Saturday, January 28, 2012

The pedestrian sleepers

A WARM nest of bodies.

Walking away from the Basilica del Sto. Niño’s final evening mass at the height of the fiesta novena, I came upon sidewalks full of people sleeping or settling down for the night.

I felt like an interloper who walked in on guests of the house acting as “floor leaders,” a joke referring to the practice of barrio hosts to accommodate their fiesta visitors on mats spread out on the wooden floor of the living room for lack of bedrooms and beds.

The sidewalks were packed tightly, with sleeping bodies arranged in spoon fashion. Here and there were improvised stoves and a simmering pot. Some of those who were lying down were facing each other, talking as I imagine couples do just before someone drops off to sleep.

Were these people related to each other? The compression of space and the intimate way each body adjusted to the ones lying beside it, not to mention the fact that many lowered their guards enough to go to sleep—all suggested the tightest, most unbreakable of relations, if not by birth then by affinity.

Yet, seeing the bodies stretch out for a block or more, I guessed that it is hardly possible for entire clans to have conspired to live in the sidewalks for the Sinulog. Many of the sidewalk sleepers had to be strangers until they ended sharing a carton spread out on a sidewalk this fiesta.

Perhaps these were street vendors, who preferred to sleep nearby to take advantage of selling opportunities with early mass goers.
Or pilgrims dedicated to fulfill a longtime vow, even if it meant finding rest in one of the most inhospitable places I can imagine?

Why would one choose dirt-strewn pavements and the risks of sleeping in the open for the accommodations and amenities set out for out-of-town visitors at the Devotee City in Compania Maritima, just a walk away from the Basilica?

Yet, this sidewalk scene reminded me of my aunt’s anecdote about Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Termed as such partly because the peaking of shopping always brings about high levels of chaos and stress, Black Friday is much anticipated because many take advantage of the widespread store sales and big discounts.

Outside stores selling major-ticket items like electronics, buyers camp out on the sidewalks to be among the first to go in when the doors open. The adjective, “black,” is also said to be based on the accounting standard that businesses record their losses in red, and gains in black.
Bargain-hunting in the West can induce people to abandon warm beds and find temporary comfort in the thought that they will be the first to grab great buys.

Is it the same for the sidewalk sleepers I walked amongst on my way home?

While I agree with most observers who say chaos describes best the state of our sidewalks, a Dec. 17, 2011 article in The Economist puts forth some curious insights about pedestrian behavior, based on a new science examining and predicting how people behave in a crowd.

According to researchers, a crowd is a mass of “particles with a will”. A social force drives persons in a crowd to react like particles in fluids and gases. Some factors attract persons; some, repel. Thus, there is little freedom of choice because individuals react in the same, predictable way to certain givens.

Yet, the scientists also note some aberration. Why are persons in some cultures less bothered about the chances of bumping into another person? The Economist observes that pedestrians move around in crowds in Munich and Mumbai, but an experiment showed that the Indians walk faster than the Germans because they are less bothered about bumping into others.

Or why do persons in the East instinctively step to the left to avoid a collision with another person? Except for South Korea where there is a government campaign requiring pedestrians to walk on the right, Orientals instinctively sidestep to the left and Westerners, go for the right.

Getting over the initial discomfort from watching the people sleeping on the sidewalk , I chose to walk on the street. Despite heavy traffic, I did not want to step on anyone, and I felt like an interloper in that warm nest of bodies.

And yes, I moved to the left to spare the pedestrian sleepers.

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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's Jan. 22, 2012 issue of the "Matamata" Sunday column

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