At the mall yesterday, I noticed a man slip into a recently abandoned table at Jollibee and pretend that he was the original occupant so he could eat the leftover spaghetti.
I was on my way to pick something up at the nearby Mr. Quickie, but my instinct was to stop and check if he was okay and maybe offer him something.
Now, when it comes to strangers, even in what I feel to be safe public spaces, I almost never follow my instincts anymore. As quickly as my feet paused mid-stride, I picked up the pace again and completed my errand.
I hate it when I hold back on helping. I end up tortured by thoughts of my indifference or selfishness. But denying this instinct is something I need to survive or else I would end up trying to save the whole world, failing spectacularly, and destroying myself in the process.
I've learned to counter my messianic complex by considering a different version of the case story. This time, I questioned what I had seen. You're not even sure that it wasn't his table, I told myself as I went on with my day as planned, maybe you just imagined he was eating scraps. He didn't even look like a beggar.
But I saw the man again later at the food court, wandering around the tables. There would be plenty of scraps, certainly, if that was what he was looking for. The mall doesn't have trashcans, preferring to have janitors clean up after customers (this is a safety precaution, I was told years back, when bomb threats in malls were common). Basically, people just stand up and leave their plates, empty or not empty.
This time I was seated, eating some dim sum, so I was able to watch him more closely. He looked to be in his mid-50s. He had no bag. His clothes were worn, but they were clean and even color-coordinated in shades of blue. He wore imitation Crocs.
I considered his survival strategy. It was sad, but it also brilliant, if you think about it. Why rummage through trash for food when you can get leftovers from tables at fast food restaurants and food courts? If it would come to that choice for me, I'd probably hit the malls as well to retain some semblance of dignity and hygiene.
I was thinking this over when I saw the man heading quickly in my direction, a guilty look on his face, mumbling to himself and waving his hands like he was swatting at flies. He passed in front of me, scurried to the other end of the food court, and kept on walking until I lost sight of him.
He was long gone before I noticed the security guard that had been on his trail discreetly.
I wondered if someone had complained about him; I also wondered if the man wasn't just a resourceful mall scavenger after all but had mental issues as well.
And this is the end of this story.
I didn't help him. I can't say I'm sorry I didn't, but I also think I am.