Labrador, Pangasinan, 2015
There’s this cosmic debt that needs to be paid. It’s not like he begged me to tell his story. Far from it. I don’t think he would even care. It’s strange to realize that I, on the other hand, have been thinking of him these past few months; racking my brains for an honest intro befitting an honest man’s life. A lot of false starts for sure. The cookbook was always out but never really got to heating up the oven. I even thought I had the intro figured out back in Biri, Samar when I told Bob about this fisherman named Zaldy Domingo who I met during the Holy Week break in the earlier part of the year. Holed up in some seedy pink colored pension house in Catarman, we got to talk about that infographic he shared from Rappler; how we supposedly belong to the top 0.1% of this country’s economic strata. The striking thing about said info graphic wasn’t about us and everybody we know belonging to the top 0.1%. The striking thing about it was how far we were from Zaldy Domingo.
If we were to go by those disaggregated stats, the janitors who clean our offices, the security guards who keep us safe from imaginary threats, the maids who wash our dishes, they’re the new middle class if you can believe it. I couldn’t believe it myself. I always thought I belonged to the middle class. I always thought of myself as the quintessential every day salary man. I had my fair share of riding on crowded buses during rush hour, hanging on for dear life with my florsheimed feet nervously trying to find its grip on a Metro Manila Transit running board. Standing on the “estribo” was strictly prohibited for obvious reasons. But this was Manila, after all and I had a peso to chase.
Oh wait, you almost forgot about Zaldy Domingo, haven’t you? I bet you were laughing your head off trying to imagine this Leica-toting fella jockeying for position in a standing room only bus. Well, see, that’s just it. Zaldy is so far down the line that it’s real easy to just write him off as some unfortunate social statistic. Easily forgettable.
On a good year when there would be some form of election, he would probably climb up a notch and belong to this nation’s bottom 11% courtesy of a few handouts from whoever’s running for office. Most years, he’d be at the bottom 7%. The annual income of this guy based on the inforgraphic would be equivalent to what I paid for a pair of New Balance 577s. It then comes to no surprise when I asked him about the net that he was mending to make it fit for catching fish the next day. A full working net complete with floaters and such would set them back a thousand pesos. A thousand pesos is what my daughter’s grand dad would secretly slip into her hand before she hies off to the school dorm for the week. Money that she doesn’t need. Money that could buy him another net. Money that, get this, he stretches for at least 2 years. Yep, if one mends those nets on a regular basis, one can actually use it for at least 2 years. And it’s not like it’s an easy thing to do. It takes hours to mend that thing. They do it almost every day. For 2 years. Because it costs a thousand pesos.
Of course, he’s not as poor as one might think. A daughter works for a local card company and he receives money from her on a fairly regular basis. How cool is that? Very cool. Considering that he’s my age and he’s already getting a small allowance from her daughter. Sophie, if you’re reading this… But I digress. There is a lot about this man that this info graphic is unable to measure. You go on these trips and it’s easy enough to classify people like Zaldy from a monetary perspective. Getting sunburned talking to him reveals more about this gentleman.
Spending 3 decades of his life casting nets, I did not sense, not even for a second, a hint of any sort of bitterness about his lot. On the contrary, there was a certain dignity to how he lived his life that I am hard pressed to find in my very small circle of 0.1. For instance, I asked him about what he liked to eat. He said that he was quite happy with his diet of fish and vegetables and jokingly mentioned how some of them would be really greedy for meat. I was expecting him to say that he didn’t have enough money for meat when I asked him about his dietary preference. I was pleasantly surprised that he ate what he ate because it was the healthy way to go. Smiling like he won the lotto, he’d go on to casually confide in me that he wasn’t much of a student; that he wasn’t academically inclined. It’s the reason why he took to fishing at a very early age. He accepted who he was and made a life of it.
Having said our goodbyes, I saw him disappear into the trees with his small young son following him. Not in his footsteps, btw. He said that his son would go out with him from time to time but didn’t really show any interest in fishing. Not that it bothered him. He didn’t really care. There was just that smile. That smile that made me think that he belonged to that 0.1 percent.