On the first stair of a short set of three at the Vernon-Jackson 7 Train station in Queens two Thursdays ago, right before exiting through the turnstiles, someone lost their shit. Actual feces. It had been smeared on the platform. I thought at first that somebody just stepped in dog shit. Then asked myself when was the last time I saw a dog on the subway, and was it shitting? Never, to both. I almost stepped in it. Not doing so became more gratifying after realizing a person just took a shit on a train platform during the back half of rush hour, and not a seeing-eye dog.
It got worse. Evidence remained steps beyond the turnstiles: one heavily used paper towel and a smeared pair of boxers linking the perpetrator to the crime. Quick maneuvering required.
As the night aged, I found myself free of both company and obligation. The DVR had been recording an investigative-journalism series called “Vanguard” on CurrentTV that covers intriguing and often obscure and dangerous topics. So I watched the latest episode.
It starts with shit. Host Adam Yamaguchi at one point talks to the camera while holding a cup full of human shit, barely suppressing the urge to vomit that he’s spent two weeks trying to perfect. The show, titled “The World’s Toilet Crisis,” demonstrated how toilets and simple sanitation help societies progress, help them evolve. The next sixty minutes skip through communities in India and Indonesia where people defecating with disregard has traumatized local water supplies—people bathing and cooking and drinking with water contaminated by human and animal excrement—hastening death and disease. They exposed the menacing residue of open defecation in places where it’s not thought to be harmful. Where installing a toilet in one town had become a status symbol, locals cheered for one village elder whose home underwent a plumbing upgrade. Host Adam floats down an Indian river inked black with raw sewage. A local activist reveals the source of the contamination in educated-outside-of-India English. It sounds like a dreamy birthplace of cholera. Adam wants to throw up; so do I. And he does, quickly, once on land. The heads of onlookers in the nearby field tilt curiously as Adam hurls; they are shitting in the rushes.
It was an odd scenario that might surface in a dream after one nearly steps in human shit exiting the subway. I can’t be sure, but I’m not convinced a squat wasn’t popped in my subconscious that night.
That should’ve been enough exposure to human feces—firsthand or televised. At least for a while. I went to work the next morning free of the thought. But ascending the stairs of the 7 train station beneath Bryant Park, I saw what I hoped was not another shit. It was shit, from a human, holding Teen-Wolf like size. Soon I passed, moving along the sidewalk on 42nd Street. That quickly it was gone.
Yet each subway ride brings fresh suspicion. Entering and exiting every station, I’m on the lookout for turds, periodically wafting the scent of shit on the streets. I check the soles of my shoes. I began considering what types of economic, social, physical and psychological circumstances must collide for someone to reach the point where taking a shit in public is the best option. A homeless wanderer? Maybe. Seen a few post-up in these stations; almost drowned in a piss river one morning while a shoeless man let go a torrent during rush hour. Or was it some drunk asshole, bent enough to drop his drawers with no cleaning supplies? My friend in Brooklyn had what she self-diagnosed as an allergic reaction to a hepatitis shot that left her sitting on a stranger’s stoop, two blocks from her building, as feces fell from her jean shorts. A legitimate emergency. Her colitis didn’t help. Do you refrain from getting pissed-off that she didn’t clean it up when you realize that you wouldn’t either? All this shit has me curious.
And it hasn’t ended. What We Leave Behind is a book examining how changing perceptions of our use of “waste” could improve the planet. A colleague left it on my desk, coincidentally. Still only a few pages deep, the authors’ fascination with poop, and shitting outside to feed the slugs so the frogs will still croak (they eat slugs) is emerging in detail. When I again open the book, the next section will discuss the etymology of shit, which may or may not own a Middle Eastern origin.
This shit could be on my mind for a while.
(*: revised post from 2010)