Monday, May 11, 2009

On Scum and Other Social Nuisances

Whipping through the bowels of the city like a great worm on amphetamines, it felt like we were tempting fate in highly obnoxious fashion: covering lots of ground at a time when travel was advised against—and using public transit to do it. The ominous Swine Flu hung over our heads like an evil reaper waiting for someone to slip up, but we weren’t about to start worrying about karma either.

When the subway train squealed to a halt, eyeballs rolled upward from their fixation on the floor to the doors when they slid open and a troll-like man thundered his way in to the carriage.

He wasn’t German, but immediately upon entry he yelled “nein, ich liebe!” and shot a Hitler salute from his chest. Then he motioned with his hands as if he was shooting up the carriage with a fully loaded automatic rifle.

The worm—a creature of routine and schedule—had no objections to this new ride-along. The doors shut and we were on our way again.

He was wearing a tattered Lamb of God tee and a green army jacket not unlike the ones found in heavy abundance at army surplus boutiques. Everything about his character was rough, probably conditioned that way from sleeping on outdoor hot air vents and simple hygiene negligence. I expected he’d known a hard life. His gait was clumsy like his knee had been twisted in some unnatural fashion long ago, but the subway hand rails—things of equal grime and viral danger—helped him find a seat.

I turned to my girlfriend and basically whispered, in a cynical and repulsed “wow.” The single syllable summed up all of the rejection I harbored towards this lonely, angry creep. I figured he got a lot of that, but I had no sympathy for this breed of dung.

He caught it though, and he spat out a sloppy “shuut uup,” likely inflected that way by some hard and scary drugs.

I had irritated the beast. I felt like an unprepared anthropologist in uncharted territory who’d just offended a local. Whether governed by the city’s municipal dictums or no, for this hard man the subway was a liminal safe haven for everything and anything he wanted to throw at me. In the city you can get away with most kinds of foul nature unnoticed, why would its underground caverns of speedy transportation—filled with people tuned in and turned off listening to MP3 players and reading the Saturday news, clenching on to any distraction for dear life’s fear of boredom—be any different circumstance? In the recesses of any metropolis decorated heavily with loud looking bulletin boards and digital marquees, who would expect any less? Besides, everyone has their own things to do, and they’re not about to tailor their busy days around little peculiarities. When you drive by one of those tragic accidents, you turn your head to check out the damage, but how often do you stop? The general reaction is “not today thank you kindly. I’ll be late.” Tragic is right.

Our particular carriage was pretty empty, carrying my girlfriend and I, this freak fascist, and a couple of dreadlocked pot enthusiasts wearing leis of marijuana leaves. Before the man clambered in they were enjoying some chuckle-full conversations about brownies, conspiracies, and hacky sack. But upon his vulgar entrance they all fell silent and kept to themselves. Stoned and silent, they were like statues of absolutel neutrality—grey and eerie: appropriate d├ęcor for city transit.

My girlfriend told me, “don’t look at him” as if I could blend into the background and he was some dumb animal with a Crestaceous intellect. I figured her logic wasn’t too far off—his head was so full of blind hate it seemed like a respectable estimation. But I was denied that confirmation when he demanded my attention immediately afterward.

“You see this?” He had the right sleeve of his jacket rolled up to the elbow. His left hand was holding his right arm so that his palm faced me and I saw the inside of his wrist. Where you usually see forked veins and parallel tendons, I saw the infected result of a heavy drug hunger. A red and purple pain hole with the black center hollowed out, likely irritated by nervous scratching and digging with dirty nails. And then he turned his hand around so the back of his hand faced me, and he launched his middle finger to the sky.

He muttered in his impeccable English, “I kill you.” Suddenly he was bigger than Swine Flu or the plague, and I felt the grip of immediate danger.

I wanted to call his bluff and scream scum of the earth; call him infectious human waste and the Nazi muck I wouldn’t soil the treads of my shoes with. I wanted to scrub the grime of every dark alley and cluttered gutter of the city with his face. I blamed every pseudo-liberal politician who promised social reform and only changed taxes so that everyone got equally swindled and every conservative that kept its plan of action secret and went around kissing babies and offering tax cuts to seniors to buy votes. You never see a politician on the streets, doing groceries, or riding public transit. You never see them living with the rest of their country—not without a suited up fleet of security.

I wondered why society ever did away with public humiliation and shaming rituals. I wanted to lock this swine in the stocks and write “Nazi Filth” on his forehead with indelible ink – maybe dress up some politicians in clown costumes and chain them to security camera polls. Let the general public deal with them, I thought. “Here is your viral Swine pandemic! Let loose your rotten vegetables and tell them how you feel,” I’d tell them.

Despite my disgust and rejection, I knew I couldn’t do much as one. I resorted to the only device of protest I had left available to me. I fell into zen silence and blocked him out. With no reactions on my end, he had nothing left to throw my way. He muttered to himself in incomprehensible tongues until the worm screamed to another halt. It was our stop. My girlfriend and I got up to leave, and I was happy this dumb animal stayed put.

The train doors shut behind us and we were safe, but the scum was still out there: a grimy stain was zooming through the city’s underside. It was too big for one person to handle, but at the same time apparently too small to receive appropriate attention.

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