The hypochondriac

The pair of yellow seats are a relatively new addition to the train. What I mean to say is that the yellow seat cover is new, but the seats themselves have always been there. It’s to gently remind people that these are the seats reserved for the elderly, pregnant, or those persons otherwise in special need of a seat. It’s also the seat of shame for those twenty-somethings who absently plop down there when they enter the train who might vaguely think they would get up if aforementioned persons entered the train but in actuality would not because their zoned-out on their phone. It’s a pale yellow color that, to my midwestern sensibility, makes me think “oh that will get dirty so quickly.”

The yellow seats are situated with backs against the wall and in parallel with the trail. All the other seats are perpendicular. I was seated in the first set of rows next to the yellow seats so our pair of chairs met in an L shape. I was on the short leg of the L and she was on the long part. I couldn’t have had a better vantage point from any where on the train in terms of proximity and angle.

What first caught my eye was the petroleum jelly container she uncapped. To be fair, I couldn’t quite tell if it was Vaseline or not because she had a wad of tissues rubber banded across the label, but it had that familiar bulging rectangle opening and unmistakeable greasy contents. It was larger than those decent mini-containers they sell as lip balm and smaller than the standard-sized container you might have seen in the Walgreens, so I was curious where it would be applied. She held it steady in her age-marked hand and as she dug into it’s contents until a good smear glistened her finger’s tip.

The next part seemed to happen in slow motion. With pointed finger well-daubed, she moved towards her face. As if missing her thin lips, but with a certainty of action that said, no sir, this was no mistake, she confidently rubbed it over her nose and before I could wonder why (it didn’t look particularly dry) she penetrated her nostril and swirled her finger around making her nose shift with each thrust. She then ringed the outside of her nostril for good measure. What was I watching? Was it prescription? Had she been blowing her nose so often it was dry? Her nose didn’t look the telltale red-raw from a runny nose, but I wanted that to be true. Whatwashappening? Before I could make any of this out she oiled her flesh brush again and painted in the inside of her left nostril as well, the arc of her finger straining her nose like fingertips through raw pizza dough. Making sure it was it was on all sides of her nose. I swear she might have just given the insides of her nose a light scratching as well.

I had so many questions.

This was not the most disgusting, unpleasant, pungent, or unsafe thing I’ve ever seen in public transit. I would not be surprised if there were multiple people clipping their nails in an NYC train right this moment, no matter the time of day this is read. But I feel like I have never felt so betrayed by a fellow transit rider before. I thought I knew what this grandma person was all about—I thought I knew what petroleum jelly is all about —but then your world is turned upside down and you’re not sure anymore.

Her deliberate actions were hypnotizing to me. I looked at this woman anew, trying to capture details about this creature so that I could prepare myself for future encounters. Thinning skin, some wearily wrinkles battling the good genes of her heritage making it hard to pin down exactly which late decade she was in. Dyed hair that had the intention of being auburn offset on her head because of the white roots made it look like it was floating. Her hair was pulled into a fragile bun at the base of her head.  The loose black coat zippered around her made her look more settled than seated. Light blue cotton pants that looked like hospital scrubs sprouted from her coat and ended the black, slip-on shoes with the rounded toe that mysteriously curved up a bit that were the hallmark of a city grandmother. I noticed she was wearing both branded ankle socks layered with tube socks. Beside her foot rested a metal city cart that had a substantial bundle of tissue paper rubberbanded to the handle. Was it to protect it or her? Was it just for easy-access tissues? I did not know. The cart contained a large white paper shopping bag stacked with another nylon re-usable Minnie Mouse shopping bag, and finally a draw-string bag with outer pockets. It was into one of these side pockets of this bag she tucked her nose jelly away in.

She was rooting through her purse. After some pushing back and forth of it’s contents, she got a small square packet that, in retrospect had to be a moist towelette since she wasn’t wearing glasses. After some methodical re-arrangement of her belongings (can you tell how entranced by her I was?) she unfolded the  moistened paper to rub her hands clean. This was a some relief to me because after seeing her swab the insides of her nose I thought about all the things she would touch in this train upon her exit, and naturally, all the unpleasant things that had already happened on this train and would happen again until the this train drove me indirectly and with a transfer into my cold grave. Let’s just say she had left just enough time between the nosing and the washing for my imagine to go wild.

Next, the magician pulled out a plastically bundle and once she unraveled the black hair tie from it and unrolled the contents one, two, three times it revealed a gallon-size ZipLock bag that was frosted from use that held a loan travel size bag of tissues in its corner. She pulled out the generic tissue packet, surely more over-protected than necessary, and released one of it’s contents to wrap the used towelette in. Noticeably unsure of what to do with this bundle of trash quite yet, she put it out of sight somewhere on the other side of her lap. She tugged out another dab at her her nose a bit. Then around her cheeks and forehead.

I knew intellectually that nothing she was doing was so horrible to warrant my intense starring. I knew this, though I didn’t feel it. I forced myself to look away to let her do her own thing. Live her best life, etc. Or I texted three people about what I just saw (the world will never know).

By the time my natural gaze drifted back in that direction (let me remind you how close we were seated) she had her head thrown back so her eyes could better receive the eye drops she was administering. Drip, blink-blink, drip, blink-blink. She had another tissue paper in hand to squee-gee the excess liquid into. Because what is a public space but unused time to do all of your bathroom tasks in? Is subway air the best kind of air to be blowing into vulnerable eyeballs? I do not know, I’m not a doctor. We’ve all had the odd situation where we might have had to do something publicly that we wouldn’t have minded some privacy for. The array of convenience store goods this lady had in her purse communicated to me that this was probably one of her preferred locations for conducting her medicinal rituals and privacy is indeed a luxury if public transit is your only transit.

Dear reader, I’ll be honest with you and let you know that this calm is something only the distance of 24-hours gave me. At the time, I was definitely grossly-fascinated by what was happening.

I will not tell you how intensely focused I became on the now-sizable bundle of trash containing a collection of human seepings and where she would chose to put it (Pease, God, let her take it with her). Suffice to say that it was ‘very intensely’ to the point where I began directing small dramas in my mind in the scenario were I to discover the lady would not take her trash with her.

What is clear though, is that I have too much time on my hands.

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