Image Source: https://vancouversun.com/
Before dawn most days, Edwin Padilla is out with his flashlight, scouring Spanish Banks and Jericho Beach for discarded bottles and cans.
On days when recyclables are set out for pickup on Vancouver’s wealthy West Side, Padilla hurries to be there before the trucks to pick through and recover anything that can be redeemed for its deposit.
“It’s a hard job. It’s dirty too,” he said. “I need to have a thick face to people who assume I am one of the homeless.”
The 74-year-old retired psychiatric nurse doesn’t do it for himself. He does it to raise money for people starving in his hometown in the Philippines.
That is also why Padilla busks with his ukulele around False Creek when it’s not too cold or too wet.
His renditions of Beatle’s songs and Christmas carols aren’t all that good, he humbly says. But I can attest they’re not all that bad. Still, it is his hand-printed sign that states he is raising money for the people of Mabitac that makes the big difference.
So far, Padilla’s efforts have raised nearly $1,200. That is enough to have provided food for 102 families in one of Mabitac’s poorest barangays, or districts. On Christmas Eve, another 60 people will sit down to a special dinner.
For many of us, Padilla included, the pandemic may have sparked our generosity, but it has also narrowed our focus literally to our own neighbourhoods, making it easy to forget what it’s like in poorer countries like the Philippines.
Life there, pre-pandemic, was improving. Yet even before COVID, the World Bank forecast that one in every five families would still be living below the poverty line in 2020.
Then came COVID.
For 10 months under some of the world’s toughest restrictions, Filipinos have been ordered to stay at home.
Tough for all, it has been devastating for the poorest who drive motorized “tricycles” — what we know as tuktuks in Thailand — or make a living reselling items they have picked from the garbage.
Then, the typhoons came. Last month, Ulysses swept through, causing massive flooding in Mabitac. Many houses in the poorest barangays were swamped or destroyed. One person drowned, another was electrocuted.
It is why every penny that Padilla sends matters. It buys rice, canned goods, and maybe some eggs.
His old school friends — some of the 350 members of his Katute Super Grand Reunion Facebook group — distribute the money. (Padilla laughs when asked about the reunion. That super grand event has still to be organized.)
“I told him I was not busking, but he insisted to give it to me anyway. I accepted it. Why not!” he said. “Even if I did not busk before, I felt emboldened thinking that the people of Vancouver would respond to my appeal.”
At home, the Beatles fan reviewed the songbook and began adding to his repertoire. His favourite? John Lennon’s Imagine, “because whenever I sing that, people stop and take out their wallets.”
Padilla bought a dual amplifier, microphone and a music stand, and took to the streets. On days it was too cold or wet, Padilla scoured the streets for bottles, which he said has the added benefits of exercise and helping clean up the environment.
The retired nurse admits he is not the world’s best singer even though he and his wife, Olivia, sing in the choir at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Parish.
As for his playing? He was 10 when his father gave him his first ukulele. But it broke, and it was close to five decades before Padilla bought another while he was visiting the Philippines. Lately, he has been taking lessons at the Sarah McLachlan School of Music in addition to playing with Vancouver Ukulele Circle and theSt. Pat’s Ukes, a group that he organized at his church to play and sing religious and popular songs in tagalog.
He has had a lucky life — at least most of it.
There was a bad patch that began in 2004. One night when Olivia — “my strict wife,” as he lovingly calls her — went out for dinner with her girlfriends, Padilla went to the old Edgewater Casino on False Creek.
Within 30 minutes of playing, he had won the jackpot of $114,000 and he was hooked. Gambling became an addiction, affecting his health, his work, his family. He wept as he told me how he eventually had himself committed to hospital. He was suicidal.
A counsellor helped in his recovery and … yes … so did playing the ukulele.
This Christmas Eve, hours after the people in Mabitac have finished their special dinner, Edwin and Olivia will sit down to celebrate alone.
Abiding by the pandemic restrictions, the two retired nurses won’t be spending Dec. 24 as they usually do having turkey and all the trimmings with extended family.
Instead, Padilla will cook. In addition to busking and bottle collecting, he has become a self-described gourmet cook this year. It’s possible that his specialty — dinuguan, a Filipino pork-blood stew that he and Olivia call “chocolate soup” — will be on the menu.
They will watch mass on YouTube and reflect on past years, and this one in particular.
“For the good life that Canada is giving me, I have to give back. I get very much pleasure from doing this. I am happy,” said Padilla.
“People stare at me, which I don’t mind, because I know why I’m doing this.”