I have to tell this story carefully, with as much compassion and sensitivity as I can, as I'm not here to make fun of or in any other way denigrate homeless people. This was just slightly funny and a piece of reality only people who use public transportation see.
Last night, I got out of a rehearsal for a play. Normally, I would have taken the MetroRail to a bus at Wheeler Station, but the trains were stopped this weekend, in anticipation of a building being imploded on the line. (For those who know downtown Houston, I'm referring to the destruction of the now-vacant Macy's [formerly Foley's] building.) They had buses scheduled to take up the slack of the trains, but I decided I'd just walk to a bus stop where I could pick up an 81 or 82 bus, which would take me to the Galleria area, close enough to walk home.
An 82 came along soon enough and I was glad. It was raining, but not hard.
A couple of stops later, a homeless woman got on with another passenger. Suddenly, the bus was filled with a smell like a dead animal. It was putrid and strong, and because the other passenger had come to the back of the bus, where I was, I wondered if it was her, even though she had no outward appearance of someone who might smell like this. As other passengers got on, particularly ones who sat closer to the front made it clear where the smell came from. They all moved to the back. One noted, "Man, you can't get away from it!"
Let me clear. This was not like any homeless person smell. Any public transit rider is familiar with that smell. This was the sort of smell I recognized from dead armadillos or possums or any number of dead animals I might have encountered growing up on a farm. It's even different from spoiled meat. I suspect part of the stench is the smell of rotting entrails as well as muscle, but I digress. The point is, this was a distinct, unique smell.
I should also note that I recognized the homeless woman. She used to spend some times in the chairs at the Barnes & Noble where I used to work. I'd had to wake her up a time or two and send her out into the night as we were closing the store. She never smelled like this then.
So, anyway, there's a dozen or so of us on this smelly bus, and I'm really kind of happy with how everyone's taking it. They're being sensitive enough to not make loud, outward responses to the smell. A couple of men in t-shirts had pulled the top of their shirts up and over their noses (making them look a little bit like bandits, I though), but for a late night bus ride, I thought everyone behaved relatively compassionately.
Then the skies opened up and barrels of rain came down. This being Houston, that means there's pretty immediate flooding. Our bus came to a complete stop in a storm, all of us trapped in the smell, 2-3 feet of water swirling around outside our windows. We couldn't go forward. We couldn't go backward. No to the sides. We had to wait out the storm and the hopefully quick recession of the flood waters.
Meanwhile, the homeless woman slept.
I chewed some spearmint gum, which seemed to help with putting another scent in my nose. At times, I even thought I might have gotten used to it as it seemed to bother me less. Then I'd catch a fresh whiff (no pun intended) of the stench. There was no escape from it.
Other cars went past us, most of them turning around and going back the way they came. A wrecker went by. Then a firetruck. This seemed ominous.
More ominously, I saw one woman, talking low to another woman, make the universal gesture for "throwing up." This concerned me more than a little. I was managing okay with the dead animal smell, but I know from experience that the smell of vomit is a strong trigger for me. I was certain that if anyone threw up in that enclosed place, I would surely follow, particularly mixed with the original stench.
Even as I started to get a headache, I couldn't help but chuckle at all this. It seemed like the stuff of a sitcom episode. People were going up to the front of the bus to talk to the bus driver. Some stayed up there, others came back to the back of the bus. Some would make an occasional sudden move like a trapped animal looking for an escape. One woman took a picture of the flood waters. It looked like she was posting to Facebook or Twitter or something. Glances were shared, but other than the people talking to the bus driver, no one really talked.
The homeless woman slept on.
This is non-fiction, so all the foreshadowing for worse things to come didn't get fulfilled. Eventually, the rain let up. It seldom rains hard for long in Houston. The waters receded enough for us to start moving forward and before long, we were going at regular speed down Westheimer toward the Galleria.
I do wonder what created that particular smell with this woman. If it was in (from?) her body, perhaps she didn't smell it. If was something in the cart she dragged onto the bus, well, I hope she cleaned it out somewhere. That it was different from the usual homeless person smells made me worry about her. Did she have some place on her body that was putrefying? I hope not. What a misery that would be.
Of course, we picked up drenched people along the way, new faces to react to the stench, new people to try to get away from that which could not be escaped. The bus was filling up and as we passed the Galleria, I gave my seat to a man, telling him I was getting off in a few stops. I stood by the back door.
Then, two stops before mine, there was a person on a motorized scooter who had to get on. Again, the people on the bus behaved as well as could be expected---we were all quite ready to get to where we were going and off that bus, and the bus driver seemed to have more trouble than usual trying to strap the scooter with the safety straps. I began to wonder if I should get off the bus and walk the extra 4 or 5 blocks.
I hoped the guy on the scooter had a strong stomach, because he was absolutely trapped to sit next to the homeless woman.
Finally, we were on our way again. After 90 minutes or more on that bus, I exited into the light rain, my umbrella up. I watched the bus go buy, full of people holding their noses, a handicapped man strapped in next to a sleeping, unfortunate woman.
* * * * * * * * * *
As for God-stuff: Several years ago, in another situation with another homeless person on a bus, this thought came to me:
When Mary, the Mother of God, comes near, we smell roses. Her Son, on the other hand, smells like this.