John's proposal that we reconsider the role of creative literature in anthropology/ethnography is timely as I have gone back to writing short stories about the people whose faces are stored in my memory. Like in this "first draft" piece , I know the protagonist did exist, but my memory of him is very limited. What I have in mind are the things that happened to me where he played a peripheral part. The question is whether this story of estrangement and derangement-- mine and Sorro's-- is an alternative form of ethnography. Is there truth in fiction? How should we define the truth? Should it be collectively experienced and accepted? Is the experience or the belief of an individual enough to construct a truth? In Sorro's case, where he had his own unique sense of reality, can we see a distinct culture in it? Can an individual construct his own culture? If culture is one's way of life, is donning a cheap Zorro costume everyday not a cultural practice? I know these questions can easily be attacked by discrediting Sorro because of his mental health, but such attack will open up a profound question whether the mentally ill have and practice their own culture.
Sorro, The Street Hero
I should have been a psychologist. Even the crazy and the solitary ones amused me. In college, I befriended Sorro, a permanent fixture on the campus who freely manned the traffic and cleaned the sidewalk without pay. He thought he was Zorro, the hero of the oppressed, so he helped street janitors and traffic enforcers do their thankless jobs.
His shaggy purple cape, black cowl mask, and dull wooden sword pulled me towards him like a kid to a candy store. Something about him made me feel guilty and want to help even though he said nothing. He lived in his own reality, but all his resentments against the world sounded like mine. His pain felt the same deep in my chest. Even when he gave up and moved on seemed a familiar dejection I had in mind when I did the same. His sorrow also became mine.
Sorro’s ageing face crimsoned from dust and daylight. I knew he had a story to tell. His sleepy gaze, weary and vulnerable, reposed as if he was ready to be hypnotized. Spinning memories told in lies and exaggerations preoccupied him. Consumed by his past he could not forget, he spoke to anyone he met as though he wanted to be heard and believed. Underneath his deranged facade and beyond his wild tales, the truth and his honesty came out by themselves to expose what he could not directly say. I could tell where he just came from by only looking at the grime and stain on his overworn shoes that needed some mending. The scars on his arms protruded into keloids looking like they were fraught with childhood memories of abuse and abandonment and about to burst into vengeance and revenge.
I listened to Sorro even though my friends told me he was a lunatic. Had he been a writer, he could have produced a novel filled with bizarre but philosophical thoughts defying logic. It never occurred to me, even in passing, that he might attack me or grab my lanky arms and throw me down a la Antonio Banderas and point his make-believe sword onto my neck. He let go even the red ants that crossed his path and saved them when the street he marked as his flooded. How could he hurt someone? There was nothing scary about him. What scared me was my own fear of digging what I had been trying to bury for years. When he said, “Time doesn’t really heal wounds,” I snapped out from my debilitating denial. He showed me, without scorn or a hint of judgment, how to accept my destined lot.
I used to buy him food and give him spare change as my way of thanking him. Sorro came into my life when even my belief in God, which should not have bothered me since I grew up a devout Catholic, angered and confused me. When I told him what I had been suffering that made me not want to live anymore, he laughed dismissively as if my problem was mindlessly easy and said, “Don’t give yourself a chance to suffer, to lose, and to die. That’s unfair to people who have no fresh air to breathe. You’re taking in the best oxygen for nothing. You’re uselessly inhaling it away from them.” He made me see the noisy rhythm of the old Acacia trees that swayed with the afternoon gusts of early Summer. I knew what he meant: I must live also for others the way he had since his parents intentionally left him in a crowded place when he was three.
Speaking like a preacher, he went further, “You’re god. Loving yourself is loving god. Killing god is killing yourself.” He made me laugh and shed my atheistic pretensions the moment he shared his existentialist thoughts that somehow made sense to me and drove my feet to enter again the empty church nearby. I cried out my penance, recognizing Sorro could be God’s instrument for my deliverance. When I got home, I threw away the bottle of pesticide I bought and planned to consume that day, my twentieth birthday.
Sorro and I had remained friends until I graduated and moved out of the campus. He was lounging in the dwarf sunflower garden, a stone’s throw away from the asphalt road where he usually hanged out and waited for the Manila sunset, lying down on the trimmed Bermuda grass, both of his shoeless feet resting on the mossy rock, either talking to the moon or counting the emerging stars, the night I finally drove off away from my old dormitory to start anew. I yelled his name through the car window and gave him my last wave. He looked at me as though he knew I was leaving or he just did not recognize my sweating face under the bleary glare of the streetlights. After a quick glance, he ignored me like he wanted to tell me he was tired. He turned his head and raised his gaze back to the dimming sky.
The day before, I gave him all I had in my pockets: coins, bills, my Cross pen, and my opal ring. “Write your story, your poetry, and you can sell this ring when you need something,” I suggested. He said nothing like he was unable to speak, and that was the last time I talked to him. Not long after, I heard he was picked up by uniformed men and brought to a mental asylum after he threw feces and stale urine and shrilly cussed at the corrupt politicians who visited my former university. What a hero!