Monday, December 19, 2005
As I stepped off the platform and on to the #4 train today, I was surprised to see a number of people struggling to get out of the car I was entering just before the doors closed. A few seconds after the train began to move, I understood why. I was assaulted by a putrid stench, the likes of which I've never encountered before. As the smell grew more intense I searched in vain for the source. Those around me had wrapped their scarves around their faces, pulled their shirts over their noses, or buried their heads in their winter coats. At this point I noticed that at the far end of the car it was relatively empty, the passengers taking pains to avoid that section even if it meant cramming uncomfortably into one half of the car. There in the corner someone sat alone. I craned my neck, but all I could see were two legs clad in filthy ripped jeans, newspaper spread out on the floor where his feet came to rest. Across from the lone stranger sat a couple, their hands over their mouths, trying not to stare. I watched as a young man nearby tried to remain calm. First there was denial. Then a scratch or two at his nose. He was growing more agitated by the second. Finally he changed his grip on the metal pole overhead, his face seeking sanctuary in the familiar scent of his armpit. Why was the newspaper there on the floor? Was it meant to catch something running off this man, or did it just happen to be under his feet? As I turned up my collar in an attempt to block the smell, my mind was filled with nightmarish visions of what was just out of view. What was dripping onto that newspaper, what was under those clothes that could be the source of this smell? Meanwhile all eyes were on the doors. The doors that wouldn't open. The doors that kept us trapped, trapped in here with this jagged and festering humanity. On the street you can just walk by and pretend you don't see these things, but in here there was nowhere to run. Pretend nothing is wrong goddamit! Don't retch, don't hide - if you can't show some compassion at least leave the stranger his dignity! I felt this crescendo of emotion - anxiety, guilt, fear building up inside me as a high-pitched whine outside grew louder and louder. The train screeched to a halt and after a small eternity the doors opened. I ran out, taking deep breaths of stale subway air as if in a refreshing spring breeze. I put as much distance as possible between me and that indictment in the corner. But the stench remains.