By Flickr user Yogi Parish
Should have sat around the corner with the hardcore computer geeks cloistered together like helmets on the short bus. There was an obvious radius around the old man sitting disheveled and greasy, newspapers spread across the table in a confused mess, but staying a couple tables down the wall preserved the integrity of my personal space. Overflowing cup threatening to breach any second carefully set down on the table top (was I supposed to express pity for the barista after she said under her breath that she spilled some on herself?), backpack on the bench and jacket coming off. What the fuck is that smell?
This wasn’t the stench normally associated with our city’s vast population of transients, that thick animalian reek which begins to blend with old urine and acetone as the years pass. While the old man’s wardrobe was not wildly different than any shopping cart nomad there was no obvious street wear, just the frayed evidence of consistent use, as though changing clothes was too much trouble and buying new attire obviously out of the question. No, the nauseating odor was more like a blend of hospitals and varnish reminding me of mothballed furs I once found hidden in some rich people’s bedroom while I was on three kinds of acid. The acrid air comes through the nose, tickling the back of your throat before settling in your stomach. My eyes itched and I wondered if someone was really capable of emitting such a melange of chemical vapors.
Not to suggest that illiteracy is a prerequisite for insanity but his intense devotion to reading made me hesitate to declare him crazy. You can usually tell crazy from a block away because the person tries to eat the chair instead of sit in it, or they carry on conversations at top volume with themselves or, more specifically, with people who aren’t there. He sat amidst the clutter in his worn clothes, stringy filthy hair and clammy skin, drinking a diet soda and had, despite the odds, half a cookie on a clean plate. Most crazy people don’t have money for diet soda and cookies, nor do they appreciate clean plates. Something about the pulsating ozone which permeated the cafe screamed hospital to me. Perhaps I was mistaken– could the smell be from a pool of bilious, viscous fluid I failed to note before putting my bag in it? I was too terrified to check and too embarrassed to be seen searching around the bench and under the tables for any caustic solutions. While my position certainly made me a candidate for the pungent aroma originator behaving as though I emitted horse piss in my sleep would detract from the more obvious culprit two seats down, and if I have to sacrifice my bag to the flesh-dissolving toxic soup to save face I’ll gladly sit pretending as though nothing is amiss.
The eccentric to my left carried on his reading and sipping with no indication of awareness. I was tempted to move, almost convinced that I would retch on the floor if I remained, but self-consciousness refused to release me from my seat. If we accept that the old man is not crazy and if we accept the possibility that he has some sort of medical condition which causes a horrible scent then what kind of bastard would I be drawing attention to his obviously debilitating diagnosis by bolting up, gathering my possessions protectively about me, and shuffling off across the room? Honestly, once the initial shock and confusion wore off I had nothing but sympathy for the guy. He’s alone, from the ugly side of the tracks and has to survive in the world where being disgusting and somewhat diseased is more reprehensible than knifing an infant. I sat and coughed a little and carried on with my business, unlike that stuck-up blonde bitch who walked in talking to her iPhone earpiece, sat on the far side of our subject, then quickly bolted around the corner to join the laptop brigade.
As I carried on my thoughts were often derailed by wonder. I tried to concentrate but, like a toothache or hangover, this distraction only needed a momentary lapse in concentration to hog-tie all other thoughts and lock them in the trunk. Does he have a catheter, maybe? I don’t know why I wondered this, I’m not certain that having one would cause any sort of chemical warfare but this possibility comforted me some. As I was still not one hundred percent convinced that my bag wasn’t currently in a cesspool I liked having an explanation for what was going on. How can someone function when the very act of walking into a room causes babies to cry, women to faint, men to grow pale? What a crummy hand life deals some people, arbitrarily causing them to be ostracized. What motivation would you have if your existence repelled people at twenty paces? You’re not going to get a good job– no one outside of a slaughterhouse is gonna hire your stank ass. You’ll never be loved, regardless of how funny or smart or impassioned you may be underneath that nauseating surface. No one will be your friend, unless they’re inclined towards eating chairs or somehow, through a rabid crusade against hygiene, manage to reek worse than you. The slovenly little troll reading his assorted newspapers and sipping his diet soda and, dear god, taking little rabbit bites out of a cookie could be capable of anything but the world would never know. The man could have all the answers locked away underneath that mangled mass of hair but no one will talk to him.
After some time he shuffled off to the bathroom and I thought, ah, emptying the bag no doubt. When he returned I couldn’t help but notice that he had begun to add flatulence to his amazing array of defenses. At the very least it was a more identifiable problem in the air, but I wasn’t so sure that his incontinence was allowed to stray. Does he really have a medical condition or is he just a fucking slob? How many people sitting directly across the aisle from the old man and myself are debating internally the odds that I am actually the cause of this horror? Is it possible that someone could actively pursue a life of unnerving everyone around them by producing noxious gas through a combination of willful negligence and active disregard? Pondering these mysteries I went to the bathroom. Ah, well, someone seems to have pissed all of the toilet instead of lifting the seat and aiming for the bowl. That’s nice. As I proceeded to use the toilet without, I might add, getting urine everywhere I found myself torn between how to handle this discovery. I could, at great personal risk, wipe the seat down which would leave it secretly disgusting but no one would know until they developed lesions weeks later. I could, raising suspicion and accruing embarrassment, inform the staff that someone had hosed the bathroom. Lose/Lose, but one at least contained the damage to me alone. I flushed and reached for the toilet paper, bracing myself for the unenviable task at hand. Someone knocked. Dear fucking god.
There was no time, the flushing had commenced, it was known that I would be exiting soon. If you flush and then take a couple minutes before leaving everyone standing around the door knows you were shooting up or wiping cum off your shoes or something like that. What if it’s a woman? Hey, excuse me, you might not wanna sit on this one. Someone, not me of course, managed to deface the property pretty bad. That’s no good, but what can I fucking do? First of all I can leave the seat up so she only thinks I’m a fucking asshole instead of a filthy fucking asshole. I leave the seat up, I wash my hands, I open the door, it’s a guy. Score!
Gathered my bag which was not steeping in foul fluids I grew to hate the stinking old man sitting two seats down. You don’t even have a catheter you bastard, unless you emptied it on a trampoline. You’re not diseased or sick or anything, you’re just a bloated and hatefully gross person who probably has no personality or real intelligence or any redeeming qualities whatsover. You just suck and you cause other people misery because you suck, not because of some birth defect or some accident or anything beyond your control. Just sit there shuffling your newspapers around and sipping your diet soda and, god forbid, taking little bites out of that cookie and letting the crumbs collect in your scraggly beard. I left the coffee shop feeling tired and betrayed but thankful for the fresh air. Fuck you, old man. I didn’t insult you or talk shit about you, pointing and laughing behind my hand. I respected your right to live and breath, I even sympathized with your plight, but it was all a lie.