Today, I overheard a conversation about loaned money that finally got repaid, and the wise advice that we should only lend money that we could afford to lose. I thought about a time when we did lend money, but only after we took precautions that we would get paid. Or so we thought!
One day, John received a call from a Singaporean, whom we didn’t know, who said that he needed help. He named a few photographers whom we knew, and said, for some reason, he could not contact any of them. (This was in pre-cellphone days). He said he and his Filipina wife were shopping for clothes and toys for their children when his clutch bag – which contained his wallet and passport – was snatched. He just needed a small cash loan –that his brother in Singapore would repay. It didn’t seem small to me, but he explained that he didn’t have a credit card and had to pay the small hotel where they were staying. He also needed to pay cash at the embassy so he could apply for a new passport.
To put this narrative in the right perspective, let me tell a background story when John came home amazed and impressed with the honesty of Singaporeans. John was in Singapore and had left his camera in a public bus. When he realized that he had left one camera (he was carrying one, and left behind one), he went back to the bus stop, and tried to wait for the same bus. He recalled that the driver was Indian, and he remembered the bus number. He waited. (Thankfully, Singapore is a small city, without Manila’s horrendous traffic problems). The bus came, but with a different driver. He boarded the bus but his camera was not on the seat – last row – where he left it. He inquired with the new driver, who told him that he should go to the bus terminal. So, he did. As they were nearing the bus terminal, John saw the Indian driver and ran after him. John was relieved to hear that the bus driver had surrendered his camera to the bus dispatcher. John said he not only got back his camera, but also got to memorize every bus that passed in front of his, now favorite, bus stop.
Fast-forward to the day of this mysterious phone call. With this experience in mind, John was ready to jump in and come to the rescue of this man, especially since he’s Singaporean. He wanted to somehow “return the favor.” But he allowed a little bit of caution, at my prodding, when this man promised that his brother in Singapore would repay the loan. John asked him to just ask his brother to give the money to our friend (a photo equipment supplier). That would be more convenient than sending money to the Philippines. John would call to verify if our friend had received the money from this man’s brother. If he did, then John would give this man the money that he was asking for.
Our friend agreed to wait for the man’s brother to deliver money to him after the weekend. When John called him that Monday, he gave John the go-signal to give our mystery man some money.
John asked me if I wanted to do a good deed, and when I said yes, he sent me on an errand to buy clothes and toys for this man’s little boys. He told me that I could give them to him at dinner that night, as he had invited him and his wife to dinner at Alda’s, a small Italian restaurant in Ermita.
John lent him the money, I gave him and his wife the gifts for their children, we treated them to dinner, and we all had a pleasant time, although I did observe that she was mostly quiet.
After a few days, we heard from other photographer-friends that they had been victimized by this scammer. Hopeful that we were spared from having been duped by the precautions we took, we called our friend in Singapore to confirm that he had, indeed, received payment before giving us the go-signal to give the man our money. Ruefully, he told us that the man’s brother never came! He apologized and narrated his own experience of losing his wallet and passport while on a train in Italy. He said that he was sorry that he sympathized with his compatriot whom he thought was in a similar situation in the Philippines.
We could not blame our friend – after all, we were just asking him the favor of helping ensure that we would have an honest transaction.
We didn’t know where to find this man so that we could confront him, until a few weeks later, when John saw a newspaper article about a Singaporean swindler. It was him! He was being detained at a prison in Manila.
John rushed to go there. Without me. He said he added his testimony to an apparently long list of others whom this man had victimized. I was proud of him for doing his civic duty.
John’s story had a postscript.
He said he saw the man’s wife on the steps outside the jail. He pulled out a five-hundred-peso bill from his wallet, handed it to her, while solicitously admonishing her, “This is for you. Go get something to eat. Don’t give this to him.” And he repeated, “This is for you.”
I couldn’t believe what I just heard! How could he give her money – after what they did to us? Didn’t he think they were into these scams together? At the very least, she must have known what her husband was doing! We had dinner together and she neither said a word nor dropped a hint.
But I paused and stopped, and in a complete turnaround, instead of being incredulous, I looked at him with great admiration for his kind gesture to this poor woman. Indeed, she might have been in cahoots with her scam-scheming husband, but I wondered, if John’s kindness touched her enough to help her turn away from, possibly, a life of crime?
I’ll never know, but I certainly hope so.