by Nathaniel Sisma Villaluna
I always see him everyday. Right on the same spot. The same red bonnet he has been wearing since the first time I took notice of him. He is always holding a copy of a magazine and whenever someone passes by, he smiles and extends the magazine asking for donation. His spot is right outside the gate of the church, a few feet away from where I live. For him, this is his office. He is never late. At exactly 8 in the morning, he is there standing straight, holding the same magazine until two in the afternoon, where he takes lunch and back at four, when the church is open until 8 in the evening. I pass by his “office” everyday. He may not notice me but I always feel guilty that I don’t have some spare coins to give. I just offer him a sorry smile as he extends his magazine to me. Or sometimes, I avoid looking his way at the same time making a promise to myself that I will spare him some coins one day.
I have always wanted to talk to him, a short chat perhaps. But most of the time, I am overcome by shyness. But now, as I am heading home coming from buying some groceries, I tell myself that it is about time. Confident that I have some spare coins to give, I pace slowly towards him. He smiles at me and extends the magazine. I feel my pockets for some spare coins, It later dawns on me that I have used up all of them on my groceries. I don’t have a choice but to give him an apologetic smile. I walk past him. But instead of going straight home, I turn left and enter the gate of the church. I suddenly remember that I have bought a pack of biscocho for breakfast. I excitedly walk briskly back to his direction. I take the bread out of my bag and hands it to him.
“Would you like to have some?”
He looks a bit surprised but immediately breaks into a big smile. I am expecting that he will get the pack and thank me for my act of kindness. But no. He courteously shakes his head and softly says:
“Thank you very much but I am not hungry.”
“Oh.” Is all I can say as I embarrassingly retreat my hand still holding the bread.
“ Are you sure you are not hungry?”
He nods his head. His name is Johnson. He is Zimbabwean but his family lives in Nigeria. Before Spain, he lived in Rome for a couple of years where he had a business fixing cars. He moved to Madrid a year ago and is now connected with a religious organization asking for donations from passersby. And he is a boxer too. After his stint in front of the church, he goes to the gym to practice. I can’t help glancing at his wide and big hands. I remember how I felt my hand getting smaller while shaking his when I introduced myself to him a while ago. He is training to be a professional boxer. He points to the long scar on his face. One of those scratches he got from either during training or during matches. I tell him that in my country, we have one of the best boxers in the world. I mention Manny Pacquiao’s name. Trying not to disappointment me for not knowing Manny, he gives me another wide smile. This time, I see that the two front teeth are missing. I tell him my story too. Some passersby stare at us. We may look like an odd couple. A tall, muscled black guy and a short, small-framed Asian guy animatedly sharing some good laugh. Then I remember I have a pack of ice cream with me. I bid Johnson goodbye and promise to get back to him some other time. We shake hands. We are so friends now.
Madrid, just like any other mega cities in the Western world, is a melting pot of people coming from different countries. The most number of immigrants are Romanians, Ecuadorans, Peruvians, Colombians and Moroccans. Among the Asians, the Chinese are the highest in numbers. When I was working as a volunteer for a non-government organization that helped educate immigrants, I was able to meet Thom, a guy from Ivory Coast. I was assigned to teach him how to read and write in Spanish. Shy and soft-spoken, he told me about his story and how he came to Spain. Civil war brought him to leave his family to brave an uncertain future in Europe. He first lived in France for a couple of months. Finding no job, he decided to move to Madrid.
When Thom found a job, he stopped coming to class. With Thom leaving, I was assigned to Awad, a sixteen year old Moroccan boy whose patience was so short and his temper, intense. He was the only one in the group who couldn’t read and write. Every session, I would sit beside him and patiently repeated the Spanish alphabet to him. His temper was put into the test when one of his friends poked fun at him when he failed to recognize the letter J after repeating a hundred times. He was so angry that a fistfight was inevitable. Rosa, the directress was quick to pacify the two boys before it could get nasty.
In one of our short breaks, Awad shared how he came to Spain. They came by a small boat loaded with fifty people, all men. They were made to pay for the fare the “entrance fee and processing fee”, all those dodgy fees. They sailed for several days hungry, seasick and tired. He didn’t have a family in Spain, only his boat mates. Being a minor and without legal papers, he stayed at a social center. The law says that when they reach the legal age, they will be sent back to Morocco. In the meantime, they had to attend Spanish and vocational classes to keep them off the street.
Working for that NGO, I was able to meet more of them and hear more of their stories. I share their sentiments. I share their loneliness, their homesickness and the uncertainty of the future. I just can’t bring myself to understand the need of wars and conflicts that displace families and destroy lives. I blame the governments of our countries for their greedy interests and for not protecting the welfare of its people.
“Life is unfair, Nata.” Johnson calmly tells me. After our first chat, we have become a regular chat buddy now. It has been a daily routine for me to hear myself reciting “Good morning Johnson” every time I pass by his spot in the morning and stopping by for a short chat in the evening. A few weeks ago, when I had a job interview, I came to see him and told him about it. He was excited for me. On my way home, he asked me how it went. By the sad look on my face, he was quick to assured me that there would be another one. And it would be something better.
This morning though, I am surprised because I don’t see his red bonnet. His spot is empty. I check my watch. Half past 8. He must be late. Come four o’clock in the afternoon, still no sign of him. The following day, same thing. No Johnson. Odd. Maybe they assigned him to another place. But he could have mentioned it to me during our previous meeting. For straight five days, I haven’t heard anything from him.
Not until the sixth day. As I am heading to the metro passing by the gate of the church, I see the red bonnet. I am about twenty feet away from his spot. I see his face smiling at me from afar. I see him waving. I wave back. Then I remember something. I stop. I hurriedly turn back to the house. I run up the stairs and straight to my room. I look for the plastic bag that I have been keeping inside my wardrobe. I take it out and speed off out of the house. As I am approaching him, his face looks a little confused by my sudden turnaround.
“Hey! Where have you been? What happened to you?” I ask him smiling.
We shake hands. His hand is really big.
“I went to Malaga. I met with my cousin who arrived from Rome.”
“Oh, okay, I thought you were transferred to another place.”
He released a loud laugh. “Transferred? Not happening. This will be my only spot, Nata.”
I hand him the plastic bag I got from my room.
“Hey, I want you to have this, be careful it’s heavy.” He looks at it and then gives me his patented smile.
“Wow! Thank you very much Nathaniel. Thank you very much!”
He shakes my hand again and off I go to the subway. As I inch away from him, I can hear the clinking sound of the coins inside the plastic bag as he carefully puts them inside his rucksack.
“Hey, your copy of the magazine!” He shouts at me.
“Keep it. It’s okay.” I shout back at him.
Even from afar, I can see his warm big smile, showing off his two missing front teeth.