I stepped into a crowded subway car around ten this morning to see that a long stretch of seats was occupied by a urine-drenched person with his head in a box. People love to do the farmer fist gesture and say “Only in New York!” about things like this but let’s acknowledge that this is a rare and sad morning sight, not just a souvenir in story form. The crowd swelled with each stop and gradually I was pushed toward the center of the car, where I had a better view of the slumbering box-headed stranger. As it turned out, the box was full of hamburger buns, loose and packaged.
Non-homeless people love to jokingly evaluate the urban survival tactics of the homeless, be it through off-hand remarks about spelling errors on their signs or the attitude with which they approach you on the street, but this man deserves a golf clap for his ingenuity. Hamburger buns, in all their refined flour fluffiness, are probably as cushy a pillow as any Tempur-pedic product and the box shields his face from the fluorescent lights well. And for him to take advantage of the chicken-shitty nature of the work crowd by stretching out and smelling like pee, you can’t help but say “Well, guy, you’ve earned your territory.”
Things didn’t get really interesting until he suddenly bolted upright and awake, gasping with the box still over his head in what was a small-scale explosion of a couple dozen hamburger buns. The last time I can remember waking up like that — the bolting awake part, not so much the box on my head or the buns parts — was during a dream where tens of Donald Rumsfelds were blowing curare darts and heaving live shrieking rodents at me while the queen bee of the Donald Rumsfelds read through my entire Internet browsing history, because, holy fucking everything, right? Those Mexican mushrooms rocked my socks (Ed. note: I have never had any of those and don’t know where to get them.) But where were we? Yes, the guy woke up with a box on his head like a primitive robot costume. Most people jumped backwards and guarded their kids to avoid stepping on the stray buns or catching a motion-activated wave of pee stink. I know, you guys are like “Now we’re talking!” Shoulda been there.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about the sensory experience of stepping on one of those buns; it seems on par with feeling mud between your toes or snapping bubble wrap and hey, we like those things. The kids probably felt similarly but didn’t want to admit it now that their parents had acted like each bun was a land mine of contaminants and social unacceptability. Before I could act on it and possibly set the precedent for them to set feet on them too (I assume little kids think I’m an adult and that everything I do is allowed) the star of this captivating one-act slowly rolled off the bench and onto all fours like a drowsy cat. He got up, tossed the box against the wall and flopped out onto the platform. The relief in the car was palpable.
What was left in his place was a scattering of pieces of soggy cardboard and clean white hamburger buns; it took up almost exactly as much space as he had. And amazingly enough, for the ten stops afterward (which I spent seated across from the mess, watching) nobody moved anything. Nobody tried to take those seats. People gathered around for seconds at a time to observe the scene more closely as though it were an installation in a museum, as though the action of briefly staring at it and moving on was enough to communicate the message “I understand this” to everyone else. Right.
Though entertaining, the most uncomfortable part about this whole thing was how quickly commuters were rendered passive audience members at the unfortunate show. Is there a moral to this story? The closest things would probably be “I guess weird shit happens all the time,” and “Man are we scared on public transit!” What does it take to get people to loosen up and not be terrified of each other if a man with a bread pillow can’t do the trick? I’ll have to place an order for Mexican mushrooms with intent to distribute (but, yeah, still have never had any and don’t know where to get them.)
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