At a Mini Mart in the heart of Manila in waking morning a middle-aged Filipino sat eating his box breakfast of fried chicken, rice, instant noodles. His button-down shirt and tie suggested a hardworking man with a good job. His girth suggested a long, long time since he’d gone without a meal. Directly in his line of vision, outside, leaning against the spotless window of the Mini Mart, a street kid.

Barefoot.Big, acquiescent eyes. His hair a beach-bum-tinted-grunge look for which sometrustafarian hipster might happily and generously pay a stylist. The boy sat sorting through a stack of pseudo magick-tarot-pokemon baseball cards, his attention fully focused, hard at work at nothing.

It was Holy Week and I was in Manila on Peace Corps business. About 20 volunteers were preparing for a project aimed at improving the teaching and language skills of educators from Mindanao, a large island in the Philippines that was off-limits to volunteers (there had been kidnappings, yes, but the decision sounded more political than security-related). In two weeks Peace Corps would fly 150 Mindanao teachers to Manila for the intense 10-day seminar.

I didn’t particularly like Manila. It was intimidatingly massive, smoggy, and crowded. And on a previous trip I’d had my wallet stolen. But the worst of it was the blatant sad side of urban life: outside, a big tarpaulin read “WANTED: CGA/GRO 18 TO 25 YEARS OLD WITH PLEASING PERSONALITY. BRING BIODATA OR RESUME WITH 2X2 PICTURE.” GRO. Guest Relations Officer.The war-time era euphemism for prostitute. I assumed the “LOVE HAND FOOT SPA” across the street was similarly euphemistic.

And of course there were the street kids. On nearly every corner. Each night I walked back from the Peace Corps office to my boarding room I had to pass establishments guarded by bevies of young women dressed in matching miniskirt-haltertop uniforms.

“Hey Joe!” They would coo to me. “Looking for a beautiful woman?”

“Nope!” I would coo back.

The next block over, in a dark corner, women of the same age lay sleeping on cardboard, in matching streetdirty t-shirts, their children huddled around them. The irony was heavy.

When Peace Corps volunteers find themselves together–a luxury when you are often assigned to a town where the closest volunteer is hours away–they inevitably start gossiping. And sure enough, the first night of that week, gossip trended toward the recent drop in volunteers. The latest batch of 145 volunteers had arrived six months before. Now, the official number was 123. Peace Corps policy kept confidential the reasons that volunteers went home, but everyone knew there were 3 possibilities: you went home out of medical necessity, out of personal choice, or because Peace Corps made the choice for you. This time, speculation was that a handful of male volunteers had had the choice made for them. The rumor was that they’d been suspected of consorting with GROs.

“Even if there’s no evidence,” said one volunteer, “if that kind of thing gets around in your community it ruins your relationships, your ability to work.” She shrugged. “So Peace Corps sends you home.”

“I find it just sad,” said another. “I mean, some of us are working with these abused women. Prostitutes, human traficking. That some of us, knowing this, can do that…”

It was a just rumor. I decided it was simply volunteers’ overactive imagination. It was the kind of thing that made for good gossip. A Peace Corps volunteer wouldn’t do that. Couldn’t do that.

People join Peace Corps for different reasons. It had always been that way. David Riesman, one of the advisors of the nascent Peace Corps, warned against hoping to enlist an army of saints in the service, pointing out that saints didn’t need the Peace Corps and wouldn’t fit into its structure. “You want healthy, representative, Americans,” he said, “whose motives will be mixed, like most peoples’.”

In the 1961 Peace Corps manual, a section enitled “Living in a Goldfish Bowl” included the following:

“…your every action will be watched, weighed and considered representative of the entire Peace Corps….You must learn–and respect–the local customs, manners, taboos, religions and traditions, remembering that always that the slighest “goof” will quickly be seen and talked of by many persons.”

This was the drift of my thoughts that morning in the Mini Mart as I watched the business man watch the street kid. Not knowing I was about to see a real-life saint.
The businessman got up. Tossed his empty instant noodle container in the trash. But then he handed the box-breakfast fried chicken to the Mini Mart security guard and pointed at the street kid outside. The security guard, as naturally as if it was part of his job description, went out and handed the half-finished chicken to the kid. Who also accepted it as naturally as if it was part of the schedule.

The businessman sat for a moment, finishing his coffee. Watching the kid eat the chicken bone. A couple other street kids had gathered near the boy, watching him eat. After a long time, the boy turned over the chicken bone to another kid.

The businessman went back to the counter and bought a second serving of rice. Handed it to the security guard.

As he walked out of the Mini Mart that Holy Week morning, the man nodded to the kid, who nodded back a gesture of simple thanks. And that was it.

That morning I liked Manila a little better.