It’s a moment that must be discussed in urban life. The lucky opening on a train or bus that turns out not to be.
It happened most recently on a train from O’Hare. A haul down the stairs they put up to replace the elevator a Blue Line crashed through. A jog down the path toward already dinging, about-to-leave ‘L’ cars. A last-minute heave through the doors into a crowded car with, somehow, two empty seats.
I hopped toward one of the seats, then hopped away before I sat down. I crossed to the other end of the car to stand next to a bicyclist who would ram people with wheels as his rolling machine sloshed around the train’s stops and starts.
It was as far as I could get from the empty, open seats.
Some might have guessed what happened. A man next to the open seats — the reason for the open seats — smelled so bad the adjectives started being ones about taste.
He smelled bitter. He smelled acrid. The air was downright tangy around the man with the rasta hat on his head and the white cloth bag with all his possessions on the seat next to him.
The man shifted in his seat and scowled as, stop after stop down the line, people of all races, genders, classes and creeds would see the openings on the crowded car, move toward them and then move away after a few sniffs of the air.
It got very crowded by the bicycle.
The man looked uncomfortable and angry. I know he knew how bad he smelled. I know he had no choice in the matter as he rode up and down the line just for a place to stay out of the cold.
The man bothered no one. He didn’t ask for money nor was rude. He sat with arms crossed trying to shrink into his seat. He wasn’t ashamed nor bashful. He just seemed uncomfortable and acutely aware of the looks he was getting from the people keeping a three-foot perimeter away from him.
Human kindness falters when locked in a metal tube with a man whose odor you can feel in your mouth.
Some of the looks the man received were angry. Some of the looks were sympathetic. Some people were deliberately not acknowledging the man, choosing overtly loud conversations on any other topic as a form of kindness to the man.
The foot-treads of slush on the car floor had dried into gray-and-black whorls and swirls. People fresh off airplanes chattered in a dozen different languages while tired workers in airport restaurant and security uniforms bobbed heads as they tried to stay away. Black, red, silver, brown luggage filled the aisles. A bicycle sloshed by the far end of the car.
And through it all, a man sat alone, isolated by how the world had made him smell.