WHAT a noble trade, the sweeper’s trade. It consists of sweeping the filth we produce, of making our existence less infected.
Mindless and ungrateful are those who use the word sweeper in a disparaging way, who do not understand how extraordinary and how precious the sweepers are. We would die of stench and shame and plague without the sweepers. A city without sweepers or with bad sweepers is a den of poison and death, a physical and moral barbarity.
In earlier times back home, in the ’50s and ’60s nobody wanted to be a sweeper (branded as camineros or camineras then Metro Aides during Mrs. Marcos governship) The ones who accepted that work did it to the delight of the rats, the stray dogs (asong siga, asong kalye), and the flies.
They gather the filth randomly, breaking the bags and emptying the dust bins and listlessly threw it in the garbage trucks that lost some of it on its way.
In Smoky Mountain, instead of burning it, they spilled it into shallow holes where it remained to taint the air already putrid with mishmash. They never unclogged the sewer nor swept the alleys, the lanes, the pathways, the sidewalks. In short, these were the bad sweepers—the world’s worst sweepers.
But not Mang Segundo. He always swept the alleys, the lanes, the pathways and the sidewalks. He always unclogged the sewers and emptied the dustbins down to the bottom. He never broke the bag nor lost the filth on the way, but spilled it into deep holes and burned it. He was in sum a fine sweeper, who practiced his trade with pride and meticulousness, like the arbulario who cures diseases and could heal Smoky Mountain’s disease of poverty, among the poorest of the poor. The other protection was his bible. He employed his broom with special skill without wasting ammunition or wasting a shot. He was gaunt and awfully poor that the only clothing he owned was a pair of broken soled shoes, a pair of pants, a jacket of multi colored patches. To sooth such poverty, he only had Sepa: his very tall, very fat and very pregnant wife.
He went to adult school at night, learned his lessons with ease, and from his 4’11” size, he saw more than tall people do.
Their barangay captain met him by chance, in an old city street and saw how carefully that boy sweeps the sidewalk, only to realize he was a man, the epitome of those perceived and called as the eternal serfs, the eternal carabao people who plow other peoples lands for a thread of hay, a grain of palay, wherever they are.
The street sweeper and the Barangay Captain immediately started to talk and struck up friendship. Mang Segundo told the Barangay Captain that at age forty, the only thing he was most familiar with was his broom and his Bible. With the broom, he supported six children, a wife who is expecting a seventh and an infirm father. They could barely have three square meals a day and were all suffering from malnutrition.
That was when I met him, covering the City Mayors Nutrition Program in a squatter’s area in Payatas. He was rich in intelligence and knew how to read and write. He would tell me of the two kinds of malnutrition: the one of the body, which comes from not eating, and the one of the soul, which comes from not knowing, and that since both of them prevent us from growing, we need to know, as well as eat.
I asked Mang Segundo if he has ever read a book, his reply was “books are more expensive than meat.” But now, he understood why he was hungry even when he ate. His is not a hunger for food that can be staved of by nutrition programs, but a hunger from knowing. He would like to know so much, to discover why the world turned (paano umiikot ang mundo?) why at times to the left or to the right, why some people have five or six jackets while some only one full of multi-colored patches or one pair of shoes, as others have dozens.
He made me promise I would bring him a book, and I did.
But then, the eviction and relocation order had been handed down by the court and had taken place. A number of them were severely wounded as they fought with the authorities while protecting their hovels for years.
And besides, what book do I bring to a man who has never read a book?