I receive, on a daily basis, many reminders of my singular good fortune, of my having scored big in life’s sweepstakes: I have a good job–one that gives me a sabbatical every seven years, a lovely family, and good health. (Despite a sore shoulder thanks to a persistent case of supraspinatus tendinopathy, two busted discs in my lower back that sometimes occasion a sore and stiff back, sciatica on my left side, a bulging cervical disc, and some other minor niggles here and there, I’m still inclined to this assessment; I do, after all, live an active life.)
Because I live in New York, these reminders are sometimes distinctly pungent and malodorous. I am referring to the unmistakable aroma of the homeless. I am no spring chicken when it comes to foul miasmas. I have traveled and visited many public restrooms from hell; I have vainly hunted for a dead rat in urban apartments; I have thrown out rotting food. But the smell of the homeless is something else altogether.
Sometimes you experience it as you step into a suspiciously non-crowded subway car; sometimes when you step off a train and step past a bundle of rags–with a limb or two sticking out–lying next to a bench; sometimes when you walk under a scaffolding on a sidewalk and spy a pair of cardboard boxes thrown together to fashion a makeshift shelter. If it was possible, it gets a little worse in the summer.
The olfactory assault mounted by these unfortunates is obviously grounded in some straightforward physical facts: they are unwashed and have been so for some time; antiquated sweat and grime have been blended together into a toxic compound; and those that are mentally and physically incapable of taking care of their most basic needs have let urine and solid excrement remain on their bodies.
But what I think makes this odor quite as offensive as we experience it is the knowledge that it is associated with a human being, that a fellow creature is the source of it and is wrapped up in it, that their daily existence is inseparable from it. A sensory assault that we find simply unbearable for more than a second or two, that makes us change subway cars at the next available subway station, that makes us hurry on quickly to the exit stairs of subway stations, is, for that human being, a haze that hangs over their every daily moment.
Wrapped up in that smell is a whole history of things gone wrong, of unfortunate contingencies that ended in disaster every time. Perhaps it all began with a mishap–a lost job, a broken home, a mental illness–that derailed an otherwise fortunate life, or perhaps things began badly and steadily became worse.
Whatever its particular provenance, no other sensory input that I receive in my movements through this great city reminds me quite as unpleasantly of how lucky I have been and continue to be; nothing else causes both the wrinkled nose and the shiver down my spine.