In 2007 or so, I was living in Hyde Park on Chicago's south side. For those of you who don't know, Hyde Park is a little pocket of neighborhood centered around the University of Chicago that is surrounded by miles on each side by some of the worst ghetto in the city. The relatively tony neighborhood owes its unique location to the stockyards and the prevailing upwind direction during the summertime months. Eventually the cows left and the rich people moved to the northside, leaving the University alone. While Hyde Park remained fairly robust, the surrounding blocks have rotted for the better part of a century. How bad are these neighborhoods? How's this - after I moved to the north side, I would schedule my long marathon training runs to end at the nearby red line station. I did this to ensure that I wouldn't stop, even after covering 22+ miles, because if I did stop there was a very real chance I'd be mugged or shot.
While many stories were born during this time in my life, the one I want to share comes from one of my brief ventures outside Hyde Park. The images from this incident were burned into my brain as indelibly as a branding iron sears the ass of a bull.
That Fall, I needed to catch a flight out of Midway. Being a relatively poor postdoc, I was too cheap to take a cab and definitely too cheap to pay for parking at the airport and absolutely definitely not going to leave my car unattended in the surrounding neighborhood. This left only one reasonably direct option: The 55 bus.
The bus runs from the Museum of Science and Industry to the airport, most of it straight down 55th street. It trundles along through some of the worst neighborhoods in the city, stopping regularly to disgorge a bum and pick up a gang banger. During my time on the 55, I saw drunks passed out in puddles of their own shit, bums with maggots crawling out of their ears, and a woman the bus driver called snowflake who had a case of dandruff bad enough to warrant a minisymposium at a dermatologist convention.
But the grossest thing I ever saw on the bus occurred on that fateful late afternoon run to the airport. It was a pretty good day to ride; the bus smelled OK and there was a lack of obvious piss and/or blood on any of the benches as I sat down with my bag.
At the Garfield Red Line stop, an obese African-American woman climbed on. She brought with her six children between the ages of one and seven, who proceeded to make the entire bus theirs. One of the kids, a five-year-old with snot bubbles run amok, sat down next to me.
I've taken enough microbiology classes to know not to touch things on buses. This includes people. Snot bubble kept leaning in towards me, and I retreated from him like a battered woman fleeing her abusive husband. Rule One of living in Hyde Park: do not engage the locals.
Fortunately, Snot Bubble's mom called him over a moment later. However, any hope that he was being recalled into a semblance of parental supervision evaporated immediately when she simply issued the child a package of cheap fried chicken and some french fries. Snot Bubble returned to the seat next to me and began to eat. Within seconds, his hands were covered in a mixture of grease, ketchup, and that thick, sweet red barbeque sauce that no one but children and people who don't know any better can tolerate.
The bus braked, and Snot bubble reached up to steady himself on one of the vertical metal poles that ran up the aisles. When he released it, there was a formidable gob of grease, BBQ sauce and, I think, some snot he'd just wiped formed a thick coating on the pole, inches from my torso.
I pressed back as far as I dared invade the personal space of the person on the other side of me (see: Rule One). As the bus rumbled through the next intersection, Snot Bubble temporarily lost interest in his meal. He was carefully studying the soiled pole. I assumed he was thinking of how to clean up the mess he'd made.
Oh, was I mistaken. With no foreshadowing, Snot Bubble opened his mouth ((this is your last chance to stop reading, people)) and licked the mixture of body fluids, condiments and grease off the pole of the bus. Then he did it again. And again. The little bastard cleaned the metal to a saliva-enchanced shine over the course of about thirty seconds.
As he ran his tongue along the metal pole that had been grasped by a thousand unwashed hands, a significant fraction of which had been dabbing at anuses recently, a shudder went through my soul; before the family had boarded, the seat had been occupied by a man who had an obvious outbreak of oral herpes.
You know how we're not supposed to put a value on human life? This was perhaps the first moment where I seriously questioned that dogma. It's just common sense - when you drop your ipod into the tank of a port-a-john, there's no saving it; it's gone, no question. And when you see a child hoover in that combo without a second thought... I ask you - is it really so different?
I glanced at Snot Bubble's mother. The heavy beast sat dormant, idly working a blow pop as she listened to someone on the other end of her flip phone. Her countenance betrayed no sign that what her broodling had done was in any way socially (or biologically) unacceptable.
The bus lurched again, and Snot Bubble grasped the same pole, coating it with a fresh mix of biospackle. Unable to endure a second dose of Public Transit Fear Factor, I immediately got off the bus and waited 25 minutes for the next one. I was kept company by a dude who had detox shakes and who asked me for money every six minutes or so.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.