15th Street/Prospect Park Platform. Brooklyn (Yo!)
If it's rush hour and the car is empty, it's empty for a reason.
It's 9:30 a.m. on a Friday morning when the F slides in to the station. Already things look bad. It's not the typical wide-bodied, orange-seated luxury-liner F that I've grown to love and adore. It's the corrugated-tin, shed-looking, bench-seated thing that Hollywood likes to show prowling on the el tracks above the Bronx.
As it snakes past, a disheartening pattern emerges. First car full - people standing. Second car full - people standing. Third car. Fourth car. Fifth, sixth, seventh, etc. But lo and behold, the car that screeches to a halt in front of me is almost completely empty. The doors slide open and I step in. I can even pick which side of the train I want to sit on. A broken, mumbling man sits on the far side, so I choose the near.
It's not until the doors slide shut that I notice that I've been sealed in, trapped in a sea of B.O.-bum odor. The odor of a bum, a homeless man - as opposed to the odor of someone's bum. Rank. Sour. Clinging. Cloying. It's not a smell you can describe to people who've never experienced it in the close quarters of a New York subway car. And why would you want to describe it - unless you're the type of person who tries to get others to smell the bad milk.
Seventh Avenue Station
I'm just starting to think the worst is over. It's like the monkey house at the zoo. You walk into the monkey house and your first thought is "Oh my God! Get me out of here before I choke on my own vomit." Five minutes later, though, you don't even notice the smell. You're standing with your faced pressed against the glass of the tamarind enclosure and the only thought going through your head is "I likee monkey!"
But this is not the subway experience. Oh no. A simple explanation could be that when the doors open at each stop, a fresh draft of air is let in to stir up the stink and to un-acclimate your nose. Or it could be that rotting human is a profoundly worse smell than healthy monkey.
Think about it. Pint upon pint of fortified wine, further fortified and fermented in a human body that's working under substandard conditions, oozing through pores clogged with city grime, urine and fecal matter.
Luckily for all, this guy has one other characteristic separating him from our primate brethren. He hasn't taken to flinging anything. Yet.
Fourth Avenue Station
But wait, this isn't the extent of it. Toward the Manhattan end of the train is a group that can only politely be referred to as loony. Some mornings I think there's got to be a group home for the mentally disturbed near an F stop and the administrators just load them on the train so that the rooms can be deloused.
Now, Senor Crusty across the aisle from me is not exactly the epitome of sanity. He sits there mumbling to himself, his hands fluttering about his head or picking at his armpits. But he's old and poses no threat.
But the group at the end of the train, while seemingly docile enough, has a star. I've seen him before. He's in his mid-twenties. He's tall. He's fit. He's strong. He's hyper. He dances around. Stands up. Mutters strings of words; "nigger" seems a favorite. Luckily, he's black so there's no worry of a racial incident.
The MTA guy actually comes out of his train closet to tell this guy to sit down.
Smith/9th Street Station
The sliding door at the Manhattan end of the train slides open and in she walks. The middle-aged white woman who's been making her rounds lately on the F Train. She's a new cast member, supplementing Sonny Payne (or is it Sunny Pain?), the "Y'all-know-me-y'all-see-me-every-day-but-what- y'all-don't-know-is" guy, and my favorite, the trumpet man.
At first glance, this woman seems normal enough. Your grandmother absent-mindedly wandering the train, maybe looking for a scarf she dropped. But then you notice she's methodically approaching every person on the train, looking through them, mouthing well-rehearsed words that have no meaning.
She sounds like a broken record of a broken person: "ExcusemeIvelostmywalletcanyousparesomechange." The inflection is all wrong. Like a Verizon recording. A little chirp at "cuse" and "my" and "can." When she walks into the group of loonies, star loony wards her off with a bible.
Carroll Street Station
Ah, yes, the politics of the subway system. The upper-middle-class liberals pile on in Park Slope and the middle-middle-class green partiers pile onto the train in the Cobble Hill area. It's good to watch the eyes, to see them shift from surprise at seeing the ample seating, to condescending concern at the poor homeless chap sitting on the train. Doing the right thing, they'll sit next to him. When the doors slide shut, you see their eyes go wide with surprise. Then, and you have to watch closely for this, you see the briefest of conflicts in the old windows to the soul. Would it be inhumane, insensitive to get up and move to the other end of the train, to another car? This man is human, after all. He's no worse than me. I'm no better than him. Well, except for that whole smell thing. To hell with this.
On the subway, it takes less than a second to become a Republican.
Bergen Street Station
The old man looks vaguely like Santa Claus. Like the sleigh had gone down over Kosovo and Santa had had to eat the reindeer and do other horrible things to get out alive, only to return to a North Pole and Ms. Claus that didn't recognize him.
Oddly enough, he's color coordinated. Green sweat pants, green coat. And to match the stains best not contemplated, hes wearing brown shoes, a tan shirt and tan socks that are starting to exhibit the clear sheen of greasy Wonder Bread.
Jay Street Station
The biggest exchange of passengers on my morning commute. The F-ers climb out and the A/C crowd climb on. The A/C passengers coming from parts of Brooklyn beyond the yuppie breeding grounds of Park Slope and Cobble Hill have no liberal guilt issues. A number of my new fellow passengers point and make comments.
"Damn, son. Somebody fuckin stinks up in here. Shit."
Or as an older gentleman puts it: "Woooooooooo!"
Some of them get up and leave the car. They'd rather stand.
York Street Station
Quite possibly the most useless subway stop known to man. This is a stop that would make more sense on the cursed G line. No one gets on. No one gets off. Ever.
And it doesn't make the homeless man smell any better.
East Broadway Station
The longish stretch under the East River allows us to become acclimated to the smell. It's either that the air is settled or the cough drop in my mouth is doing a good job of battling the smell. I think I've seen in the movies that coroners rub Vick's under their noses to drown out the stench of decay. But it proves to be a double-edged sword. After the mentholicious thing fully dissolves, I find myself with wide-open nasal passages. All the better to smell you with, my dear.
And like some tired cliché in any story, just when things can't seem to get worse... The train stops at East Broadway but doesnt start up again. There seems to be a door jammed toward the back and the conductors chatter over the substandard communications equipment trying to figure it out. A gentleman down at the far end leans into the loony group and alerts one that his bag is caught in the door. Loony removes bag, door shuts, red light turns off. By this point, a conductor has left his pod to investigate, walks right through our car and into the others, then back. The minute he leaves our car for good, someone decides to open and shut the doors again, probably to double-check. Loony sticks bag in door again. Red light comes on. Conductors chatter again.
By this point, the journey is no longer amusing. I stand up, not quite sure what Im going to do, and start walking toward the loony end. But they've decided there's more interesting game afoot and drag one of their smaller members off the train.
"C'mon, itll be O.K."
Delancey Street Station
I hear an announcement as we pull into the station: "Incident at East Broadway." God only knows.
Second Avenue Station
Our long national nightmare is not over. A new duo steps onto our stage. An Unassuming Asian Youth walks his bike onto the train and stands in front of the seated Angry Young Black Man. I don't know why the Young Black Man is Angry or if he is even perpetually angry. Maybe he doesn't like Asians. Maybe he doesn't like bikes. Or maybe, like some of the rest of us, the creeping stench has reached saturation point, has seeped into parts of the brain best left dormant if we are to live peacefully in a civilized manner. These are interesting propositions, but two things are clear. It still stinks in here and the Young Black Man is angry.
AYBM: "You better not bump into me with that fuckin bike."
UAY: [Looks down to make sure hes not bumping into him]
AYBM: "What the fuck you lookin at me for."
UAY: [Looks away. Stares at wall.]
AYBM: "Better not fuckin look at me again. Shit."
Sweet relief. The doors open and I flee to do my slightly absurd up and over dance to the uptown 6. I flee the image. I flee the man. I flee the awful stench.
But it's no use. There's no escaping. It's not that I'll be haunted for the rest of the day by the image of a broken old man, an old man who if he was cleaned up, could probably be a Mall Santa at Christmas time. An old man who maybe once had a job, a family, a life, something other than Thunderbird to occupy his days. A warm place to sleep and a shower and three squares a day and someone to talk to other than himself, someone to touch with those hands rather than have them flutter through the tortured reality he imagines around him.
I could ponder the state of our mental health system, a system that apparently lets crazy folk loose on an unsuspecting (or at least willingly disbelieving) populace. A society (because we sure cant hold ourselves responsible) that allows a person (or group of people) with the mental ability of a three-year-old to run loose on fast moving trains.
This is not what stays with me. It's that stench. Like barroom smoke, it's in my clothes, in my hair and, unfortunately, it will be in my nostrils for the remainder of the day. And, ultimately, that's all that concerns me, compassionate conservative that I may be. The City throws these sights at me every day: the broken, the breaking, the crazy and, on a good day, the criminally insane. Sometimes, if I can step back from it all, I'm amazed at the amount of humanity's raw sewage that is just floating around on the streets, the sidewalks, the trains. But it's part of the package. Some people expect to see this when they visit New York. Others, the same people who want prostitutes and crack slingers to push Disney out of Times Square, take a sick sort of pride in it. And like raw sewage, you may get used to the sight of it, but the smell is something else altogether. That's something you can't escape. You can avert your eyes, but you can't avert your nose.
I guess to sum it all up, I'd have to wave my hands in front of my face real fast and quote the older gentleman from back at Jay Street: "Wooooooo."
Ken Wheaton was born and raised in Opelousas, Louisiana, where he learned to cook many things, including the best chili to ever hit New York. His short stories have appeared in Briar Cliff Review, Hampton Shorts, Southwestern Review and Proteus. His most recent short fiction, "Act of Contrition," was nominated by Briar Cliff Review for the Pushcart Prize. He currently lives in Brooklyn and is marketing his first novel.