On germs.

Outside the F train, Delancey Street.

For the past four days, I’ve been sick. It’s pretty gross, too — something between a sinus infection and a cold that I just can’t shake.

Every time I come down with what I affectionately refer to as “the consumption,” I ask myself if there’s something I could have done differently to avoid it. But in New York City, there’s only so much a person can do to fend off sickness and disease. I wash my hands frequently, and I cough into my elbow, and after that, there’s not a whole lot you can do.

One of the places this belief is clearly illustrated is in the subway. There are multiple breeds of People Waiting for the Subway: the Wall-Leaners, the Platform-Pacers and the High-School-Kids-Who-Talk-Loudly-and-Laugh-and-Shove-Their-Friends (even when everybody else is silent with either grogginess or exhaustion, depending on the time of day).

I, for one, have always been a Bench-Sitter. I’m usually carrying about 60-70 percent of my personal belongings in a collection of purses, backpacks and reusable shopping bags at all times, so I actively seek out empty bench space and relish those moments when I can rest my aching shoulders.

A few months ago, however, that all came to a screeching halt when someone informed me that you can get bed bugs from sitting on the wooden benches in subway stations.

I was crushed. If there were bed bugs on those benches, what else could be lurking on them? Lice? Rat feces? AIDS?

More importantly, which of the countless other objects I came into contact with in a typical subway station experience — support beams and turnstiles, not to mention every pole, seat and window on the actual trains — also harbored pests and microbes and fungi, all just waiting to hitch a ride on The Acorn Archive Express?

I spent many weeks trying to transition into another breed of People Waiting for the Subway, one of the ones that stay on their feet. It felt unnatural. I found myself wincing and hopping from one foot to the other, the way kids do when they have to pee really bad, until my train arrived.

One night after work, Schuyler (mentioned here) and I were waiting for the uptown D train at Broadway-Lafayette. We were talking about something when Schuyler stopped me and, as calmly and matter-of-factly as if he were stating the sky is blue, said, “That man is taking a shit on the subway tracks.” And it was true. About 50 feet away, on the other side of a column, a grown man was, as discreetly as one can in a somewhat empty New York subway station, taking a dump on the tracks.

And that’s precisely the moment I gave up — gave up on my characteristically American germaphobic tendencies, like carrying Duane Reade hand sanitizer; gave up on my belief that everyone does, or at least should, adhere to my beliefs on cleanliness, hygiene, life in general.

The fact of the matter is that it is the year 2010. I live in one of the largest cities in the world, located in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and there are still people who, when faced with the query of where to make their next bowel movement, are choosing the subway tracks over a proper bathroom. It’s definitely shocking, but all joking aside, it’s sad, too — the symptom of a much bigger disease, one that can’t be swabbed and examined in a petri dish.

In short, nothing — nowhere, really, at least in New York City — is safe from disease, poverty or ugliness. But instead of being discouraged by this realization, I’ve been liberated by it. There’s no amount of vitamins or flu shots that can save me from the inevitable bout of the creepy crud, and there’s nothing I can do to avoid the people who either take a dump on the subway tracks or just don’t fit in. So you might as well hunker down in the filth and try to deal with it. Because otherwise, you’re never going to feel at home.

I’m sitting on the wooden benches again. Even when I’m not tired, I still do it, because I can. I haven’t gotten bed bugs. I’ve also placed my hand on a pole in the train to steady myself, wiped my nose with that hand and then put it back, germs and all, on the pole (if I don’t perpetuate the rampant spread of the common cold, who will?).

Outside the subway, things are the same. I’ve completely given up on washing my hands after using Starbucks restrooms. I figure the amount of physical contact with the soap dispenser and sink fixtures required to discover that, surprise, there’s no soap and the water’s cold, just isn’t worth the effort.

I still haven’t quite learned how to deal with the elderly, the homeless or the social outcasts, but I feel like sitting down on the wooden benches that everyone has warned me against is a step in the right direction. When you walk out the door in the morning knowing that today’s just another opportunity to bolster your immune system, life gets a little less scary.

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One Response to “On germs.”

  1. Mom Says:

    I am alternately proud and creeped-out by this post.

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