Friday, January 21, 2011

Bittersweet Stink-phony

Today my bus smelled like feet.  This is not unusual -- my bus often smells like feet.  In fact, I'd hazard a guess that feet is the most popular--albeit not the most offensive--aroma on the bus.  Granted, I haven't conducted a scientific study, but based on personal olfactory experiences, I've reached this conclusion.  There's a smorgasbord of other odors that frequently present themselves on transit.  Please, allow me to elaborate--there are a few distinct categories of stink (in ascending order--least to most offensive): food; mechanical; excretions; body; and miscellaneous.

Food Stink -- Everyone knows that food and beverage aren't allowed on Metrobus or Metrorail, but the threat of arrest doesn't stop some people. There are a couple of subsets of this variety.  First, is the "delicious" food.  Its perfume taunts you and teases you (pizza, burgers--or my personal favorite--fried chicken) as you slog home from work, starving, but going home to leftover boiled chicken.  You start to drool as you silently curse the person with the offending carry out container--but you realize you should sit back and enjoy it, as it may be the one and only time the Metro has ever smelled good.  The second subset is the "offensive" food.  This smell has often been confused with one of the other categories, but can almost always be traced back to food.  Perhaps it's the nearly foot-like vinegary smell of some sort of pickled vegetable that's been sitting under your seat for too long, or the slightly barfy scent of old lunch meat from a sandwich that's been their since Metro began operating in the 70s, or the punjent, almost fruity stench of a nondescript slime that's been oozing on the already-gross Metro carpet and eking it's way down the aisle (see also Miscellaneous Stink). 

Mechanical Stink -- Have you ever smelled that slightly dead-body-ish stink?  You know, it's sort of like decay, along with lightly singed rubber, with a dribble of burnt hair thrown in for good measure?  Yeah, that's what happens when the railcars get new brakes and then the operator stops on a dime in the station.  It's super awesome -- and it lingers.  It lingers so badly that it's all you can do not to stick your head inside the neck of your shirt and sniff your own cologne just to rid yourself of the funk of 40,000 years (or maybe you do). 

Excretion Stink -- Sweat, urine, feces, vomit . . . you get the idea.  I have smelled each of these (and sometimes two or more) during my many years of travel on the Metro and bus.  In fact, this brings to mind one time when I was a kid and my family and I went down to the museums one weekend.  On our return Metro voyage, there was a baby that I can only describe as having exploded.  His dirty diaper smelled so bad that my family and I gagged and closed our eyes as they burned from the stink.  When we could finally take it no more, we all got up and ran to the next car faster than you can say "baby poop."  Of course, at that point we were met with the smell of grape gum (see also, Food Stink) that smelled shockingly similar to dirty diaper.  Go figure.  Another time there was a sick kid who literally barfed the most stinky fruit-cocktail-cheese-and-ground-beef upchuck you've ever smelled (see also, Food Stink) right in the middle of the aisle near the door.  After one heroic leap over the puke, I changed cars.  Interestingly enough, though, this was back in the days before the infamous "Sick Passenger," so the train just continued on its merry way.  The passengers, on the other hand, not so merry.

Body Stink -- While this category could easily be a subset of excrement, but I think it deserves a category all its own.  Body stink encapsulates myriad odors emanating from the human body, the worst of which, I think is a little something we in the business like to call "Death Breath."  It might occur in the morning before the offending passenger has brushed his teeth (but interestingly, still had time to have his coffee and morning cigarette), or it could confront you in the evening after the culprit has had a head of garlic and an old shoe for lunch.  The aforementioned feet also belong in this category.  Body odor -- the kind that would make Jerry Seinfeld sell his car -- frequently makes an appearance on the bus.  It usually happens when there's that one last seat . . . the seat that nobody's sitting in and you don't know why.  Then you sit down and immediately you are slapped in the face by what can only be described as "air needles."  This flavor is so malodorous it causes your eyes to cross, but your commitment to social norms (and also possibly to not being pointed at and derrided by your fellow bus riders who knew exactly why the seat was vacant) is so strong that you remain in your seat, looking out of the corner of your eye at the guilty party and smiling awkwardly. 

Miscellaneous -- Perhaps there's that smell hanging in the air that you can't quite identify.  It's hard to tell if it's coming from another person, something stuck under the seat, or a lingering something that just can't escape the poor ventilation.  Several times a month, I get a smack of old lady . . . you know it's a misting of Jean Nate mixed with mothballs and that strange musk of 80-year-old skin.  Not to be confused with the oily je ne sais quoi of an unwashed old man.  Some days there's the cloyingly sweet smell of too much J.Lo. "Glow" hovering in the car -- it gives you a headache and reminds you of a stripper you once met in New Orleans.  You might run into the old ashtray smell of a four-pack-a-day smoker that causes you to feel like you might get emphysema from the secondhand smoke emanating from the fabric of the once-white-but-now-greyish overcoat. 

Each of these, in their own unique way, makes you grateful to see that your stop is the next one and that you're mere steps away from fresh air.  Perhaps I've missed something obvious?  Please, tell me . . . because I don't want to be unprepared the next time I get on board. 


  1. My bus smelled like sour mash (fermented corn used to make Tennessee sippin' whiskey). I wondered where one would stash a still in Arlington?

  2. @BCrawford, That's hilarious--and curious! I suspect one might stash a still in one's 2-car garage, no?

  3. Oh, lordy! I feel like a Metro rookie, despite my 13 years, since I've never had to encounter baby diapers OR baby puke. Glad I read this AFTER eating! LOL!

  4. I am so glad you promo'd this on Twitter b/c I had missed it. It is SO funny. i guess I am a rookie like Sassy too b/c I was always blown away by the cleanness and civility on the Metro, especially when I was living in (and riding mass transit constantly) in my Beloved New York City. It's the carpets that blew me away - in NY I think carpets on the subway would have been being peeled off the floor during the ride and sold on some corner before the "entrepreneurs" were discovered!!!! Thanks for the laughs. Surprised flatulence didn't make an appearance....

  5. Wow. Truly impressed at how well you were able to graphically describe what "slightly dead-body-ish stink" is like. Or a little creeped out. Either way... Pretty awesome post. You should tweet advertise this some more today/this week as Saturday is not the best day for readership and this one is a real goody. Cheers, T.

  6. @Sassy, be glad for your having imssed the poop and barf. It's no picnic.

    @Paula, thanks! I have never understood the carpets either. Makes no sense to me. I think they've started to remove them from the newer trains. Iiiiick!

    @Toddy, thanks lady! I have lived through all those smells so many times, I feel like I could recreate them in a lab. Haha! Some days I want to get a mask just to get me through the day!