Children of the dew

They live underneath the rafters of the Guadalupe bridge that spans the historic Pasig River.  Right above them is Edsa, the busy highway framed by gigantic glittering billboards, where traffic famously crawls during the rush hours.  During the day, they sleep, or stare blankly at the muddy river, sedated by the vapor of solvent and glue that they sniff from hazy plastic bags.

At night, they roam the wide boulevard searching for handbags or necklaces or mobile phones to snatch from harried passengers waiting for their ride.  The first time they were caught by the CCTV cameras of the Metro Manila Development Authority, they were pouncing on a slow moving taxi whose doors they had opened. As the startled driver tried to close the doors, a boy swiftly grabbed the small box under the wheel where the driver kept his day’s earnings.  They all then dashed away, deftly sidestepping the onrushing vehicles on the other side of the highway.

Residents of the nearby squatter community refer to them as “batang hamog,” or children of the dew, calling to mind the moisture from the warm river that forms at dawn on the cold surface of the bridge’s steel railings.  One of the four boys captured by the MMDA camera was a 15-year-old kid nicknamed “Bandol.” His friends gave him this name because, according to them, he bore a strong resemblance to the child actor Vandolph.  That night, he served as the lookout.  His eyes were scanning the stream of vehicles when the camera caught his full face.  The following day, the “bukas taxi” caper was all over the TV evening news, and Bandol’s face became the icon of juvenile transgression.

There was a soft side to the young boy’s expression that moved my daughter, Kara, a broadcast journalist, to look for him.  The boy had made himself scarce after the police picked up two of his companions.  But a kind lady, who lives in the squatter settlement near the bridge, and knows these kids, offered to persuade Bandol to meet Kara.  That was about a month ago.  Their conversation became the highlight of a documentary that she later did for “i-Witness.”

The boy told her basically the story of his life.  It is worth recounting it here because it is a compelling narrative of how a society like ours produces its next generation of criminals. His family had been squatters in one of Manila’s slums before they were resettled in Taytay, Rizal, an industrial suburb of Metro Manila.  That was where Bandol and his four siblings were born.  His parents were originally peasants from Davao in Mindanao.  Unable to make both ends meet in the city, they decided to relocate the whole family back to Davao.

Bandol was 11 and in Grade 4 when he got into trouble with a Muslim classmate, whom he stabbed with a ballpen.  Although the classmate was not seriously injured, the threats from the boy’s family worried Bandol’s father no end.  On impulse, he brought his son back to Manila, leaving him in the care of a former neighbor in Taytay.  He told the neighbor that he would come back for the boy before Christmas.  Bandol never saw his father again.  That was four years ago.  The boy was forced to drop out of school altogether.

Saddled by their own problems, his foster parents showed no inclination to look after the needs of their overstaying guest.  Feeling unwelcome, Bandol decided to leave the resettlement community and join a group of young kids like him to beg in the big city.  The journey led him to the nomadic band of stray children that took shelter under the Guadalupe bridge.  A few of these kids are girls in their teens, some pregnant and some already nursing their own offspring.  They moved like a herd of feral beings wrenched from anything familial or domestic.

Bandol however seemed a little different.  Not only was he slow in his movements, he also loved to gravitate toward the slum community where he would often spend time minding the child of Taj, the Muslim woman who introduced him to Kara.  While he continued to live under the bridge, among the other children of the dew, he unconsciously turned to Taj for the maternal warmth he could not find anywhere else.

Last Oct. 5, just after midnight, Taj was roused from her sleep by the boys with whom Bandol hanged around.  Her young ward, she was told, had been hit by a car along Edsa.  He was in coma, fighting for his life at a hospital when she got to him, her surrogate child.  The boy seemed at peace.  His outstretched left arm, where the dextrose needle had been inserted, bore two tattooed lines—his nickname and his birthday.  He died shortly after.

Taj called Kara and asked for help to arrange for funeral services and a burial site for her friend.  She asked the local barangay to allow her to hold the wake at the neighborhood’s basketball court, and called a Catholic priest to bless his remains and celebrate the Mass for him.  By her unselfish actions, this good Samaritan from another religion made up for all the deficit in human tenderness that had marked this young boy’s brief life.

It is an amazing coincidence that Bandol died on the same day Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, breathed his last.  In a sense, both were children of the dew—droplets of moisture that formed on a cold surface.  Jobs was put up for adoption at birth by his unwed mother.  Bandol was a stray cat abandoned by his parents.  But the parallelism ends there.  Steve Jobs changed the world, and the world deeply mourns his passing. Bandol could not do anything to change his life, and, outside Guadalupe bridge, no one knows he ever existed.

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