FISHBALL VENDOR – A Pandemic Story
Discovering the Essential Filipino
Inspired by a boy the author met at the Singalong Market.
Bernie V. Lopez,
Sean, a senior British correspondent for 30 years, is in Manila on assignment to write about “the essential Filipino”. This is peanuts for Sean.
Suddenly, he gets stranded. No flights back to London due to the pandemic. For three days, he runs around searching. But the malls and business districts are empty. He heads for the crowded Singalong marketplace.
He spots a barefoot 8-year-old boy selling fishballs from a rolling cart. He has a dirty torn shirt which reads “I (heart) New York”. The boy dances, sporting wireless bluetooth earphones, mimicking quite accurately Michael Jackson’s famous gyrations, complete with a straw hat. A small crowd of onlookers applaud. He ignores them.
Spotting his story, Sean moves in. He had to scream into his ear due to the loud music. The boy removes the earphones.
SEAN – Hey, what are you doing? What’s your name?
JOEY – I’m Joey. Fishballs, sir, wanna buy?
SEAN – Nice earphones, huh?
Joey gives the earphones to Sean who puts them on, and instantly jerks them away – loud Michael Jackson music. Joey put his earphones back on.


SEAN – Hey, wait, I’m talking to you. (Joey removes the earphones, and shows his tiny mp3 player.) Where did you get these? These are expensive. It doesn’t go with your shirt. Did you steal these?
JOEY – No, not steal. I saved fishball income for one year.
SEAN – Why don’t you buy a new shirt and shoes?
JOEY – What for? Not important. Waste of money. Clothes don’t make me happy, only music.
SEAN – You kill yourself selling fishballs for a year just to buy those?
JOEY – Why not? What would you buy? Me, my dream is fulfilled. I don’t need shirts and shoes, just Michael’s music. You, what is your dream?
SEAN – (Caught off guard.) I guess I have no dream. I mean, all I do is write stories to survive. Or yes I have a dream, but I don’t know what it is yet.
JOEY – At your age? Boy, you must be very sad. Buy yourself an mp3.
SEAN – But that is not my dream.
JOEY – So what is your real dream. There must be something you really really like.
SEAN – I have been working so hard, I never really thought about it. My life is work, work, work.
JOEY – But I also work, work, work.
Sean, beginning to discern “the essential Filipino”, takes out his notebook and frantically scribbles, “The essential Filipino is a free spirit. Amazing how this boy is so ‘poor and happy’, as Ernest Hemingway puts it in his book Fiesta. Even in his poverty, he rejects the materialism that is destroying affluent Western society. He is driven by a spiritual dream. Perhaps it comes from his distant past, his Austronesian roots of nomads in tiny boats roaming the vast Pacific. Adventurer. Devil may care.”
JOEY – (Reading) Free spirit … poor and happy … spiritual dream … nomads in tiny boats … (grabbing the notebook.) I know this is your dream. You just don’t know it. What you write here is your dream.
SEAN – (Surprised at the boy’s perception.) I … I … I guess so.
JOEY – It is not a guess. You have found your dream. Once you know your dream, you must follow it, or else you will be very sad, and soon you will die because you have no more reason to live.
SEAN – Thank you for telling me my dream. (Almost in tears, Sean hugs Joey and gives him a hundred-peso bill.)
JOEY – This is too much.
SEAN – No, it’s too little. You help me find my dream that was right in front of my nose all the while. That’s worth a million pesos.
JOEY – (Laughing.) Okay, give me a million pesos. Yes, you cannot see things that are too near your nose. You have to move back to see.
SEAN – Go, buy yourself more music.
JOEY – No. My mom told me to stay at home because of the virus. No selling fishballs. But we have nothing to eat. So I sneaked out without telling her.
SEAN – How can you be so hungry and still dance away?
JOEY – You are a gift from heaven. The Lord is kind to me. Now, I buy food. Thanks.
SEAN – Thanks also for telling me my dream. Yes, the Lord is kind to both of us.
Sean tries to give another hundred-peso bill. Joey refuses. Sean stuffs it into his pocket and leaves quickly.
It took thirty minutes for Sean to write his story at the hotel lobby. In a few milliseconds, the story is at the editor’s desk in London. The title reads, “The Wisdom of the Poor”. Sean lingers for three months until the ban on flights to London is lifted, visiting more marketplaces, to fulfill his dream of writing a book about the true Filipino.  
By Bernie V. Lopez,
FB “Eastwind Journals” / “Bernie V Lopez”