I caught a random segment of NPR this morning while I was driving to a meeting. The reporter was interviewing the author of a new book of “tips and etiquette” for getting around New York City. It was an entertaining interchange that was mostly fluff, but one throw-away comment struck a nerve with me.
Beware the empty train car – there’s a reason it’s empty.
Having recently resided in a major metropolitan city for nearly three years, and having travelled regularly on public transportation, I immediately knew what that comment was about. And it made me uncomfortable.
I was instantly transported back to a half-empty tram car in Milan — it was the back half that was empty. It was an experience that occurred at least six months ago, but it is still hanging in the back of my mind, like a musty old overcoat that was put away before it had the chance to air out from the damp walk through clinging, rain-soaked, autumn undergrowth. There’s an off-putting smell that demands attention… much like the empty train car.
The Smell of Isolation
The odor was not what registered first,
squeezing onto the crowded tram,
the crush of strangers’ bodies and voices,
eyes darting for a vacant seat,
a corner free of elbows and oversized bags,
where my little ones could safely sit.
The vacant row is what I noticed,
the wide open sanctuary at the back of the car.
Only one stranger
legs spread wide,
eyes closed in his haven of space.
The crowd pushed back,
or away from him,
but I pushed forward,
toward the long empty row
little ones in tow.
Not until we are seated.
Not until then did I recognize
the heavy scent of unwashed skin,
the wave of oder the pushes out
pushes against the crowd.
Insisting on an indecent distance.
I swallow hard
against the cloying taste hanging in the air;
and against my own reactions of disgust.
He is God’s child too.
repeating the words,
like a mantra, a prayer
to my closed eyelids.
They have shut
shut out the image of that pregnant cocoon of space.
I force them open,
but they still turn away.
Instead they scan the faces
of those pushed to form the surface –
the human portion of that wall –
all curling lips and furtive glances.
I do not want to join them.
the smell pushes on my nostrils too,
causes them to flare, to flinch.
But I do not want to join that group,
do not want my lips to curl in mirroring disdain,
do not want my body to lean away.
But I am leaning.
not away, precisely.
I lean into the space between
a human shield for little noses, little eyes.
It makes no sense.
My body cannot block the smell,
and curious eyes will seek to find
any image they notice me conceal.
But still I lean,
and leaning in my own eyes notice something… comforting?
They. are. oblivious.
Can it be their little noses have not learned disdain for human smells?
Or is it
Please, God, let it be
they have not learned to judge their fellow human beings
by such corporeal matters
as personal hygiene.
I do not know the reason,
but I pray fervently that the fruit of knowledge
with not come crashing into their little Eden
on that train.
And while they squirm and giggle in their luxury of space,
I spend the ride tied up in knots
that have nothing to do with the nausea that assaults me
with each inhalation.
Five stops. I count them:
I ride in a prison of empty space and shackling emotions.
There he sits,
arms folded across his barrel chest,
forbidding all who would approach.
A king upon his solitary throne.
Perhaps he has made his peace,
refused the shame,
of the smell of isolation.