common ground

Along a highway down which I often travel, there is this strange little neighborhood of clumped-together shacks built on rocks. A jumble of corrugated tin, faded tarpaulins, and sagging clotheslines, this little stand of houses looks like cross-section of Filipino life, like someone just cut down a neighboorhood street and dissected the homes in half. Like the rest of it is missing or something. It reminds me, in a way, of an ant farm, the way you can watch the ants going about their daily activities, and everything they do is exposed to the world. Every day when I pass by, this little microcosm is full of people just doing life. They stand in open doorways and yell to one another. They sit on stairways as dogs and children run around at their feet. They crowd the narrow alleyways and watch their neighbors pass by. A woman washes clothes in a tub. A man and his son are soaping themselves up outside their house. A group of boys is eating, squatting in front of a food stand on little plastic stools. A man stands against the rocks, his back to the street, pissing. Another, wearing only shorts, lays across a wooden bench, asleep. Someone else is busy cutting small scraps of wood, and another is busy trying to sell cigarettes and newspapers. Here, there are no secrets. It’s a strange comparison to a suburban American neighborhood, where discretion and modesty are expected. Homes are temples of privacy, and as shows like Desperate Housewives attest, you might never really know your neighbors, or what secrets lie behind their closed doors and drawn blinds, thick walls and quiet gardens.

Perhaps those that live in this little mess of a neighborhood would wish for a bit more privacy, but I like the way it seems like a true community. Like the narrow hidden streets of Jakarta, people here live life together. They eat together, go to Mass together, play together, and spend time doing nothing together. Perhaps it is simply their poverty that binds them (we’re poor, but at least we’re all poor together), but I sometimes miss that sense of just being togther in a community that can only stay alive when you’re surrounded by 22 million other people.

We’re all in this together, even when we wish we weren’t.


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