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The Manila volunteer driver and the passenger with his last 200 pesos trying to get home

MANILA – This morning, in between fetching and dropping off front liners to and from their hospital duties, I saw him shuffling on Mindanao Avenue near Trinoma. I had a few minutes to spare before my next pick-up, so I slowed down and asked him where he was going.

“Novaliches.”

I told him to hop in and I would take him as close to his destination as I could in the pocket of time that I had.

Turns out he does lift maintenance work for Okada, but on a no-work, no-pay basis. The lockdown caught him at his lodgings on Coastal Road – out of work, dwindling money and no way to get home to his two kids in Novaliches (his wife was stranded in Butuan in the south).

Last night, he was on a video call with his kids aged 12 and 10. They were crying: “Uwi ka na, Tay.” (Come home, dad.)

So he decided to walk that night, with nothing but his frayed backpack and the last 200 pesos (S$5.60) in his pocket.

He managed to get to Edsa a little past midnight, but his legs had given up and he slept outside Megamall. Half an hour later, he was walking again, hitched a ride up to Quezon Ave in a hospital van and by 6am he was turning into the street where our paths crossed.

He said I could drop him off anywhere, “because I live much further away, in Bagumbong. It’s way past Novaliches. You can drop me off at the next stoplight”.

I didn’t have the cold heart to do that so I drove him all the way to his barangay, over his protestations: “So what now? You don’t have a job anymore?

“They said there’s the calamity fund, but I don’t know how to go about claiming it. I guess my family will just have to live with what money I have left.”

I didn’t ask the question we both knew were on our minds: How long will that 200 pesos last?

About 20 minutes later, he asked to be dropped off at a Puregold Supermarket branch on Susano Road. “You can drop me off here. My house is nearby.” And then, softly: “How much for the ride?”

“Oh, you don’t have to pay me.” Then on impulse I took the last 1,000 peso bill in my wallet, while silently kicking myself that I didn’t have more. “Here, please add this to your budget. Sorry but that’s all I have in my wallet.”

He stared at me above the scruffy N95 mask that he must’ve been wearing for days: “Sir, this is way too much.”

I could see the tears welling up. I panicked. In a voice that I hoped was loud enough to barrel through the lump in my throat, I joked: “Sir, we may end up crying together! Please take it for your children.”

I hurriedly made a U-turn, waved goodbye to him, and left him standing there at the corner, looking about ready to collapse from exhaustion or his emotions.

I pressed the accelerator and didn’t dare look back. I didn’t have any tissue in the car.

The author signed up as a volunteer driver and usually starts as soon as curfew is lifted at 5am until after lunch, just before he tackles his real job: as a sub-editor and designer for The Straits Times of Singapore, where work usually ends at 1am the next day. On his days off, he drives medical workers, security guards and supermarket and construction workers to or from work.

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