I stumbled out of the bar I had spent 3 hours bullying my liver and kidneys, and wobbled my way towards the cathedral. This was in 2005, Lucena City, a Saturday night, maybe around 11, and the main avenue was bustling with people and vehicles of every kind.
Next to the cathedral was a small chapel that was holding a wake. I didn’t know the deceased, but I had a very strange habit of offering a prayer to every funeral I stumbled upon (sometimes literally) when I was heavily inebriated. The weird thing is I was no longer a practicing Roman Catholic at that point, wearing the badge of a “militant existentialist.”
There are many kinds of drunken habits, from smoking cigarettes to singing every tune in Queen’s discography. Me? I go to random wakes that happen to be in the vicinity of whatever bar or nightclub I was at.
I remember a nice old lady thanking me for stopping by to offer her loved one a prayer. I thanked her for not calling the police and shook her hand gently, patting the back of it in the same way I would with my aunt.
I walked out of the chapel and crossed the avenue to the bright, two-story McDonald’s. I don’t remember getting in line and ordering food. I don’t even like McDonald’s and I especially hated going there in the Philippines, because I didn’t want to be the American who “missed” a taste of home, who equated a cup of Bush-approved “freedom fries” with the torch of Lady Liberty illuminating my treacherous journey into the heart of a Third World wilderness.
Having said all that, I do remember standing out on the sidewalk, bathed in neon lights, holding my super-sized food, and a young kid looking up at me like a sad puppy.
There was a man dressed in casual business attire who stood to my left waiting for the jeepney. He seemed amused by the sight of this drunken teenager holding a cup of fries as if gripping the torch of liberty that would lead humanity into the Promised Land and the disheveled street kid next to him.
There we were on that brightly lit urban epicenter, standing silently like statues of forgotten national heroes. At that point, I didn’t even want the fries anymore despite my alcohol-soaked brain’s yearning for something oily and starchy. I handed the kid my food and he smiled. He thanked me a million times and I just patted him on the shoulder. The man who was standing next to me said that I did a nice thing.
Honestly, it wasn’t kindness, but an act of middle-class privilege. It was as if I reached down the socioeconomic ladder to give the child a high-five and nothing more. I wasn’t proud of that little gesture, because it reminded me of the economic gaps between us. Why did I deserve to be the one at the top of the ladder and not him? How did the world order get so fucked up that he had to beg for food in the streets and I could blow my money on alcohol?
Back then, I drank to numb whatever pain my demons were inflicting inside me. I went to wakes because I secretly wanted to be the one in the coffin. I gave to the poor, even if it just perpetuated their habit of dependency, because I am too weak to say no–too weak to do something about his situation, my situation, and the world’s situation.
Actually, I think the real reason why I did those things–if I were to be honest with myself–was because it showed me what could’ve easily happened to me if the algorithms of the universe hadn’t worked in my favor: death and poverty.
The funerals made me appreciate life. I was a “tourist” a la Fight Club, except I didn’t do it consciously, and I found feel-good self-hugs from the dead rather than the dying (if you’ve never read or watched Fight Club then you won’t get these references, in which case, sorry).
Likewise, giving to the poor made me realize my privilege as a middle-class American, and that the closest thing I had to a painful struggle at that point in my young life was severe depression.
I was a strange teenager with strange habits, experiencing a strange time in my life. But in that moment, we were just three people standing on the sidewalk, simply co-existing as the whole city moved past us.