The smell of partially metabolized alcohol emanating from another human being puts me in mind of limp, sweaty lettuce. Lettuce that’s yellowish and briny. Always lettuce, no other leafy green. Needless to say, I’ve never produced this smell myself, and never will.
It’s a fairly regular feature of my commute — even more regular on the morning trips downtown than on the late-afternoon trips back home. I find it other than pleasant. To escape it, I welcome the opportunity to hurl myself across the platform from the local to the far-more-crowded express. Burying my face in a taller man’s Burberry-girded armpit feels like a breath of fresh air.
But today, on my return trip, I stayed on the 1, because I had a seat and I had my headphones on and I thought — haha! — that I might be able to cocoon myself in music and a great short story about a lovelorn urban partygoer.
It took until Times Square for a grizzled man to board the train and loom over me, hanging on the bar above my head, his knees aligned with my knees, his hair, admittedly, the color of a unicorn’s mane. When he moved, wafts of sweat-lettuce billowed from beneath his enormous coat.
There was nothing especially aggressive or threatening about him. I had the distinct sense that he’d be embarrassed if he knew he was making anyone uncomfortable. When our shoes touched, he moved his foot. But I couldn’t help being discomfitted by the fact that he’d chosen to stand over me on a not-so-crowded train. There was plenty of room near the doors. There was plenty of room for him to lean back a little. There was plenty of room for me to not be in contact with any article of his clothing. Yet when the train swayed, his jacket would brush my thigh, delicately, just above the knee.
To be fair, that was only after I shifted to a slightly more rangy posture, one meant to convey a vaguely masculine indifference to the personal space of the people around me — to convey, in other words, that I was not easily cowed. The opposite is true, of course. I have to exert a conscious effort not to pull my legs up to my chest and wrap my arms around my knees every time I get on the subway. I don’t want to touch anything.
And here was this man who’d done the public-transit equivalent of choosing to pee at the urinal right next to me, even though there was a free one at the far end of the wall.
In the end, I felt guilty for feeling this way at all. The guy probably spent the whole time thinking about his sick dog, wondering whether he’d have to put her to sleep, and wondering who would welcome him home once she was gone.