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Ten o’clock – time to eat

 The Jeepney (Philippines) 18 May 2019

(Originally published: 03/2010) The Jeepney Magazine’s William Shaw spent an evening on the street of Manila to experience how the city’s homeless manage to get by. Witnessing a homeless woman and her family raiding through the trash of a fast food restaurant in a desperate attempt to eat, Shaw reflects on the country’s recent Food Donation Act, encouraging citizens to donate any “seemingly wholesome food” to charitable causes.  - By William Shaw

He wore a Mike Tyson shirt that hung midway between his knees and his thigh, just high enough to show the boxer shorts he also wore. He just stood there, in boxer shorts. I found out later he was waiting to open the door of the store when we left, because I had given him nine one-peso coins from my pocket, and this was his way to thank me.


A guard stood there with him and, though they didn't say anything, the guard pointed at the man's head and laughed; the guard then reached out and plucked a hair, a short, bristly, one-inch grey hair, and handed it to him. The man with the Tyson shirt didn't flinch or move, but he took the hair, held it between his fore-finger and thumb, and looked it over with passive curiosity.


When I left, he opened the door and nodded, still holding his grey hair. I ventured out into the street, leaving the bright lights of 7/11 behind, and into another surreal world of humanity struggling between incredible wealth and incredible poverty.


With the neon signs of one of Manila's premier malls shimmering red and yellow in the distance, we waited for ten o'clock to hit and the trash to be delivered. A small crowd gathered, led by Marilyn, a street dweller. Five were there to carry the bags soon to come out of the Fast Food's closing doors, one to rest near by with a plaintive smile and plastic cup, and two or three to mug for the camera.


Francisco danced by, pantomiming a fencing move. I have seen him before, a street boy who can do tricks with his body like a Chinese acrobat, strong and animated, but only his eyes and body shine; his mind rules him like a cartoon, and foolish, crazy things happen to him because of it. But he will carry the garbage and later he will eat. This much we know he knows.


The door of the restaurant opened and two white bins, full of garbage bags, were wheeled out. Marilyn, and a young man in uniform empted them quickly onto the street. The uniformed man disappeared into the lit store only to reappear with two more full bins, and then again with two more and flattened cardboard. His last trip was coffee, two cups, and these Marilyn takes somewhere, perhaps to her husband who is calling on the streets. He is a barker - a hailer of passengers for a jeepney [form of public transport].


The boys and Marilyn grasp the bags, lugging them one in each hand, except for Francisco, who bounces in the lead, balancing his bag effortlessly on his head. We follow the small parade around the corner where the lights are dim and the avenue still roars with the jeepneys.


It is here that Marilyn sits and begins to sort through the trash: a plastic cup in one stack, a soup cover in another, a water container in a box, and a piece of chicken in a bowl. She works quickly and efficiently. Her hands fly in and out, dumping leftover bits of sauce and picking the soft drink laden tissue from the cups. Only with the chicken does she pause, just a moment. Dog or us, I can hear her think with her hands. Most of it, she keeps.


When a cup of almost full fruit salad magically appears, one small napkin rising out of it like a sail, then she sets that by her side. Later once the bags are sorted, the street is swept, and the treasures gathered. Perched on her hind quarters, Marilyn stretches her arched back like a seal, rolls to her feet, stands, and smiles. She then eats the fruit salad, taking her ten o'clock break.


This is a scene that is re-enacted nationwide by people desperate to eat and desperate to feed their families. It provides an interesting analysis of the availability of food and a condemning view of its distribution. There is enough - that seems to be a reality; some throw it away and some must dig for it in the trash.


A bill was recently passed in the Philippines'' House of Representatives. It is House bill HB420, known as the "Food Donation Act." The Food Donation Act would encourage the donation of "apparently wholesome food" for charitable purposes.


Legislation for humanitarian purposes seems to be needed for a variety of reasons. People need to be encouraged to give, but that is not as much an issue as the need to be protected when they give. The giving of food carries a liability that this bill would potentially alleviate.


Perhaps this bill will help Marilyn, and eliminate the underground garbage distribution she is involved in. Perhaps though, this food, seemingly unwholesome, will continue to be quietly and individually distributed. The vast majority of food service workers in the Philippines have personal connections with hungry people. They secretly provide any scraps they can to people like Marilyn. The food workers and their families are dangerously close, and inherently cognizant, of the abyss that Marilyn finds herself in.


Marilyn's request to each of us is very simple. "Please keep your food clean, when you throw it away." In other words keep the napkins out of the fruit salad! This is something we can all do.


In many ways I am appalled that we need a bill that saves old food for people to eat.  But then again, tonight I have seen a man hold a grey hair between his fingers, his eyes blankly grateful for nine pesos. I have seen Marilyn trying to feed her family from fast food garbage, her eyes alight with anticipation. I have seen Francisco, his breath riddled with the smell of glue sniffed to escape his hunger, his eyes, like ants darting in their hungry quest. I have seen these things illuminated by the red and yellow neon of a most illustrious stadium and mall where the rich sauces and wines of the "others" are flowing into full bellies.


Because of this I have to endorse anything to help. I am glad we are legislating old food and give incentives to those who are willing to give out of their excess and their waste. Money for garbage, so others can eat. It is not great, but it is better than nothing.

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