Just when you need it, just when you are feeling a bit sorry for yourself for some petty reason, a smell enters your nasal cavity unlike any other and without having to look up you know. You are immediately acquainted with the scent of sadness.
You know intuitively that a homeless person is on the CTA train this morning. Then you hear the mumbling and feel the fumbling of the passengers around you politely trying to move away and without directly looking at him, they look at him. I look at him too. I see him. I’m not afraid of eye contact. I know.
People cover their noses, trying to conceal their faces by burrowing deeper into scarves and mittens. I breathe through my mouth, but it’s inescapable. People pretend there is nothing amiss. But there is something wrong. There is an entire train car of seemingly good, responsible, upstanding people going to work hugely inconvenienced by a smell. From one man. One human impacting a great number of others who do nothing but try to act like nothing is wrong. The incongruity is that this one man is the least important man on the train in the eyes of society.
The smell is knock you on your ass rank and dark and grim and you cannot not be impacted by this smell.
I judge. Because I know. I know this smell, I know the mumbling and I know the despair. I know the looks and the shuffling away from others who find you disgusting and sad. I know because I’ve been this man.
It is zero degrees out today and chances are he’s not going anywhere, he just wants to sit someplace warm for a while. Chances are he has no idea what time it is or what day it is. If he’s anything like I was, that is. My guess is he is. We are very alike he and I. So I wait until most people are off the train, including my husband because as much as he loves me and accepts my past he will never truly understand. As I’m walking off I say good morning and hand him my extra pair of gloves. He needs them more than I do. He doesn’t respond, but he takes the gloves. He continues to sit and even if he had followed me, I’m not scared. I’m not annoyed. I’m just sad.
I exit the train and weep all the way into work. Does this man have a family? Are they looking for him? There aren’t all that many truly lost souls out there without people who have exhausted themselves in trying to help.
The limbo this man exists in is hell. I know this limbo. This not being of the world around you and yet you are wandering through without feeling human. The cycle. There is nothing I can really do, as we all know. I’ve had talks about going to AA meetings, I have given time and money and clothing and food donations. I’ve listened. We all feel helpless. I’ve directed to shelters and warm spaces. Because I know that’s what I needed when I was cold and dirty and wandering. But I also know that I hardly ever listened to people and did what I wanted to do anyway.
I know from my own experience that a kind word or action means more than we can ever even acknowledge at that moment, sometimes ever. So I keep trying. When I give up completely on people, I’ve given up on myself. I’ve given up on my kids. There’s a difference between detaching and not caring.
I still have the rank stench in my nose. In a way I hope it never goes away. I need the reminder. We get the kick in the ass we need just when we need it. Just like that, all self pity I felt dissipated and I was rocketed back into the larger world around me and basked in utter gratitude for everything I have and all I have been given.
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