"Oh, Manilas O.K.," I said, but what I meant was: Don't cry.
"I don't want to think I am stranded in Manila," he snuffled, "but I am stranded."
"Don't you live here?" I asked.
"Where are you from?"
"How long have you been in Manila?"
I asked, "Did you come to Manila to work?"
"To bury my mother."
His name was Ezekiel. He was twenty-six years old. His father had died several years earlier, and his mother, only forty-three, had died suddenly a month ago. Ezekiel wasn't married, but had three younger siblings. As the oldest it was his job to get his mothers body to the family plot in Manila. He'd taken a one-week leave from his job at the Sunkist pineapple farm in Batangas.
"I bury my mother, but on way back to Batangas, someone at bus station picks my wallet. There are many crazy people in Manila." His voice rose for this pronouncement, then faded. For the first time he looked right at me, his eyes wet. He sobbed, "I have no bus fare. For one month now I am stranded." His chin dropped onto his quaking chest.
Ezekiel had me. Sure, I knew that just about anyone, given a month, should be able, somehow, to come up with bus fare. And, yes, I knew that I could not afford to give money to every unfortunate in Manila who might ask for it. But less than two years had passed since the day that my own fatherseventy-one years old, and in apparent good healthhad suddenly died. A month, I knew, was nothing. Nothing at all. If Ezekiels story was true I would put him on the next bus home, but was it?
When his snuffling stopped, I said, "You know, Ezekiel, a lot of people in this park seem to be stranded."
He didnt look up. Fifteen seconds ticked by before he answered: "There are many people in this park who will be bluffing you. I am not bluffing. I am a Christian."
"You could be Moslem, Jew, atheist," I said. "Thats not important to me." He seemed to accept this the way I meant it, but the words sounded harsh in my own ear. I asked, "How much is the bus fare?"
In a whisper: "It is very cheap. Only thirty pesos. But I am shy to tell the driver I have no money. And I don't know how to get money."
I said, "I will give you thirty pesos."
When I pulled my wad from my pocket, Ezekiel gulped and said, "Can you maybe give me five pesos more? For my food?"
I gave him fifty pesos, and he let me take his picture. He was no longer the corpse Id first met. He asked about my trip and described his own small travelsto the islands of Cebu and Mindoro. The waterfalls at Laguna, he said, were his favorite place. I thought: You wouldn't believe Yosemite.
"Do you have any dreams, Ezekiel?"
"To see my family," he said. "I have not seen them in a month. They probably think I am dead like my mother. Every day I am hoping someone will help me, but in one day the most I have gotten is five pesos, and I have to eat."
"How far away is Batangas?"
"Three hours on bus." Ridiculously close, impossibly far. "If it is O.K.," he said, "I will go now."
"First, can you please write down your address in my notebook?"
"You want me to pay back?" he asked.
"No, no. Its not that at all. I just..."
And then I couldn't contain myself. I blurted out about my own fathers death, about my 100-day trip, and my invitation plan. At the moment Ezekiel "got it" we were facing each other, and I saw his eyes and cheeks and mouth light up as though a fireworks factory had just exploded somewhere over my shoulder.
"America!" he said. "California!"
I thought: Mistake. To ignite such hope and then not deliver on it seemed cruel. Two seconds after becoming the first, Ezekiel also became the last potential visitor I would share my plan with.
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