Shit versus stoic

Shakira Sison
Adult human poop is scathing, its odor caustic to nostrils, and quite frankly, completely unshakeable

There’s no other way to put it except that it happens. Any New Yorker knows that a miraculously empty subway car during rush hour can only mean one thing. A homeless person has likely taken over a seat and filled the precious breathing air with his or her unwashed body odor mixed with garbage, urine ammonia, and shit. Or worse.

I was running late when I got into my particular subway car that would open right in front of the stairs at my stop. It was seven a.m. so I hardly gave any thought to the couple of empty seats on this otherwise full train, so I went for them.

As soon as the doors opened I was met with the homeless stench but it was too late to run to another car. I immediately scoured the train for the culprit so I could head the other way. Except that what I found were more disturbing remnants of the offender, in the form of a fully formed pile of shit on the subway floor.

The subway face

If there’s one thing about New Yorkers, it’s their skill in maintaining The Subway Face, an expression of stoicism and indifference used to avoid conflict and challenges en route to one’s destination. In essence, this is a self-protecting bubble that one forms around herself to create the illusion of solitude and invisibility in a very congested situation.

For the years-experienced commuter this might be impenetrable, and so effective in allowing the passenger the peace to read or think in a packed subway car. But do not be fooled and misconstrue this apparent ignorance as a lack of awareness. These expressionless faces watched me enter, observed my footfalls, kept a close eye on the shit, and then ignored how I wrapped my scarf around my face. To the unobservant passenger without the sense of olfaction, it could seem like business as usual.

The subway car was filled with shit stench. Human feces is unmistakable. I know this from years of work at an animal hospital, where dog and cat poo was simply that, a fact to be dealt with and then overlooked. In a pig farm I interned at in vet school, animal dung was kicked around on floors and caked on walls, and inevitably ended up on me. It was an accepted reality, after all. I was invading the space of a hundred pigs who had no choice as to where to void.

But adult human poop is scathing, its odor caustic to nostrils, and quite frankly, completely unshakeable. It is accompanied by the horror of visuals and questions of when and how, and for fuck’s sake, why? Was it a homeless man or a drunk guy, was it urgent or recreational? Was the motive an act of defiance or simply of irrepressible nature? We never will know.

I did know that I had a long way between stops so I made my scarf an inadequate gas mask and pretended to sleep through the stench that seeped in between its fibers I pressed against my face. I did not have any free hands to play with my phone or to read my magazine as a distraction. Right then, a seat opened up a few feet further from the fecal foe. I stood to grab it but quickly turned back. Another piece of poop was right underneath that seat, the lady beside it sitting unfazed, except for her legs that were slightly skewed in the other direction.

Eye on the prize

There is a certain determination possessed by the subway commuter that shields him from any diversion to the ultimate goal of his destination. A loud, persistent preacher might spend 30 minutes yelling the word of God. A group of 8 teenage dancers might spend the length of a bass-dominant boom box song doing acrobatics on the train’s rails and poles. Accordion players, panhandlers, yoyo sellers, kids selling charity candy and the routine crazy guy screaming profanities all come and go on one’s daily grind.

Yet most passengers hardly even blink. No eye contact is ever established, no change in face produced. A sociological study could conclude that subway riders’ faces remain constant no matter who or what joins them in the train. That morning, a keen observer would notice the vibe of disgust, disbelief, and denial. We all stoically convinced ourselves that relief was in sight.

It soon became my objective to leave the car as soon as the train stopped, so I could run into the one behind it. This demanded a level of speed and coordination that was difficult enough without the obstacle of excrement along the way, and I couldn’t afford to miss the door because I was already late. But before the next stop came, a lady sat on my former would-be seat and squished the shit with her bag of wrapped holiday presents. It released an even more intense shit stink that caused her to get up and walk away, only to be replaced by a man who stepped squarely on the shit and smeared it a few feet across the doorway.

It was apparent that the only option to spare myself from the shit storm at that point was to stay still. When the doors opened, a man stepped on the original fully-formed curly-topped dump and the crowd in the train broke out of their subway faces to groan, and once again when this man’s daughter followed suit. They both screamed and headed to the corner of the train, spreading the shit further in what seemed to be a solid yellow streak. Horror joined odor in the air and the floor was filled with shit prints as I prayed that none of it would touch me. Please, please, please.     

Finally, relief 

And then the train stopped. A man who appeared to be an MTA employee asked everyone to change cars. I tiptoed around the creamy smears on the floor and ran out, boarding the next car with the rest of the passengers who just brought with them the smell that we were all bathing in.

Did I step on it? I prayed to the holiest God that none of it made its way to my shoe or my coat or my hand. New Yorkers know shit and everyone has a subway shit story, including more gruesome experiences such as getting it on your hand while passing through a turnstile.

I was trying to figure out the reason a developing country such as my homeland would never, ever have shit anywhere in its public transport system. Was it because there was more shame? Or simply that these vehicles were never empty enough for a private moment of human voiding? New York is in fact the city that never sleeps, and it isn’t so far-fetched for a person alone in a train to feel free to do whatever she wants at 3 in the morning.

But shit? Seriously? I ran out of that train and headed up to the street to make my way to work, convinced that the shit smell was permanently stuck on my skin. I imagined that for hours after my trip, through Fifth Avenue where I surfaced, through the infamous gold doors of the Sherry-Netherland and the golden horseman at Grand Army Plaza, savoring the contrast between the decadence of New York City and mysterious black labyrinth of its transport system underneath.

Sure, that must have been the worst morning commute I’ve ever had and it was definitely for the books. But I walked into work thinking that by law of physics, technically the day could only get better.

I could smell it. –


Shakira Andrea Sison is a Palanca Award-winning essayist. She currently works in finance and spends her non-working hours writing stories in subway trains. She is a veterinarian by education and was managing a retail corporation in Manila before relocating to New York in 2002. Follow her on Twitter: @shakirasison