I smelled it on the downtown A train at 175th street. Neither super strong nor overwhelming, this shit scent was stale. I looked more closely at the orange plastic seat beneath me but it was clean. Have I tracked some stranger's subway shit down to SoHo and trailed it around on my clothes? I have a thing about shitspecks already: I'm acutely aware of avoiding them.
I think about Cathy coming home from work, holding up her hands while walking in her apartment, "Subway hands!" and washing them immediately. Right up until the moment that last summer's colonic at The Tummy Temple felt wonderfully therapeutic, I was alternately traumatized and slaphappy: I hate shit! I'm about get real up in my own shit business! This is so funny! And revolting! Unless it's coming out of a dog or baby's butt, and even then, I'm just not good with it.
I look to the right of my subway seat and see the man. He's hunched over and his head bobs up and down. His white gym shoes are dirty and unlaced, his clothing ground in with who knows what. His eyes open briefly, we look at each other and his head falls over again. I stare into my lap. Everyone who gets in the car of our train stops and does the same shit check that I did. Most of them keep moving and sit elsewhere. A few of them look at the man with anger and I suddenly want, terribly, to cry over how everyone's avoiding him. I don't want to smell shit any more than the next train passenger but more than that, I'm awash in the sadness of the scene. It would be nice If I could get through a day without losing my composure over someone else's shit. It's not always this literal.
I'll be walking down the street, my mind in my music or elsewhere, when I notice people begging for money, or disabled, or so overweight that they can hardly move. I'll see old people, especially old men moving slowly, alone, and they look vulnerable to me, with sad and vacant eyes. Sometimes it's the hopeful, childlike, innocent looks that get me, the shy hello I don't expect. Tears explode in my eyes and if I don't stare into the sky and work to distract myself they'll be down my face. Sometimes I cry in public and I'm always embarrassed.
Another time on the train an old dude passed out and kept slumping into my shoulder, asleep. I was reading a book in my right hand and with my left I made a fist across my body and held up his weight. An older Latina woman across from me motioned for me to come sit by her and I smiled and said it was okay. The train was packed and I thought he'd just fall into someone else. Maybe I shouldn't have bothered with the compromise I cut with my fist and just let him sleep.
I can be hyper-aware of personal space but sometimes it doesn't matter at all. I also struggle with emotional space. I jump, uninvited, into others people's positions, or at least how I imagine their life based on what I see for a few seconds, and my empathy spins out of control. I want to stop and lean my head against a wall or hang it in my lap and sob, dig something hard into my palm enough to hurt so that I don't think about that other kind of pain, the kind that's harder to pinpoint. I don't know why I react so strongly, or if I should.
The thing is, I don't remember being like this when I actually worked with the homeless or mentally ill. When I was a counselor at a camp for disabled adults, I didn't wake up everyday thinking BOO HOO, EVERYONE IS RETARDED. When I was involved daily with issues of housing and poverty and addiction, I wasn't a baby about it. It just felt like if you care, you do something about it and that was just kind of, you know, life. Now I'm all weepy.
Family friends ask me when I visit home what I'm doing with myself.
"It's always something!" they say.
I was sitting on a pew at my grandmother's funeral when a woman I've known my whole life asked me the question above. I told her I'm an assistant tour manager on the Spice Girls tour and she cracked up in my face.
"It's just so out of character!" She laughed.
And it is out of character if you compare Ritz-Carlton rooms and first class plane seats to the halfway houses and abandoned buildings I was acquainted with before. There is, however, more than one side to my character, as there is to everyone's, but I guess we all get used to thinking of each other in certain ways. I'd like to think that I'm not a dick, or a snob, or haven't lost my social conscience now. I'd like to think I'm still being myself, just in a very different setting.
But I suspect that a part of me feels guilty, that even if I'm good to people and care about those around me, I'm not really helping anything be better anywhere. And that's what I always felt I'm supposed to do, who I am. This is what I thought on the A train this morning. Why do I want to sob? Why am I frowning at the floor, my heart breaking for the man who needs a bath? That's why. I'm a little removed from a part of myself, a little out of whack.
Is this recognition useful? Is this just some bleeding heart response to financial success? I don't feel bad about making money, I don't want to glorify poverty, and I can't stand it when people only do good out of guilt and then walk around brimming with self-satisfaction and false humility. Fuck that. Guilt is tricky. It can be a handy tool to figure yourself out. It can be weapon. You can feel it for what you've done or not done. Who you are, or aren't.