The street sweeper

WHAT a noble trade, being a street sweeper.

It’s about 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 sweepers are.

We would die of stench, shame and plague without the sweepers.

A city without sweepers or with bad sweepers is a den of poison and death, of physical and moral barbarity.

In earlier times back home (in the 50’s and 60’s) nobody wanted to be a sweeper (they were branded as camineros or camineras; then Metro Aides during Mrs. Marcos governorship.)

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 filth randomly — breaking bags and emptying dust bins.

Mang Segundo always swept the alleys, the lanes, the pathways and the sidewalks. He always unclogged the sewers, emptied the dust bins down to the bottom. He never broke the bag, he never lost the filth on the way, but spilled it into deep holes and burned it.

He was, in sum, a fine sweeper — a sweeper who practiced his trade with pride and meticulousness, like the arbulario who cures diseases.

The other protection was his bible.  He employed his broom with special skill, without wasting ammunition and without wasting a shot.

He was gaunt, and awfully poor — the only clothing he owned was a pain of broken-soled shoes, a pair of pants, a jacket of multi-colored patches. To soothe 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 height, he saw more than tall people do.

Their barangay captain met him by chance, in an old city street. He saw how carefully Mang Segundo swept 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 their seventh child, and an infirm father. They could barely have three square meals a day and were all suffering from malnutrition.

I met him while I was 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: one of the body (which comes from not eating); the other, of the soul (which comes from not knowing).

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  understands why he is hungry even when he eats.

His is not hunger for food that can be staved of by nutrition programs, but a hunger for knowing.

He would like so much to know, to discover why the world turns; why some people have five or six jackets and some only have one that is full of multi-colored patches; or why one only has a pair of shoes, while others have dozens.

He made me promise to 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 authorities while protecting their hovels for years.

And besides, what book should I bring to a man who has never read one?


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