Most people, upon entering a subway car where 99% of the passengers were clustered toward one end of the train, would suspect that there was a reason no one was sitting near the lone man in the front of the car.
I, on the other hand, saw this as a sign of my good fortune to have found so many empty seats on what was an otherwise crowded train.
And I was wrong.
As soon as I sat down, the lone man, dressed in paint-covered khaki pants and wearing a stained cap, switched seats to the one directly in front of me. He then turned toward me, pulled on his white beard, and in a thick Russian accent, began shouting what seemed to be a combination of mythological and biblical references that made absolutely no sense whatsoever.
There were dragon slayings and fiery pits, brother against brother and eternal damnation. I tried to follow the story for a while, but all I caught was that we were all going to die, and there would be a lot of blood.
Fairly skilled in the art of subway face, I might have been able to tune him out, had it not been for the retched stench seeping from his mouth. Every time he turned toward me, I had to quickly hold my breath so as not to catch a whiff of whatever had died in his stomach that day. I leaned toward the window, only to discover that the air-conditioning had gone out in our car.
In the middle of one of his tirades, during which he stood up to demonstrate how somebody stabbed a sword into some three-headed creature, or into one of the Apostles (his story got a little foggy there), I turned back and looked at the other 99% of the train. Some of them averted their eyes. Others gave me a sympathetic shoulder shrug.
I remembered hearing that in an emergency, you are supposed to single someone out in a mob so that they feel responsible for helping you. If you simply yell, “Somebody help me,” no one will. But if you yell, “You, in the purple Northwestern sweatshirt, call 911,” that person will feel responsible and will come to your aid.
So at one point, I contemplated yelling, “Hey! You – yes, you – in the tight Cubs tanktop and the platform flip flops! Listen, Trixie. Open up that ginormous purse of yours and toss this man some goddamn Tic Tacs. NOW!”
But instead, I practiced measured breathing, waited until the next stop, and bolted out the door the second it opened. I wasn’t too far from my apartment, and my instincts told me it would be wiser for me to walk the rest of the way home to clear out my nasal cavities.
And my instincts might have been correct, had I not gotten off in the three block stretch known as Little Vietnam, where all the restaurants had piled their garbage high in the 95 degree midday sun.
Rotting maggoty fish guts, or the thick, sour breath of a lunatic. It’s just like our motto says, “Chicago – city in a garden.”