I SMELL THE PEOPLE, THE PEOPLE SMELL ME: Saints and Stinks in the Summer of My Youth

WORD Becoming, Spiritual Reflections by Fr Roderick Salazar SVD

SABRIT, we called him.
That must not have been his real name.
But the cruel children that we were,
we called him that. SABRIT.

In Bicol, that is the verb for striking a match stick
at the side of a matchbox to light a fire.
And this man Sabrit would walk aimlessly from Daraga
to Albay to Legazpi and back again as was his fancy.
Ever so often, he would stop in his walking, strike
the road with his bare right foot, and resumed walking.
That was how he earned his name. SABRIT.

Unwashed, unkempt, with dirty clothes, a knapsack
on his back, sometimes a stick in his hand, he was
really harmless, not even begging for food but
grateful when he was given some. Sometimes,
he had a World War II helmet on, sometimes just
a torn straw hat, sometimes he had nothing on his
head. Where he lived, how he died, and when,
I do not know. I remember him now, asking the Lord
forgiveness for my not caring for him at all.
SABRIT. I trust he is now in the Father’s embrace.

TINOY was the raving madman. Harmless, too.
But he would take the same route that Sabrit walked
though I am not really sure they lived at about the
same time. Probably not. But Tinoy would walk
around talking talking talking nonsense. He was not
as dirty-looking at Sabrit, but everyone seemed
to know him, and not really know him.
Whatever became of him, I also do not know.
But I am confident that He who took a cricket’s
lifeless body home to heaven, would have taken
Tinoy there too. (Maybe Tinoy’s name was Cristino?)
His nonsense raving perhaps purified now
blending with the song of a cricket and hymns of angels.

TIBIN was our town barber. The itinerant one.
There were already barbershops in town,
some air-conditioned, some with electric fans,
but the cost of haircuts there was a bit high
compared to Tibin’s asking price of 30 centavos.

Where we lived then is not now where our house is.
But behind our family residence now are some hills.
I am told that Tibin and his family used to live there.
A decent man, he, quiet, loyal, respectful, kind.
He had always a white trubenized (know that term?)
shirt rolled up to the upper arm, tucked in his pants,
held up tightly by an old belt. I think he just wore slippers.
For many years, Tibin would ply the same route that
Sabrit and Tinoy took, though Tibin, for a living, but
the other two for whatever reason or unreason they had.

Lying in bed in the hospital for four dialysis hours today,
these three people came to my mind. And I thought
I might mention them here.

First, to ask forgiveness from the Lord for whatever
failure of love for them I may have been guilty of,
even in my youth.

Second, to invite anyone to look around you now
or back in memory at people like Sabrit, Tinoy, Tibin.

Where we can no longer cast a loving look
and do a loving act, to at least pray for them.
And to look more carefully and lovingly now at those
who serve us, cook our meals, aid us in anything
and everything. Ever and always we need to remember
what Jesus said: “Whatever you do to the least of
My brothers and sisters, you do to Me.”

After all, when the Word became flesh and lived
among us, he mixed with the ordinary people of His time.
They were not all clean physically or spiritually, but
He did not make fun of them, He met them, touched them,
cured them, gave them the kindly, hopeful word.

Which brings me to the quote
“I smell the people, and the people smell me.”
What is this? Ah, Let me call Anthony Quinn again.

In 1969 he was in a movie with Anna Magnani,
called THE SECRET OF SANTA VITTORIA.
The setting was Italy during the Second World War.
Mussolini had fallen, the Nazis occupied Italy
or at least a part of it, and these Germans knew
particularly of that small town, SANTA VITTORIA.
It was a manufacturer of wine.

At the time the Nazis were aiming to go to the town,
Santa Vittoria was rumoured to have a million bottles
of wine. The townspeople knew they could not just
surrender their wine. In this town was the drunkard
BOMBOLINI, played of course, by good old Tony Quinn.

As the town council deliberated on how to deal
with the Nazis, an idea arose to make fun of the Germans
by presenting to them a Mayor who did not make sense.
One of them suggested drunkard BOMBOLINI.
Pleased by this suggestion, Bombolini said Yes.

Over the objections of some of the educated ones
who asked whatever could Bombolini offer that they
the already elected officials did not have.
Wagging his characteristic right forefinger, BOMBOLINI
Anthony Quinn rises to reply with the famous words:
“I SMELL THE PEOPLE, AND THE PEOPLE SMELL ME.”

Of course, they did, his breath full of wine, his clothes
unwashed despite the nagging of wife Anna Magnani.

Ah, but the implication of that phrase.
First time I heard this in that movie, I knew I had found
one quality of a leader: nearness to the people, being
close enough to smell and be smelled by them.

So Bombolini on that phrase that he said, became Mayor.

Long story short, the townspeople of Santa Vittoria
were able to hide most of their bottles of wine in a
nearby cave, leaving enough bottles to surrender to the Nazis.
The ending scene is the whole town gathered in the square,
the exasperated Germans ready to leave not quite with
the million wine bottles they had hoped to claim.

One last threat by the Nazi commander. He threatens to
shoot Bombolini in front of everybody if he did not reveal
where the missing bottles were. But Bombolini answers
without really answering. The Germans leave in a huff.

Bombolini mimics the Nazi, and in triumph, stomps his
feet on the ground, Zorba-like, and begins to dance.
And everybody dances, shouts, and sings.
their wine safe – The Secret of Santa Vittoria.

Ah, leadership has to have that nearness to people
so that they can smell the leader and the leader smell them.
Not always perfume and fragrance, more often the sweat
and the dirt that come from everyday living and working.

Following Christ is like that. Unclean lepers he touched.
Probably smelly woman with years of hemorrhage he cured.
Children washed and unwashed He embraced.
He smelled the people, and the people smelled Him.

Lying in my dialysis bed this afternoon, I thought of them all:
the nurses and the doctors, the care-givers, the attendants
my fellow-patients. Not SABRITS, TINOYS, TIBINS, they.
But each and all a saint, not yet all polished but each
striving to be one, even if they do not explicitly say so.
Day-to-day duty prompts, salaried-work calls, whatever.
They are there amidst the uncertainties of life,
the dust and dirt of hospital and home and workplace.

This is life. In the midst of all, the assurance that all is redeemed.
That where we are we can find our sanctity.
We err and we sin and we fall, and we rise again and go on.
With tears or with smiles, or with just rugged determination.
We go on. Please God be with us and give us strength.

“Oh when the saints go marching in
Oh when the saints go marching in
Oh Lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in.

Oh when SABRIT begins to dance
Oh when SABRIT begins to dance
Oh Lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in.

Oh when TINOY sounds out his call
Oh when TINOY sounds out his call
Oh Lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in.

MANOY TIBIN, you are my friend
MANOY TIBIN, you are my friend
Yes, you’re gonna be in that number
When the saints go marching in ….”

Leave a Reply