though etched on the tiny backs of their little hands.

They remembered me after I took them out for lunch a couple of times. After realizing I’d finally managed to drain all my pocket money, I stopped. They would still do a chorus of “Ate, ate, ate!”, in efforts to persuade me to buy them siomai, and I would say no.

A few weeks passed, and they still remembered me. They would joke around and ask me random questions. I thought kids have short attention spans, yet the boys’ have an uncanny ability to recall a person among the dozens of students who rush out of school.

Statistics distinguish between ‘’street children’’ through varying degrees of depravity:  some beg on occasion to help their families out, some are pushed into the practice by criminal syndicates – others are completely homeless and do so to survive. In the 1990s, street children numbered almost a quarter of a million in the country’s major cities. 50,000 to 70,000 in Metro Manila alone. Those figures are rising.*

Jaycee and the others don’t live on the streets. They have relatives to go back to. Sometimes though, if they think they can manage to scrape together a bit of loose change from Lasallians, they jump at every chance they get.  Money is great, but they tend to prefer free meals with their newfound kuya’s and ate’s, careful to doggy-bag any left-overs for their families back home.

As soon as school ends at twelve in the afternoon every day, they rush home to drop their stuff, then head straight to Taft.

In their faded school shorts, sandos and oversized shirts, they rush to and fro the sidewalks, calling on each other, bantering the way only children can, shoving their faces in front of students who rush straight past, their eyes averted, always in a hurry.  Like a game, really.

Nobody forces them to beg. Whatever they ‘’earn’’ on the streets they use to buy canned goods for their families.   Okay, sometimes they spend it on an hour or so at an internet shop too, to play Tetris Battle on Facebook (yes, Jaycee and at least three of his friends have Facebook accounts).

“Add me on Facebook, Ate!”

I pretend to roll my eyes and tell them, “You should study hard in school instead of playing computer games.” Jaycee does this mannerism of his, the one he always does when he’s asking for something. He scratches his head, pouts a bit and looks at you with his round, puppy dog eyes.

We chat regularly when he’s online now.

I only pretend to be annoyed. They’re actually not asking for anything but my time.

If only their families could give them the same.

Their parents left the twins, Ronnel and Rommel, years ago. Both are now with their adoptive grandmother, a neighbor. With already more than enough in her hands, she sent them straight to Boystown, a juvenile home for youth-at-risk. Ronnel thinks she did that because they wouldn’t stop begging on the streets.

Boystown, with a branch in Marikina, is a government-funded children’s shelter made to help keep kids like them off the streets. It boasts huge dormitories for children, basketball courts, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and free vocational workshops. Here, the children wait until someone comes to adopt them or they’re old enough to go off on their own.

Despite all that, the twins missed home.  Boystown was crowded, to say the least. Ronnel soon wound up with skin infection, probably scabies. Almost all of the kids had it.

Add to that the strict wardens and rigid chores, and they couldn’t stand it. After a few months, Ronnel ran away. A few weeks later, his twin Rommel followed suit. They’re now back with their grandmother, who welcomed them with open arms, but has become extra wary, forbidding the kids from ever begging again.

That doesn’t stop them. Once when we were eating out, Ronnel, the more boisterous of the two, kidded about stealing the salt and pepper shakers off the table. The waiters cast furtive glances at our table They really must be a handful sometimes for their poor lola. They have no news of their mother, who has since drifted off somewhere, lured away by shabu. Their father is in jail.

“We’re visiting him next week,” Ronnel says. He paused, pensive, in a rare moment of silence.  A second later, he’s chattering away again.

Renzo’s father is also in jail. When I asked him what grade level he is, he said, “Grade six. We should at least finish grade school.”

I asked him, “Why not more?”

He paused and stuttered, as if unsure how to explain it to me.

“We don’t have enough money,” he said in a quiet voice.

Having no money isn’t the only problem. Education, even if provided by a public school, is too costly for their families. Jaycee asks me, “Ate, can I have P15? I need to buy the activity sheets for our assignment.”

I tell him, “Aren’t activity sheets supposed to be free?”

“No, it’s an activity sheet. It’s not supposed to be free!”

“It’s a public school. I think that’s supposed to be free.”

He answers, “Well… it’s not.”

There was a time when were walking down the street. Renzo suddenly pointed upwards. He cried, “Look! A maya!” I followed his pointed finger. A small bird sat on an electricity post’s wire. It was gray, small and ordinary, just like any other bird I’ve seen in the city. Uninterested, I looked down at the kids’ amused and curious faces, faces like dozens of other street kids we pass by outside DLSU every day.

They were looking intently at the bird which was expertly fluttering by the dangerous electricity post. Despite its plainness, the kids were captured by it. “That’s not a maya!” Jorich argues. “The tail’s too short!” They bicker for a few minutes and started walking again.

When were about to cross the road, I pulled Jaycee to my other side so that he wouldn’t be the one facing the incoming cars. He jumped up back a bit in surprise, looking at me questioningly. I almost laughed as I realized that these kids know these streets better than me. They constantly play patintero with the cars and the jeepneys recklessly careening their way, why in the world would they need someone to pull them off the dangerous side?

The stoplight turned red. Jaycee huddled just a tiny inch closer to me as we crossed the road together.