This article has descriptions some may find upsetting.
Reader discretion is advised.
Like many New York City residents who ride the city’s subway, I brave the filth, rats, noise, bed bugs, and numerous leaks of questionable origin within the system. If you live here, then there is no escaping the vast network of underground trains and the often-disgusting elements within it. However, despite my long-time experience and relative comfort with the many deficiencies of the subway, one strange trip made me fear for my life.
I boarded a train heading north from Brooklyn and took note of a homeless man sitting toward the back of the car. The derelict had matted brown hair and he gave off the stomach-turning odor of unwashed flesh, stale urine, and feces. His stinking presence caused many people near me to quietly thank God for the subway car’s robust ventilation system even as others gagged or held their noses in disgust before fleeing to another car at the earliest opportunity.
At first, the vagrant chose to inhabit a rearward-facing pair of seats of the kind that extends into the aisle and has another pair of seats directly behind. He had the last one-third of the subway car all to himself as everyone else wisely stayed away. However, as the train progressed and new passengers boarded, riders would rush to the empty seats near the reeking horror only for his foul smell to assault their noses and send them fleeing to the crowded front of the car. This happened repeatedly as the Culver Line train moved out of Brooklyn and into Manhattan, but then came the Second Avenue station and the young, blond man who lit the fuse.
Like the other new arrivals, the young man boarded the train and took a seat unaware of the stinking presence nearby. However, unlike the passengers before him, he screamed obscenities at the homeless man despite the stench that drove him away. That is when the derelict rose and our true terror began.
The terrified passengers saw the vagrant fully for the first time. He was huge! The foul-smelling man easily stood six-foot-four (1.93 meters), with the kind of broad shoulders one would expect to see on a football player. He wore a collection of stained blankets and tattered clothes that did nothing to hide his exceptionally powerful frame, and around his feet were old, stained sneakers—possibly men’s size 15—worn without socks or laces. There were small, pale things squirming about in his hair. Reddish sores and brown streaks covered his obviously Caucasian skin. He had a heavily furrowed brow beneath which were narrow eyes, the whites of which were pink and watery. His nose was wide, unusually flat, and clearly devoid of supporting cartilage. Around his face was a thick mass of facial hair in which trails of wet and dry mucous adorned the areas nearest his mouth and nostrils. He was a sight none of us will ever forget.
“Come near me again and I’ll mess you up!” boomed the baritone voice of the reeking menace. He pointed to the seats and yelled, “This here’s my place and you can’t have it ‘cause it’s mine!” Blackened teeth became visible and brownish spittle flew out of his mouth as his agitation grew. “Mine! Not yours! Mine!” He raised scarred fists that were larger than human hands had any right to be, and he pounded the seats and nearby wall repeatedly with loud, thudding blows that reverberated throughout the subway car.
Nobody with a bit of common sense was anywhere near him. For his part, the young blond man was trying his best to open the nearest exit, but the car was one of the older models in which locked doors prevent movement throughout the train. A female voiced yelled, “Where’s the alarm?” to which another replied, “The sound will just make him worse!” All of us exchanged nervous glances even as the hulking man continued to rant and pound away. We were trapped with a madman.
The train slowly rolled into the next station and an exodus of near-Biblical proportions took place as many of the riders bolted from the homeless man’s domain of filth and ran to the nearest car, one in which there was barely any standing room. Unfortunately for me, however, it was the rush hour and the train was at a point in its trip where no seats would be available on it or any succeeding train for at least two more hours. I needed a seat due to medical reasons, so along with others who required seating and a few brave souls, I remained in the car.
We were lucky. The raging man gradually ended his assault against the subway car and he slowly returned to his seat, growling like an animal as he did so. The giant menace began to mumble softly to himself, then he became quiet and still. We watched to see if the storm was over or if his silence was merely a lull. A few nervous minutes later, we released a collective sigh of relief.
After a number of jarring starts and stops, the train finally rumbled into the West 4th Street station, at which point a horde of passengers boarded the car. One of the new entrants was “Ms. Boots,” a young Asian woman with long black locks, a pair of purple thigh-high boots, headphones, and a designer handbag. The young woman looked about the car for the briefest of moments, then she sat directly behind the enormous derelict. The other new arrivals quickly detected the foul odor and its source, resulting in another exodus at the 14th Street station. Meanwhile, Ms. Boots sat with her head lowered and her eyes focused on a cell phone she carried even as the lumbering terror resumed mumbling to himself.
I watched in astonishment as Ms. Boots remained directly behind the stinking man and the insects crawling on him. Several passengers—including me—tried to get her attention by snapping our fingers, lightly clapping our hands, waving, and using newspapers like flags, but she did not respond. That she was engrossed in a game or text conversation was a given, but the smell was overpowering! I could only wonder, Why is she exposing herself to this?
The train continued northward, stopping at the 23rd Street and 34th Street stations with the same actions each time: people boarded, smelled the homeless man, then they largely abandoned the car. Meanwhile, Ms. Boots remained seated and wholly focused on her phone despite all warnings from others.
“Go away! You ain’t taking mine! Go away!” boomed the deep voice of the vagrant. He turned his massive frame so that his mouth was directly behind the head of Ms. Boots. “Leave me! It’s not yours! Go away!”
She didn’t budge.
The train continued slowly, grinding its way to 42nd Street and then to Rockefeller Center. Meanwhile, passengers around me looked at each other nervously as the apparent war of nerves between Ms. Boots and the enraged maniac played out. “What the hell is she doing?” someone asked in a hushed tone. “He’s gonna hurt her,” came another whispered voice. “She’s got a death wish,” said a woman beside me. Suddenly, the young woman withdrew a handkerchief from her bag and sneezed, then she blew her nose and it sounded like she was trying to push cotton through a brick wall. “Lady Kingston,” an elderly Jamaican woman with shopping bags, motioned to her own nose and said, “She’s got a cold or something. That why she’s not smellin’ him. She don’t know!”
The train began pulling out of the 57th Street station when a scream of pure horror came from the rear of the car. It was Ms. Boots! Perhaps it was the heat of the man’s breath on her neck or perhaps just enough of his stench finally cracked its way into her sinuses. Whatever it was, it made her fully aware of the diseased maniac lurking directly behind her. Frantically, she grabbed her handbag and ran to us at the other end of the car. “Why the f*** didn’t anybody tell me that guy was behind me?” she barked more than asked.
The other passengers softly chuckled or cursed at her with voices kept low in fear of inciting further rage from the brutish vagrant. “We tried,” said Lady Kingston, “but you didn’t hear us.”
A confused look crossed the face of Ms. Boots as she removed her headphones. She proudly held them up and said, “Look, I can’t hear you with these on. Noise-canceling, you know. They’re really good!” She then faced Lady Kingston and said, “So how come none of you warned me?”
The responses to Ms. Boots ranged from indifference to dismissive waves. Lady Kingston shook her head, pointed to the headphones, and said, “There be times for quiet and there be times for listenin’. You need to learn which one to do and when to do it.”
Ms. Boots blinked twice. “I don’t get what she’s saying,” she said while looking into the eyes of others for sympathy. She found none.
The train rumbled into the 63rd Street station and Lady Kingston gathered her bags as she prepared to leave. “All this and you still don’t hear,” she said to Ms. Boots as the doors began to open, “and that’s a problem.” She left without a backward glance.
Ms. Boots stood with her mouth open for a moment, then she moved to the door and yelled, “Problem? As if! These are brand-new headphones!”
With her back to us, none of us knew if her reply reached Lady Kingston. However, her position made it clear she had droplets of brown spit all over the long black hair on the back of her head.
She screamed again when we told her. The homeless man laughed when we did.
All the best,