You always smell them first.
Even if one of them is walking down the other side of the street, plastic bags full to the brim and gifts of Catholic charity on their backs, I always smell them before I actually see them. Itís not anything tangible that I can identify. Maybe itís such a mixture that I canít tell banana peel from body odor. Then again, maybe despair has a scent. The perfume called Hopeless.
The weirdest thing is that they always seem to find me. Every time I go walking there they are, hands in their pockets, reeking of shattered promise, and assaulting my senses so that I have to fight a war to keep from retching. Sometimes I wonder if I have a kind of magnetism for poverty. Or maybe I can just smell what I donít want to see.
Today, itís at a bus stop in the middle of the day. Heís definitely one of them. I look only because thereís nothing else worth looking at, but what I see is the stuff of corporate nightmare. His clothes are too baggy in some places and too tight in others with patches to fill the spaces in between. Tattered duct tape wound around one shoe; paper stuffed to fill a hole in another. Right down to the artful placement of dirt streaks on his face, I know what he is and I know where he comes from.
And now comes the worst part: the silence. No one else is going to come, so weíre stuck with each other, like it or not, and saying something is out of the question. What would we talk about? Would I ask if heís familiar with the dumpster I throw trash in on my way to work? Does he sing or steal? Thereís nothing we can discuss. So I just sit there, purse and briefcase at my side, and spend twenty minutes waiting for a late bus, not-talking and not-looking at him, eyes darting in every direction but the immediate left.
Finally, it arrives. Normally, I wouldnít expect a homeless man to be heading in the same direction, but I know heís coming before he stands up. Itís that magnetism again; the attraction between prosperity and destitution. Heís going to follow me until the pull wears off, and Iím willing to wait for that to happen. I have nowhere else to go. I try to pretend I havenít noticed his footsteps echoing mine when we step on board, one after the other.
Now I really do gag. The stench is coming at me from all sides, violating every inch of skin. My eyes water, and I taste breakfast and bile. Through the translucent haze, I look up.
And I see them.
There arenít hundreds, but it seems like there are, all covered in decades old clothing out of fashion for twenty years and not washed for fifteen. Matted hair and tinfoil hats and a pet mouse skittering across stooped shoulders. The bag ladies, the drunks, the junkies, the crazies, the prophets, and the artists all sitting row after row after row. Every one of them looking at me.
A hand falls onto my shoulder and my skin tries to crawl off my bones.
ďThis is the bus for the hopeless,Ē he says, pulling the empty briefcase for my hand. I turn just in time to see him smile and all his teeth are gone. ďWelcome aboard.Ē