The reverse epidemic

The man lived by himself in a little blue house. His wife had passed away a long
time before and his two sons, now married, lived far away.

On that day the man was disgusted. Coming home from downtown by bus he had
seen a group o children begging in the square near the church.

“This is unacceptable – he said furiously. The old man zigzagged on the carpet of
the living room.

“And what is worse is that tomorrow is the last day of the year!

The man had counted up to 17 children.

“I won’t be able to spend the last night of the year in peace knowing that, all the
while, these children will be there, lying on the cold cement, hungry and cold, running
all sorts of risks, and also the worst of them all: hopelessness.

All of a sudden two eyes lit up behind the thick lenses of the glasses. Sitting down
on the armchair of the living room, the old man took up a small notebook, a pencil
and started to write up a list.

He would buy, before anything else, a large plastic bathtub, 8 toilet soaps, 3 bottles
of shampoo, 1 box of swabs, 2 bottles of cologne water, 17 bath towels and a water
hose. The water for the water hose was to come from the tap of the filling station at
the side of the square.

He would also need to buy 17 T shirts, 9 pairs of pants, 8 skirts, 9 undershorts, 8
pairs of panties, 17 pairs of socks and 17 pairs of sneakers and one big bag to carry all

And a mirror, a comb and hair fixer to comb correctly the hair of the kids.

And two big turkeys, bought already seasoned and roasted, 2 dozen eggs and wheat
flour to make the farofa (fried flour) and 2 kilos of rice.

And 17 cardboard plates, 17 plastic cups, 10 two-liter bottles of soda, 17 plastic
forks and 17 plastic knifes.

And 51 brownies, 51 cupcakes and 51 chocolate bonbons.

And a cake.

And a bottle of champagne (one sip of champagne to toast the New Year is basic

And 17 toothbrushes and two tubes of toothpaste with fluoride.

And a small portable stove to heat up the food.

He would also buy 17 small mattresses, 17 pillows, 17 bed sheets, 17 pillowcases
and 17 blankets.

“I wish to see all these kids entering the New Year with the right foot!

A lead-colored cloud made the man frown still more.

What if it rained?

Just in case he thought it was better to add 17 umbrellas to the list, small ones.

And some aspirin in case anybody got a cold.

And one little bottle of mercurochrome in case anyone was hurt.

And three small low fold-out tables to put the food on.

And three table cloths of white fabric.

And three candle holders with three red candles, one for each table.

The man sitting on the armchairs in the living room stretched happily.

It would be a very nice thing to give a little gift.

He would buy 2 balls, one a football and one volley ball for the gang to play in the
afternoon. And 17 different books, one for each child. So that, when night fell, after
the bath, after the dinner, the kids would all be able to sit under a lamp post and spend
the night reading. When one of them finished a book, he would exchange it for the
book of another and so on.

And what about those who could not read?

He shrugged, annoyed.

“This is the XXI Century! It is unbelievable that there are still children in this town
that cannot read or write. This is a crime. A shame for all those able to read!

The old man made a face:

“Why us and not them?”

The old man was a retired man, he could read and write an, besides, had a lot of
free time. He himself would teach those kids to read!

And added to the list a small blackboard, a box of chalk, 17 notebooks, 17 pencils,
17 pencil sharpeners and 17 erasers.

“Only with a minimum of education would these children – so he said to himself –
be able someday to improve their lives a bit.”

Reading, so he imagined, the children would, besides knowing a thousand tales,
learn to think, for this is one of the most important things in reading. A text is always
a thought put into written words, a thought with a beginning, a middle and an end,
organized by an author. When we read we enter this thought and so, without knowing,
ends up by learning how to think too.

The man smiled at these thoughts of his.

And more, as he remembered, these children would know that there are different
countries and different customs, they would know their rights as citizens, would know
other viewpoints on life and the world, would discover poetry and science, would
find out that all people, of no matter what country, are very much alike: they fall in
love, they like tenderness, they revolt, are afraid to die, hate pain and hunger, can feel
ashamed, make mistakes, enjoy pleasure, wish to be loved and have a mania for
wanting to know themselves.

The guy was sure:

“When these urchins are able to read and write, they shall be able to teach the
others, which live in other squares. If each of them has 17 students, 17 times 17, this
is 289 kids. 289 times 17 are 4.913. 4.913 times 17 are …. 83.521 people!

The old man slapped the arm of the chair:

“This will be a reverse epidemic. An epidemic of generosity, of knowledge and of
the wish to change life and the world!

And he reminded himself that he would need three large bags, for the food, the bed
linen and the books and that maybe it would be convenient to rent a van to take
everything to the square.

Then he recalled that, before anything else, it would be maybe important to add up
the costs.

He would spend roughly 130 reais on the bathtub, on the toilet soaps, on the swab
sticks, water of cologne, towels and water hose.

At least some 648 on the clothes and bag.

10 reais on the hair fixer and comb and mirror.

169 on the food and beverages.

And there would still be the toothbrushes and toothpaste, the little mattresses, the
blankets and bed linen, the umbrellas, the towels, dishes, paper cups, table ware, the
portable stove, the aspiring, mercurochrome, the small tables, the candle holders, the
red candles, the linen table cloths, the balls, the books, the blackboard, the chalk box,
and school material.

It would, by his calculations, add up to some R$ 1.859,00, not counting the rent of
the van!

It so happened the old man was poor, his retirement pension was a pittance, and, to
tell the truth, he would never have the money for anything of that.

The man then went to the kitchen, picked up a piece of mozzarella cheese, a jar of
cottage cheese half empty, one package of sliced bread, a bottle of red wine, a small
knife, a corkscrew and some aspirin. He picked a folding umbrella, some scotch tape,
the little notebook, the pencil and a book of Folk Tales. Putting all of that down into a
backpack, he locked up the house and departed, his steps firm, towards the square
near the church.

The retired man never returned. He was my neighbor and all that took place almost
five years ago.

To this day, when the end of the year comes around, in the night I sometimes catch
myself thinking of him and the things he told me he intended to do some day, if he
had the courage.