I looked at my case notes again, as I compared it to what I observed to be reality. This was a referral from the local Member of Parliament, one of those we had to respond to urgently. Feelings of urgency were usually subjective; subjective to who observed the urgency, subjective to what this person was feeling when he felt this urgency. I flitted with a joke that the report writer from the Meet the People session was probably suffering from a bad bout of gas, before going back to the task at hand.
"Old man with one leg selling tissue paper at the hawker centre. Looks like he has financial problem. Please assist, and make sure he gets the help he wants, so that he does not have to be in the streets." was the monotone message invoked by the referral.
Indeed, the facts seem right: an old man with one leg was seated in his wheelchair, his artificial leg propped up against the wall behind him. He was in his mid 60s, balding, wearing a striped Polo Tee that was clearly too big for him. His muscular hands clasped several packets of tissue paper he was selling at $1.00 for a set of three.
He seemed busy, trying to make eye contact with the human drones rushing in and out the hawker centre that formed the hustle and bustle of the area. Those that were willing to spare a second of their attention were treated to the tune of "Tissue paper? 3 for one dollar!"
Most returned to the activities that had already been preconditioned in their minds. Some took time to stop and make a purchase, oftentimes paying a bit more than the declared purchase price. The demand for the product appears deeply rooted in its social impact element, I thought.
I waited a while, before mustering up the courage to talk to him. Indeed no easy feat, considering that I was coming from a position where I did not know his name, and he had no idea that someone like me was coming aknocking. I started with the textbook introduction of saying my name, and where I was from.
Midway in my introduction, he interrupted me with a gruff "Can't you see I'm busy working? Don't disturb me!"
I had the feeling that he saw the despondent look in my face, with my mouth half ajar, when he said "Or you can wait a while, until the crowd gets lesser. Then I'll talk to you."
And wait I did, finding a spot behind him where I could lean against the wall. Watching this man deftly use his left hand to move his wheelchair whilst holding a stack of tissue paper on the other. Beads of perspiration on his forehead appeared as the day grew hotter with the coming of noon. Yet, he persevered, making quite a number of sales in the process. Somehow he knew who were the people who would be more likely to buy his tissue, making a beeline for them as they came from afar. It was as though he could see their very souls through the blank facial expressions they maintained as they drifted into the hawker centre.
As the crowd began to thin, he slowly wheeled himself back against the wall, and unveiled a yellow towel, as if signalling the end of work. Burying his face, he wiped the sweat off his brow.
"I know people like you..." he muttered, face still buried in the cloth.
"You people think you are trying to save me, and make things better for me. But I don't need any of your help. I'm already getting money from the government, so nothing more you can do for me. Just let me do what I want to do."
"Hmm, I'm just responding to what those 'people' told me." I started.
"They told me that there was an elderly person who needs help urgently. But from what I saw, this person seems perfectly able to help himself."
His face appeared to soften momentarily at this statement. Taking this opportunity, I invited him for a drink at the hawker centre to wet his overused throat. He did not say anything but wheeled to the nearest table.
"Don't worry, today's treat is on me," he declared.
True enough, I was treated to more than just a glass of warm tea. I was treated to a story of a man, who had always been fiercely independent, whether he was working odd jobs as a carpenter, or was spending the more than 20 years as a taxi driver. His latter years had taken its toll on him, with diabetes ravaging his kidneys and taking away his leg.
"The most important thing to me is my dignity!" he said. "At least I want to work until I become bedridden. You guys can't take that away from me."
I nodded in understanding. This job was more than a job for this man. It was proof that he still has a role to play in the society which had long given him much disrespect. It was his final challenge to make sense of the hardships he has endured, at the very least, it serves the function of distracting him from the monotony of sitting at home in self pity.
Whose urgency was it, then, to ensure that this person, becomes non visible in our society? Perhaps some of the passers by might feel less discomfort if this man were not there, and they feel safe in knowledge that our elderly and disabled are lying happy at home, living out their retirement years in domestic bliss. As I reflected, I could not help but feel an overwhelming sense of guilt at the realisation that I would readily be one of those who might feel better if this man were no longer visible.
We all have roles we strive to play in, and for this man it was to be allowed to continue working with dignity, with or without public assistance.
For me, the role I needed to play was to respect this decision of his, and walk away.