THEY STILL SMELLED LIKE LAST YEAR

The train pulls into the station and it's packed -- car after car glides passed you and you're psyching yourself up to do some gentle stranger-shoving -- then an empty car catches your eye. Thinking it's your lucky day, you and a few other naive commuters trot down the platform to the vacant car and look greedily over the landscape of seats. You may first notice a slumped over figure in the corner; probably sleeping, covered in blankets or coats, perhaps with a black garbage bag full of stuff on the floor near their legs. Or maybe the first thing you notice is the scent; that impossible stench of hygienic neglect so profound and low it can only exist in the greatest and most crowded cities on Earth. If you didn't transfer cars between stations you did so at the next station.

But sometimes the scent is only terrible enough to evacuate a portion of the car. Such was the case on January 3rd, around 11pm on the M train. To tell it true, for the first few minutes I was asking myself if I was the one who stunk. The smell was calm, it felt weirdly familiar to me and I glanced slyly at the soles of my shoes. When I looked up I realized for the first time that many of my fellow passengers were holding their nostrils shut and shaking their heads at each other. The people who stunk were a man and a woman standing at the far end of the car - not sitting like everybody else.

They stood tall, actually. They seemed to be the largest people in our car; massive earthy rectangles, planted opposite one another like two trees. A man and a woman staring out opposite windows; not addressing each other at all but so obviously connected. Except for an intense rawness in their faces they did not look like New York's broken down and undead. It confused me that they should smell so bad. The woman was statuesque, ferocious. There was something classical about her jaw bone. Her lower lip way up high, as was her neck, looking - almost defiantly - out the window and at nothing at all. She was proud. Both of them were reasonably well dressed. They each had a large over-packed rolling suitcase in front of them, the woman had a knotted plastic bag on top of hers. The man wore a long brown winter coat. Just gazing out the window, the both of them. Tired. Crossing the Williamsburg bridge into Brooklyn.

The others were still plugging their noses and exchanging glances. Propping themselves in exaggerated discomfort underneath the fluorescent lights of the train; prodding one another for some semblance of community. Like adolescent school kids, the commuters could agree on what was unacceptable and wrong if nothing else. I was ashamed of them. If the smell was so intolerable they could have left - the other cars were just as empty. The fact is, I understood that the commuters enjoyed sharing a feeling of disgust with one another. It brought them closer together.

I wondered about the relationship between the man and the woman, I wondered about their destination. I imagined they were on the way to a newly rented apartment. The stench they gave off was an old, accumulated stench. No person could develop an odor like that in just the three days we'd spent in 2011. They still smelled like last year. I think 2011 will be a much better year for them than 2010 was - and I would venture to guess the new year will pretty much resemble the old one for people who still congregate to agree about what stinks.