Friday, August 21, 2009

Keeping Up With the Joneses

When I was a boy in the early 1960s, color TV was the latest thing, but my family only had a black & white set. We were living in an upper-lower-middle income neighborhood in Albany, Georgia on Waddell Avenue, and my mother could not keep me at home in the evenings because I was watching color TV in a neighbor's house. I didn't realize it, but I was causing my mother embarrassment for not possessing the latest appliance. My father said it was because she had "a champagne appetite on a beer income." So, in classic keeping up with the Joneses fashion, my mother thought she had no other choice but to buy a color TV. As I grew up, I saw her make many more such "choices" - without knowing that, living as we did always on the frontier of prosperity, there were really no choices in the matter.

Here in my Philippine barangay, there is a shack just across a small clearing in front of my house that sits at an odd angle not five feet away from the side of a cinder block house with the words Sanosa's Family in large white letters on the front wall. From the size and the look of this shack, one could easily mistake it for a tool shed. Except that five people call this shack home - a young couple, Serena and Roque, and their three children, ages six months to eight years.

Until last March the shack was made of grass. Now only the grass roof remains and the walls have changed into cinder block and wood, with windows and a sturdy door. In May a television arrived, to sit on a small table, the only furniture the one-room house will allow. The family sleeps on a mat on the dirt floor. At the end of July, electricity was connected to the shack. And a few days later a karaoke player was a finishing touch.

Serena, does nothing but care for the children, cook and clean. Roque makes everything possible - the shack, the electricity, the TV and karaoke - by pedalling a pedicab for five pesos a ride around the port town five kilometers away.

To discover what started all this hard work and sacrifice for these incremental home improvements, one would have to go back a year, when the shack was grass, and when the Sanosa household made their unhappiness at its proximity to their more imposing home with a garden and a gate. This unhappiness would bubble abruptly to the surface and confrontations occurred. When I first witnessed one I was astonished. Whenever there are such shouting matches in the barangay, people gather around at a safe distance to watch. Three Sanosa sisters, imperious in their mid teens, would stand in front of Serena'a house and scream at her, that she was poor and that her house was an eyesore. Serena would look at them with bewilderment and rage until she would shout back at them "Yes! We are poor! But we are not proud!" The Sanosa daughters, not comprehending her noble words, simply laughed at her. At nights, I could hear Serena crying to her husband, behind her closed grass door.

Thanks to the windfall of a few thousand pesos, a modest lotto jackpot, the Sanosas spent every centavo acquiring a dependably loud karaoke player and a large TV, paid for in installments. And they would play music loudly late into the night, with Serena's husband and children trying to sleep five feet away in their shack. So I was not altogether surprised, and even heartened, to see the recent improvements to Serena's household. That is until I discovered the true reason for them. As incredible as it may sound, last year Serena and her husband started to save money just so they could prove the Sanosas wrong. I don't believe the Sanosas themselves are even aware of it. Their cruel words to Serena had a lasting effect that they could not have foreseen. And every one of the additions to Serena's house came about as a consequence of her family subsisting on a diet of nothing but dried fish and rice. Every day, week in and week out. Some believe it is because Serena doesn't know how to cook anything else.

Now there is loud karaoke emanating from the shack in front of the Sanosa house until late in the night. The Sanosa's have fallen on meagre times. Their electricity has been shut off three times because they haven't been able to pay their bill on time. And their TV was repossessed because they couldn't pay the installments.

Serena must have been gratified, but she didn't show it. How much longer this sad contest will go on depends on the endurance of Roque's legs, the limits of a pedicab's range and how much greater their appetite for noise-making appliances becomes on their dried fish and rice income. But like everyone else in the world, subject to the same demands of consumerism, they too may be without much of a choice any more.

No comments: