Hello Chicago Transit Authority riders, and welcome to another glorious Chicago summer. Just when we finally got used to trudging slush from our feet onto CTA trains and buses, the sun is shining again. Although our feet aren’t dragging snow onto busses and trains anymore, there is something else that some people drag onto the CTA every summer. Every year I forget about this thing, and every year, usually the first really hot day of the year, I remember. Unfortunately fellow CTA riders, some of you stink.
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On the way home from work recently, I was given a harsh olfactory reminder that some CTA riders smell extra horrible during the warm months. On this day, my homeward-bound commute actually began wonderfully, but ended in the top ten of my all-time worst commuting experiences. . . all because of a smell.
As a rule, I never get a seat on the way home from work because I work just North of Downtown. For those not familiar with the Chicago version of public transportation, many train lines begin their Northbound trip from “The Loop”, Chicago’s business district. It’s the place where all the skyscrapers are located. Therefore when the train finally arrives at my stop, a little over a mile north of The Loop, it is already sardine-city in every car. On this day something wonderful happened: Just as I stepped on the train, a seat opened up before me. Surprised, I sat down and relished the rare comfort of not having to stand the entire way home. I purposely noted this in my mind, for I knew it was truly a momentous and extraordinary life event. With a hint of a smile on my face, I let myself completely relax. I found myself settling into my seat like a pat of butter slowly melting on a warm frying pan. I was just, well, happy. It was a sublime happiness not brought forth by actions like ‘hard work’ or ‘accomplishment’, which only yield humdrum, run-of-the-mill, every-day happiness. This was the sweetest form of happiness originating from only one unique place.
Luck. Working hard for money can be satisfying, climbing Mount Everest can be rewarding, but nothing beats the feeling of finding a ten-dollar bill in a pocket of that old pair of jeans you haven’t worn in a long time. Luck. Happiness derived from pure luck makes one feel that fate finally got around to paying back some good deed performed in the past. Then, gosh darn it, the train stopped at Belmont. While strolling along the trail of happiness in my mind, Fate threw a banana peel on my path.
At Belmont the guy sitting next to me stood up and exited the train, and a well-dressed briefcase-toting gentleman entered. Like me, he reacted with surprise to the open seat. With surprise in his eyes but no hesitation he sat down next to me (a moment’s hesitation is a lost seat on the CTA). As he sat, his swift movement created a breeze, and this breeze wafted putrescence--his bodily putrescence--directly into my nose. The train doors swished shut, the computerized train announcer told me that the next stop was Addison and I was trapped.
There I sat, my nose wrinkled in disgust, my joy violently wiped away like the drawings on an epileptic’s Etch-A-Sketch. There I sat, my seat no longer a comfort, no longer melting into my seat like a pat of butter on a frying pan, but rigid like a man who just stared into the eyes of a medusa, all because the man next to me was busy reeking. How can I describe this smell? Fetid comes to mind. Foul. Unforgettable. It was a smell with thickness. It was a smell with density. It was a smell with length, width and possibly even consciousness. The smell was tangy and sickly-sweet, and my brain suddenly produced an image, I believe out of desperation for an explanation. In my mind I saw the gentleman next to me standing in the middle of a vast garbage dump. He wore a tattered and food-stained chef’s hat, and on a grill fashioned from old garbage can lids, he was barbecuing a large hairy dog. Periodically, he would dip an old hairbrush into a bucket filled with sewer-slime and proceed to baste the dog. This smell was so overpowering that my mind created this instant bit of mythology. I’ll even wager that if you held a quarter just above the man’s shoulder then dropped it, it wouldn’t fall like a quarter normally would. Instead the quarter would slowly ooze through the invisible, thick smell like a ball bearing through warm axle grease before gently coming to rest on his shoulder.
“Okay, the smell was bad, I get the point!” you may be saying. No, I say, you do not get the point. Just like I’ll never be able to relate to the pain of childbirth because I’m a man, you’ll never be able to fully relate to the singularity and magnitude of this stench. From the moment he sat down my eyes immediately began to water, my gag reflex refluxed and my upper lip involuntarily curled in revulsion. At about the time that my eyes began watering, which was immediate, and when I was desperately trying to suck in air through the corner of my mouth opposite of him, I remembered the scientific reason as to why we smell things. Things that have a “smell” actually release molecules in the air that land on our olfactory glands. Thus, I realized with horror, my eyes were watering because his stink particles were irritating my eyes. Tiny, physical particles of stink were actually landing in my eyeballs! If I was holding my face over an open gasoline can, I could understand this phenomenon. I was sitting next to a fellow human being. This just wasn’t right. It’s bad when an odor assaults one’s sense of smell. It’s worse, unnatural even, when an odor is powerful enough to be detected by the body’s other senses.
The computerized train announcer told me that Sheridan was the next stop. Only three more stops until I could escape. Although I was still sitting quietly in my seat, my mind was now frantic. I quickly considered ‘toughing it out’. Only three more stops. . . Then, seeming to sense my last thought, the smell suddenly, impossibly, became stronger. My eyes were now dribbling a steady stream of odor-induced tears. I quickly weighed the benefits of staying put in my seat versus letting the tiny stink marauders continue to rape my nostrils and use my eyeballs as fleshy trampolines. Only three more stops--
I stood up, pushed my way through to the other end of the train and resumed my normal standing-all-the-way-home commute. At the other end of the car the smell was reduced to a case of average B.O. The train was still crowded, yet no one else sat down next to him. Yes, I had to give up my glorious seat, but I was happy with my decision. So were my now non-tearing eyeballs.
When I finally arrived home, I was angry. I plopped down in a chair at my kitchen table, mechanically removed my tie and stared for a time. I imagine that my expression resembled the blank stare you see on the faces of accident victims. Sitting there, reflecting without really thinking or blinking too much, I could still smell my stinky commuting buddy. I felt dirty and promptly hopped in the shower. After the shower I felt better. The smell was gone, but the memory of the smell lingered in my brain. I tried to accept the fact that some people are just going to smell bad, especially on the CTA. I know public transportation is public and is therefore open to the great unwashed among us. I also know that a great number of homeless people who simply can’t help their hygiene situation use the CTA a lot. To these people I say, “Continue. Stink it up.” You all have other problems that led to your stinky situation. But to all others, like the well-dressed, briefcase-toting man sitting next to me, I find “acceptance” hard to achieve, and “tolerance” can kiss my ass. For goodness sake, just take a damn shower, would ya? It’s not that hard to do. Personally, I live in a cheap basement apartment and I’m habitually broke; however, somehow I always manage to fit a bar of soap or two into my budget (even if it cuts into my Ramen Noodle money).
Dear Mr. Stinko, you must know that you smell, right? And if by some reason more mysterious than say, the Holy Trinity, you don’t know you smell, I now appeal to your friends and colleagues. Friends and colleagues of Stinky People, few though you may be: quit being wimps. Find the courage to speak up to your stinky friend. The Stinky Person in your life may be a good person that you just can’t get close to, emotionally as well as physically, because of the funk. If the Stinky Person in your life has no clue he or she smells, maybe you will finally provide them answers to the questions they’ve asked all their life. Questions like, “Why haven’t I ever been on a date?” and “Why was my nickname ‘limburger’ in grade school?” and even “How come my side of the train is empty when I ride the CTA during rush hour?” I just don’t understand it! You are all living, human beings, so why do you want to go through life smelling like rotting putrid corpses?
The summer is here folks. Heat speeds up biological processes. Heat makes Chicago alleys even more unpleasant to walk down. Heat is a big coming out party of smells for the unhygienic among us. I now plead to the stinky, the smelly, the fetid and the putrid. From the odoriferous to the oh-my-god-i’m-gonna-puke, I beg you: Before you get on a bus or train and ruin somebody’s day, please shower. If you haven’t had a shower in a few days, and you smell yourself to test your level of ripeness, this will not work. I’m sure you’ve noticed how you can tolerate your own flatulence better than other people’s, right? The same principle applies here. Don’t trust your own judgment. Hop in the shower anyway, even if you think you smell like a rose. Oh, and when you wash, use soap. Use water too. Considering some of the smells I’ve encountered, I do not want to assume that everyone out there knows to combine soap with water for better cleaning results. Wipe that soapy lather ALL OVER your body. Don’t be shy about exploring the cracks in your body’s landscape either. Rinse (with more water). Repeat the entire process if necessary, which it probably will be if this is your first full-body detailing. If this process is too difficult to follow as described, I have a suggestion. Simply read the directions on a bottle of shampoo. Just replace the words "shampoo" with "soap" and "hair" with "entire fucking body", and everything’ll be aces! After you’ve mastered this skill, you may want to try using a washcloth for even more amazing results. An advanced step to think about, what I consider to be the cherry-on-top of your hygiene sundae, is spraying a little deodorant in your armpits. Oh! Before I go, there is a group of smelly people I must address directly. I apologize for already being long winded, but before I wrap this up, I have to mention the dirty hippies.
Dirty hippies (i.e., neo-hippies, alternative people, manic-progressives, tenured professors) are a bit of an enigma to me. I know some of them are dirty for philosophical reasons and others because they only see water as an essential bong ingredient. Regardless of their hygiene reasoning, I see no problem with the neo-hippies honoring their baby boomer parents by dressing up in expensive clothes that make them look cheap and playing “radical”. However, The greatest bit of advice I can pass on to all the dirty hippie types is that basting yourself in patchouli oil does not count as a bath. Trying to cover up body odor doesn’t work or, as my father would so eloquently sum up this situation, “you can’t polish a turd.”
The underlying stinky truth to all this raving is that smells are greatly tied to emotion. The smell of freshly mowed grass takes me back to the Saturday afternoons of my childhood. It makes me feel happy and carefree. The smell of human fermentation, on a train or anywhere, makes me feel angry and violated. Why do bad smells make me angry? On a primal level, humans developed the ability to distinguish between bad smells and good smells as a survival mechanism. A bad smell usually signals a substance not conducive to the propagation or continuation of life. Bad smells signal danger. Consequently, on this primal level, bad smells piss me off, especially when I encounter them on my fellow human beings. The least we can do for each other as human beings is to not be offensive by our very existence (like the French*). Let’s be a team here. If you don’t stink, I won’t hate you, and vice versa. So starting today let’s clean up before we embark on the CTA. We can worry about the cab drivers (pee-yew!) tomorrow. Now go hit the showers team.
* Regarding the French: Please know this barb was not written in reference or in jingoistic retaliation to France’s stance on the Iraq situation. This reference to the French populace was in fact written only in the spirit of appealing to the more common American stereotype of the French being a stinky, stinky people.