Take the bitter with the sweet.

You see all kinds of people when you’re way too early for work because of the car-coding scheme.

This morning, sitting in my car and watching the world go by, I saw the regular characters hanging around the soccer field — mothers taking their kids for a walk; churchgoers streaming out of the chapel after the 6:30 a.m. Mass; students cramming for exams.

Then I saw Tatay.

Tatay is what, 60 or so? Everyone calls him “Tatay”, just out of respect for his age. He comes to UST every single day. He shuffles forward, his arms corded with muscle from hefting rice-sack bayongs heavy with tall glass Nescafe jars full of macapuno and ube, stooping slightly from the weight.

He makes the rounds of the offices and faculty rooms of I don’t know how many colleges, and sometime during the morning, he always comes to the Museum. Our Assistant Director always buys a jar of macapuno from him at least once a week. Sometimes he brings other snacks and sweets — sampaloc, sparkly with sugar and prickly with rock salt; uraro from Laguna (my favorite, that mildly sweet, dry and crumbly confection that is strangely warm in your mouth when you eat it); the ridiculously tasty shing-a-ling (slender, crunchy, slightly spicy sticks of what is really just batter deep-fried to a crisp golden brown); and yema (little pyramids of caramelized condensed milk wrapped in colorful, crinkly cellophane).

Sometimes I buy stuff from him. It costs a bit more than if you take the trouble to go to a store, but Tatay is a kindly old man, and what’s a peso or two now and then? He’s always so pleased when you buy anything from him, and for some reason it’s enough to make you want to buy.

I always wonder why it is that he works so hard to make what, a few bucks profit? Aside from merely surviving, does he have children yet to put through school? Is there someone he’s caring for that needs medication on a daily basis? Why does he continue to do this at his age? I also wonder how much he earns at the end of the day, and I squirm in guilty discomfort from the knowledge that I probably spend more in one day than he earns in a week.

I saw him this morning, just as he arrived on campus to begin his rounds of the buildings, patiently trudging along as always, whatever the weather.

I watched him shuffle slowly along, looking around him now and then.

I saw him catch sight of a group of older men, around his age. Another bunch of soccer field regulars. They jog, and then gather round one of the stone benches on the soccer field’s perimeter to while away the morning discussing politics and sports.

Tatay, walking slowly past, stopped. He hesitated, as though debating with himself as to whether he ought to approach them or not. He put his wares down, pulled his handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped his brow. He looked wistfully over at the other men again, like he wanted to join their jovially animated discussions.

Then, he must have recalled what he was there for, because he turned away with a little shake of his head, picked up his heavy bags and resumed his silent trudge.

I watched this little vignette as the iPod on the passenger seat next to me spun out Doris Day singing “Sentimental Journey”.

My heart broke. I wondered why it is that children who should be in school or playing with their friends and older people who should be enjoying their twilight years with their families, relaxing in the company of their peers, cared for and looked after if need be, have to work like this just to survive from day to day. Yet they do.

People like Tatay do. He must have longed to while away the time, arguing about the state of the nation with his fellow seniors, just hanging around, enjoying his retirement. But he had to pick up his wares and move along — standing there wishing for leisure time wouldn’t get his stuff sold.

He’ll come by the Museum later. I’ll try to mask the bitterness of what I saw this morning with some of Tatay’s yema.

So I take the bitter with the sweet today, but you know what? I think I’ll ask Tatay what his name is. Maybe sit him down to talk for a while, about politics and sports, and whatever else he’d like to talk about. Maybe his grandkids, if he has any.

Yeah, I do believe he’d like that. I’m sure it’ll make my day. See you later, ‘Tay.


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