Tonight, boarding the F train with my stepdad on our way back from Thanksgiving dinner in Jersey with family, I walked into a wall of stench. Specifically, piss. Like, the kind of stink you carry with you, lingering in your nostrils even while you write about it two hours later.
We'd hopped onto this particular car after seeing a row of open seats, and quickly saw the reason they were open: a homeless man, slumped over his seat with an open container of food someone had given him, probably leftovers from someone's Thanksgiving dinner. It looked like potatoes and cabbage, and he was eating it with his fingers, slurping and smacking his lips, never looking up even as more than one person slipped dollar bills into the hand he wasn't eating with.
I wasn't one of these people. I don't know if I resented the intense smell or just thought my assistance would be overkill, but I just looked at him - ok, I stared at him, and thought about sitting on the F train two days earlier with my five-year-old daughter, when a man with no legs wheeled into our car shaking a soup can. I gave this man my pocket change, and he said, "Thanks man, God bless you an' your girl on these holidays." I said, "Take care, man."
As he was wheeling away, my daughter asked, "What happened to his legs?" I said, "I don't know."
She asked, "Why did you have to give him money?" I said, "I didn't have to."
"Then why did you?" she asked. "I don't know," I replied, "Maybe because he looked like he needed it?"
"How come some people aren't giving him money?" "Everyone can choose."
"When he gets done," she concluded, "I think he'll have a lot of money." "Or," I added, "just enough for today."
When I was a freshman in junior college, I didn't have any money. My tuition was paid by a Pell grant and a small athletic scholarship, none of which ended up in my pockets. Because of this, and/or because I didn't really think personal hygiene applied to one's feet, I only washed my socks once each semester that year. Did I mention my scholarship was for running track? My socks might not have been able to walk themselves, but they became so hard and crusty that I had to work my feet into them each time I woke up or went to practice. You can imagine how they smelled, though the full effect on my teammates eluded me until I was dressing in the locker room at Southwest Missouri State (now just Missouri State) and heard two of my teammates chatting a couple of rows away.
"What's that smell?" one of them asked.
"I dunno," the other replied, then laughed, "Must be Proctor."
"I haven't figured out what it is about that guy that smells so bad. Piss? Yep, that's it. He smells like cat piss. Makes me dread the van rides home from meets."
I remember these things almost nostalgically. These two guys are my friends now, especially since I agreed to throw my socks in their laundry from then on. One or both of them might even see the link to this on my social media and remember those foul rides home with me, like I'm remembering them with a homeless man's aroma running through my brain and my daughter's questions running through my head.
For these and more reasons, this Thanksgiving I'm thankful for clean socks, feet to put them on, and a pot to piss in.