A second visit to the theater to see Crazy Heart this morning brought me straight back to my short time spent living and working in New York City twenty years ago, and it's proof positive that the sense of smell is the sense most closely tied to memory.
About thirty minutes into the movie today, a guy came in and sat down two or three rows ahead of us. I didn't think anything of it, so engrossed in Jeff Bridges' performance as Bad Blake I was. But suddenly, without warning, the foulest human stench wafted across my face, so thick and tangible I could almost feel it touching me. Not certain where it was coming from and hoping it would pass quickly, I buried my nose in my scarf and tried to enjoy the movie but the odor didn't abate. We had no choice but to move mid-film.
That smell immediately made me think of the time I was living in Astoria, Queens, at the last stop of the train at Ditmars, where the subway was above ground like in The French Connection but without the speeding car. I was meeting a friend for drinks in Manhattan so I walked to the train platform and entered the car while it waited to move. Oftentimes the trains just sat there since it was the end of the line. It was late enough in the evening to be dark out so I chose the first car where there would be a conductor in the little aluminum box up front. I couldn't see him, but I assumed he was there. I was alone in the train car, or so I thought, just waiting to leave the station, when all of the sudden, just like today at the theater, a stench stung my nostrils, leaving them begging for mercy. The doors were open on the car, warm enough out to allow this, and I wondered from where the smell emanated. Just then, the conductor entered the train from the platform and was visibly struck by the smell permeating the subway car. Obviously seeing something I couldn't, he walked over to one of the seats and woke a sleeping passenger that wasn't visible to me. When the man sat up, with a struggle, I could see he was just barely in human condition. He looked like Mickey Rourke in almost any movie he's made recently. He had crusted blood on his face, obviously not new, and tattered clothes. His hair was matted and he looked like life had gotten the best of him, and smelled worse. The conductor politely demanded the man exit the train, I'm certain it would have been nearly impossible for him to do his job with that stench in the air. The conductor asked me if I was okay, if the man had been bothering me. I told him I was fine and thanked him for checking on me.
I have no idea what ever happened to that man at the Ditmars station, but I'd be shocked if he were still alive today. To be able to get to that level of filth and degradation means nothing is going right in your life and hasn't been for awhile. I wonder about the man at the theater today, about how long he'll be around and what brought him to the point that not even basic hygiene is a part of his reality. As usual, I have many questions and not a single answer.