I had been living in New York for about two weeks when I first went to Penn Station. I was going to take the Long Island Railroad to Hicksville to visit some extended family. I hadn’t seen them yet and they were really worried about me braving the big city.
I bought a ticket and had about twenty minutes before departure, so I walked into Starbucks to buy an Iced Venti Skinny Vanilla Latte. Then I waded through the crowd, rode the escalator to the surface, and walked to this enclave next-door to smoke a cigarette. There were several homeless people having an animated discussion about something or other. An odorous woman with baked bean teeth shuffled over to me. Asked for a smoke.
I shot her down. She asked why I was shooting her down. I told her I didn’t have any more cigarettes. A blatant lie.
Then she asked if she could “bus it down.” I wasn’t sure what “bussing down” was. I discovered, some months later, that “bussing down” means smoking the last part of somebody else’s cigarette.
I told her no. Then her ears went back and she bared jagged teeth and hissed at me like a jungle cat. I pretended to be tough. Like it didn’t bother me. But it was a little scary.
I felt dumb indulging in my cigarette under the glare of a bunch of homeless meth addicts. The lady was hissing about me and gathering support. They were all staring at me. I decided I had to move or risk getting my eyes scratched out.
So I took a few steps away from them. Slowly, so as not to admit defeat. But quickly enough to create space between us.
I sipped my latte and farted. A long bellow with vibrato. Nobody heard it because of the traffic noise. Otherwise I wouldn’t have done it.
Then I took a step and felt a squish. Right below my left cheek. Buried in the seat of my pants.
Frozen like a deer in headlights. I considered that, perhaps the squish was only a false alarm. But I took another step and felt another squish and knew that this needed tending. I stubbed out my cigarette and tossed my latte and the meth lady screamed at me. Called me a fucking prick.
The escalator was teaming with people and I was sweating like a pig. I smelled shit, which is not unusual in New York. It’s common knowledge that the choice fragrance of Penn Station is feces. But on that day the source of that shit smell was yours truly.
At the bottom of the elevator I spotted two cops. Squished my way over to them and asked about the bathroom. One of them nodded toward the enormous sign that read RESTROOMS.
I nodded in thanks and then realized that they would notice the enormous wet stain spreading across the seat of my pants if I simply turned around. I would not be the one to give them such a story to share at bars and birthday parties and holidays for the rest of their lives.
So I backed away from them. First, nodding in thanks and feigning interest in the neon McDonald’s sign behind them. I scratched my chin and ooed and aahed until they turned around. Then I disappeared into the crowd.
The bathroom at Penn Station is the bowels of the world. Where homeless old men and rich suits and six year olds come to mingle and defecate together. I lucked out and got the handicapped stall.
I dropped my trousers and found a thick lump of shit caught in the center of my boxers. I lucked out though. The shit hadn’t touched the pants.
There was piss all over the toilet seat and so I was forced to stand while removing my shoes. I removed one foot and then stood on my loafer to guard my socks from the wet tile. Then I removed the other. And then, leaning on the wall, I pulled my legs out of the pants. Five minutes of surgery and the soiled boxers were free from the khakis. But there wasn’t a trashcan in the stall.
I considered myself in the mirror. Hair awry, sweaty forehead, ruddy cheeks. Great pit stains spreading under my jacket, ruining my plaid button-down. At least the feeling of imminent diarrhea was gone.
I recognized the proverbial line before me. The line that we all must cross from time to time.
Carefully, so as not to touch my own shit, I balled up the boxers and tossed them behind the toilet. I put on my pants. Carefully slid into my loafers. Grabbed my shoulder bag from the hook. Used my foot to flush for good measure, and then left.