August 16, 2010

Pardon Me, Your Suitcase Is On My Rubber Duckie

Riding the subways in New York City is a wonderful sort of adventure.

In the mornings, during the hour of rush, you're shoved up against all sorts of folks you'd normally never interact with; packed in close enough inside the sausage casing of a train car to pick up what kind of deodorant they're wearing -- by sight.

In the afternoons, perhaps on the way to the dentist or on a long lunch break, you come across the kinds of people who view waking up before noon as a sign of weakness.  And they are damn proud of it.

During those late night trips home after the bars have dwindled down to only the most desperate of hookup-seekers -- those who've made the drunken lush falling out of her not-quite-skinny jeans their own personal Bunker Hill -- you get to see the magic that unfolds prior to the next morning's walk of shame.

Sometimes, on the rarest of occasions, you even come across someone in the middle of a bath.  I had the pleasure of witnessing this one a few months back, when winter's chill was just giving way to the dawn of a new spring.  Birds were chirping.  Flowers were budding.  Lovers were cavorting hand-in-hand through the parks.  Homeless men were vigorously washing themselves with wet naps.

Yes, on this particular lovely evening ride back to my apartment, I stepped into the train and noticed that every single passenger had shoved themselves to one side of the compartment, like they were attempting a world record for most people packed into a subway car but were still waiting on the other half of the group to show up.  I was confused, but then the smell hit me, and I began to understand.  Seated at the far end of the car, amidst piles and piles of his belongings, sat a fat, massively bearded homeless man wearing only a dirty pair of cutoff sweat-shorts, washing himself with wet naps.  The other riders were forced to the other side of the car by the wall of stench wafting off of him, like the mist in that movie about mist.


He looked like I imagine Santa would look if Mrs. Claus left him and he picked up a casual smack habit to compensate.  A man at once at peace with and completely at odds with the day-to-day workings of a civilized world, allowing him to go about his business and not mind the various small creatures nesting in the wooly expanse of his beard while he continued to wash himself in the middle of public transportation.

A quick sidenote...  After a few years of living in this city I've become more than accustomed to seeing the homeless do really odd things.  I once walked past a pantsless, one-legged man in a wheelchair and didn't even bat an eye.  I've seen a man kung-fu fighting with a lamp post.  These are just the things you tell yourself are normal in New York, like taxis or tourists or a sub-.500 Knicks season.

So imagine my surprise when the sight of this David Crosby-esque bum meticulously cleaning himself with restaurant wet naps completely fascinated me.  Seeing him probe every nook and cranny with those wet naps mesmorized me for some reason.  I gaped.  I gawked.   And then we locked eyes.

Time froze.  Tension rose.  A stare-off ensued.

It was like a gazelle on the African Savanna looking up from a lazy drink at a riverbed and suddenly realizing that a lion is staring at it from the other side, only dirtier and beard-ier.

I imagine this disoriented him a bit.  I'd probably feel a bit odd myself if he suddenly violated the peaceful sanctuary of my shower time.

In that moment, an understanding passed between us.  This man has no worry left in him.  Man and bum, each going about their daily business.  Two ships passing in the night.  It was like The Soloist, but not completely terrible.

At the next stop, I disembarked, my nostrils freed from the cage of man-stink.  As the train began to slowly pull away from the station, I gave the man a little nod through the window, a silent handshake that said, "Go forth, friend, and wash like you've never washed before."  He, in turn, stuck the wet nap in his ear and scrubbed furiously, an act that said, "My ear is wicked dirty."

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