July 25th, 2007


the worst stories are the ones never told

This morning I saw a homeless man slouched against on a seat on the subway, asleep, his arms clutching a tiny yellow backpack. No one was sitting next to him, so I did. Minutes later I noticed a very peculiar smell--something akin to a rural outhouse slathered ceiling to floor with used condoms. It was overpowering. I didn't want to get up from my seat because I was tired, and I wanted to sleep. Perhaps I was also concerned about being rude. So I tried to ignore it. But every time I started to nod off, I'd get a whiff of that odor and I'd wake up. I thought, hey, he can't help it, showers ain't free. I thought about how lonely it must be to smell so bad that strangers won't sit next to you. I mean, granted, most of the homeless folk I'd met smelled far better than this. But all the worse for this poor guy. I looked at the people around me, who were huddled against the far wall of the train, trying too hard to ignore him. There was a circle of empty space about five feet around on this otherwise overcrowded train, and he was at the center. How dare they be so insensitive, I thought. How dare they treat this man this way. I thought about poking him awake and asking him if he needed a place to shower. No, he'd probably take that the wrong way. Or he'd take it the right way, and then try to take advantage of it. Not that I was afraid, I mean, I knew where I kept my meat carving knives, and he didn't. But no, it'd look bad if I invited him in with a knife behind my back. What so many homeless people need, maybe almost as much as food and shelter, is respect. And you can't have respect with that little trust. And goodness, I was ashamed of myself for assuming he was dangerous in the first place. Looked like he hadn't eaten in months--couldn't hurt a tick if he wanted to. So I deliberated, and I deliberated, and I deliberated, and I did not say a word.

Then he bumped me in the leg.

It wasn't a kick, per se. It was more like his legs were sort of together and then they sharply came apart. But it was violent. I glared at him. He was occupying two seats now, and his leg had swiveled right over and rammed into mine, and now he was pressing it against my knee. He didn't apologize. He didn't even look up. Well, that was rude, I thought. Fucker thinks he owns this train. Now I try my best to be considerate of other people, but I wasn't going to take that kind of shit from anyone, homeless or not. So I stood up. I stood up, and refused to make eye contact with him. His leg slid over and dangled across where I had been sitting, and he lolled his head triumphantly. I was mad. I wanted to kick him. No wonder no one wanted to sit next to him, I thought. Maybe he rides this train a lot. Maybe he has a reputation for being an inconsiderate prick.

A few minutes into the commute I started to feel a little guilty. The smell was still as strong as ever, and if I tilted my nose against my shirt it was unbearable. I took a whiff of my sleeve and retched. Goodness. I knew I'd been having some problems with flooding in the lower level of my apartment, and I knew that sometimes the dirty water seeped into my laundry hamper, but I could have sworn I had just washed this shirt the day before. It started to dawn on me that maybe the smell was coming from me. The humiliation was terrible. People around me were sniffing the air, sniffing themselves. A few of them were discreetly choking back bile. They were backing away from the center of the train. I can't go to work smelling like this, I thought. Wild solutions danced in my head--I could buy an emergency replacement, I could run to the laundromat on lunch break, I could rinse the shirt with water and hand soap in the bathroom.

But I didn't feel sick when I stepped off the train. I didn't feel sick when I sniffed my shirt, and I didn't feel sick when I realized it was detergent fresh. I didn't feel sick at all until I remembered that there was exactly one bodily reaction that could make a man smell that strongly of piss and shit and sweat and cum, all at the same time.

And then I felt sick. Really, really sick.

And I could only think of one thing, and I felt horrible that it was the only thing I could think of, because it proved itself, but I couldn't think of anything but the words, "Aren't you fucking proud of yourself."

I flipped open my phone to call 911, but I realized there was no point. The train was already speeding away--it could be anywhere by the time the ambulance arrived. Not that it mattered, anyway. An ambulance can't do shit for a man who's already dead.