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The CTA Chronicles: That Smell

By Pat Bataillon

Waiting for the brown line to the Loop. It is before 8 a.m. and cold. Wind chills are whipping but I, along with everyone on the platform, is trying to ignore them. We are all of two natures on a morning like this. Some of us stomp our feet because we believe Officer Jim Malone's advice to a chilled Elliot Ness in The Untouchables. And some of us mumble obscenities into gloves and scarves. It is difficult to say which one, if either, make any considerable difference. The only guaranteed difference-maker is squeezing into that southbound train. The CTA keeps a toasty train in the winter months. It's nice.

As the train appears a collective sigh of relief is audible on the platform. We will be comfortable soon, or so some of us think. BING-BONG, the doors open. The warm commuters exit to transfer to the Red Line and the cold commuters enter. The exchange is always somewhat chaotic. Typically, muffled threats of violence are overheard as the masses bump into one another. I've never seen a physical altercation erupt from one of these exchanges, but I would surely like to.

This quasi-violent exchange serves only as a prelude to something much worse: The struggle for favorable pole position. When seats are at a premium, the fight for pole position would make Charles Darwin proud. The very tall and the very short have all the advantage. The tall get a hand up high and shelter the shorter filling in the negative space. The middle, or average, must fight for the opportunity to get a single finger on a pole. Usually, these middling characters just stand and let the collective human glue hold them in place.

On this particular morning I was fortunate enough to score the pole in between the vertical and horizontal seats. Things were looking good for my half-hour commute. Then I took a deep breath to feel that warm air in my lungs and realized something was terribly off. Terribly, terribly off. I looked around at my traveling companions. Their eyes were just as confused as mine and their noses twitched with displeasure. The air was warm but humid. CTA air is dry; it has never been this musty. The air we breathed did not carry the flavor of mechanically forced warm air. It had a much more human fetor to it. This air was tainted.

This is not a fart joke column. No, this is something much worse. A hygiene problem was on the train. By a hygiene problem, I mean a person who had made this train their home. Homes harvest smells. Most homes correct these smells with regular bathing and scented candles. The Chicago El has no showers or scented candles.

My companions and I, one by one, raised a hand to our mouths and noses. It was useless; our olfactory sensations were under ferocious attack. The rank was so thick I could feel it attaching itself to my exposed skin. All of us looked for the exit but it was too late, the doors had closed. We were trapped.

Thoughts of a Seinfeld episode flashed through my thoughts. Would this stench attach itself to me? Am I doomed to carry it for the day? Longer?

My leather gloves offered no defense against the relentless onslaught of malodor. Should I breath this funk through my mouth? No! I can taste it! Nose it is. The Wellington stop is near, I will get off and switch cars.

I can tell by looking at the number of shifting eyes around me that my traveling companions are thinking the same thing. Huh. Communal thinking has never worked out well. See Jonestown or any other religious organization. If we all exit at Wellington, there is no chance to spread out to the other trains. It is rush hour. It is packed. We will have to wait. We will have to wait in that cold again.

BING-BONG. "This is Wellington. The doors open on the right at Wellington."

I share eye contact with my various traveling companions. We shift toward the door and stop as the wind comes blasting through. We take one last taste of this noisome odor, choke, and step outside. We had ingested the Kool-Aid. It made us do something we didn't understand. We stomp and curse under our breath waiting for the next train. It arrives, we board, we go to work. Hoping that we don't smell.

-

Comments welcome.



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Posted on December 16, 2009


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