Ridin' the bum train


So there we were at 42nd Street, on the #2 platform, coming back from a day of X-mas shopping and a friend’s holiday party. It was about 1 a.m. and we’d already been waiting a while. Finally, the #2 rolled in. As it slowed to a stop, I noticed the car we were about to board was mostly empty, which was odd for that time of night, when so many of our fellow Brooklynites are returning home after their weekend revels. The reason why didn’t hit me until we got on board. The car was occupied by every NYC commuter’s nightmare, the stinky homeless guy!

Slumped into a corner two-seat bench, the rag-clad vagrant snored peacefully, unaware of the malodorous rays he emitted. Sari had already been feeling a bit nauseated that evening, and I was really afraid she might toss her cookies right there and then. So I steered her on past the man to the other end of the train. But, horrors! That end had one too!

This guy was leaning against a pole, balanced on a crutch, all greying rags, filthy beard, and noxious fumes. It was a battle of the bums! And the passengers were all losing! (The amazing thing to me was that some people were actually submitting to the stench, steadfastly holding their seats while being assaulted on all sides by the aura of decomposing garbage. Anything for a seat on the subway, I guess.)

Oblivious of the new MTA rule that you’re not supposed to move between cars while the train is moving, I pushed Sari through the doors into the next car. It would be worth being stuffed like sardines into a crowded car for the long ride home than to stand another second of the sickening stench. That’s when we realized that we were the victims of a horrible joke.

Entering into the new car, we almost collided with yet another fetid bum. And this guy was clearly the king of them all. Enshrined in his wheelchair and encased in layers of coats, sweaters, and scarves, his red eyes gleamed from behind his matted hair and bramble beard. He cackled in triumph at the terror — and dry heaves — he inspired in the poor sufferers around him. He was like the devil’s idea of Santa Claus. The smell of this guy reached new heights of rank, somehow combining landfill with cheese shop. It was truly awe-inspiring.

Eyes burning, we clawed our way past him, all the way to the other end of the car (past the huddled tourists returning from a Broadway show, hands over their mouths & noses, terrified eyes darting around looking for rescue), and again through the doors into the front car of the train. And there we found relief…

No homeless people in evidence, only the usual sensations of floors sticky with unknown substances, poles greased with other people’s sweat, and of course crowds of fellow survivors. The rest of the ride home was made more entertaining by the exchange of stories, jokes, and knowing comments about the running of the Bum Train 2006. And Sari never did lose her lunch.

The Senses: Smell


I wandered through the video store, passing the only other customers, two firefighters from the station around the corner. They were both sporting those heavy insulated pants, held up by suspenders. As I walked by, firefighter #1 asked #2, “Hey, what’s Sin City about?”

FF#2: “Oh, we saw that already. Me and Joe’s crew saw that back at the house last week. It was good.”

FF#1: “Oh, okay.”

I passed on by, sneering at #2’s appraisal of the film, and after a short while, found the movie I’d been looking for.

When I arrived at the counter to pay, the store employee, a stocky bottle-blonde in her early 30s, wasn’t there. She was back with the firemen, helping them find a flick. As they worked their way back to the counter, she was explaining that, believe it or not, she wasn’t Italian, but actually “Slovakian.”

New York’s Bravest settled in next to me at the counter, and the clerk offered them her recommendation, Jarhead, explaining that though it wasn’t technically a “war movie,” it was close enough.

[It struck me as weird and yet somehow completely appropriate that New York City firefighters, with probably one of the world’s most stressful, adrenaline-laded jobs, had a taste for war movies. I could just see them lounging around the firehouse, jazzing to the fear and violence, waiting for that bell to ring, summoning them to the next three-alarmer.]

Firefighter #1 asked her if she’d seen Jarhead, and she demurred: “Oh no, I haven’t seen any of ’em. I hate movies.”

FF#1: “You work at a video store and you don’t like to watch movies? Do you like to go to the movies? You like ’em then?”

Bottle-blonde: “No, I’m a terrible date! I either fall asleep or I walk out.”

As I listened to firefighter #1 striking out, I sniffed the air. I thought I smelled something. It smelled like something was burning!

And then I realized: the firefighters’ clothes — probably especially those rubber pants — stank of smoke.