In the upstairs women's restroom I used toilet paper (and the strangerâ€™s handkerchief) dampened with water from my water bottle to get the top layer of filth (which had started to crust) off my face, hair, forearms, and hands.
This is the mostly true story of the day the shit came crashing down on me, one bright, sunny Friday morning in June of 2005. I woke early and snuck out of my apartment, half-heartedly trying not to wake my slumbering boyfriend or his friends who were visiting for the weekend. (As any transplanted New Yorker will confirm, a move to the city means becoming reacquainted with long-lost family and friends, eager for a place to sleep while they visit the city.) Despite my poorly attempted quietude, I left my guests relatively undisturbed and sprinted to the gym to start my day.
Feeling quite accomplished following a few miles, a set of weights and a shower, I left the gym and began walking the ten blocks through Times Square to my office. My step had an exuberance that can only be described as twenty-something "I can rule the world" naiveté outfitted in a power suit and three-inch heels. My hair blew gently in the wind, I smiled at people I passed in the street, and I balanced a designer handbag and a grande iced nonfat latte with ease.
My exuberance was brought to a standstill as I was startled by a loud splat followed by a warm oozing sensation running down the right side of my body. Stunned, I observed in slow motion the series of otherwise pleasant (or at least disinterested) New York faces contort to horrified expressions, and I stared unbelievingly at the encircling brown puddle that covered the sidewalk, my fabulous three-inch heels and the rest of me. Rarely do New Yorkers show emotion, but many exchanged sympathetic (and perhaps relieved) glances upon seeing my state. They tiptoed around the mess, offering such reliable support as “That sucks,” and the unintentionally accurate “Oh shit, man.” Perhaps it was my helpless and slightly melodramatic yelp that evoked such responses in total strangers, including one kind soul who offered a handkerchief for me to use to wipe my face. More likely, however, their reactions were motivated by disbelief in seeing someone completely covered in brownish-yellow liquid shit during an otherwise normal walk to work.
Thankfully, I saw a police officer. Surely he would raise an immediate investigation and bring whoever was responsible to swift and vengeful justice! Surely he would be as indignant and outraged as I that something like this could happen on his beat, in his city, under his watchful eye! Oh but alas, my twenty-something naiveté was mistaken. My pleading cries were met with an amused, albeit sympathetic smirk and chuckle, and he confided in a husky whisper that sometimes birds shit a little on his uniform too, as he made a motion to dust off his shoulder. Seriously? I was standing in a puddle of what looked, smelled, and felt like a collection of human waste: churned urine, festering shit, and a collection of pureed, liquefied, and otherwise unidentifiable objects. Despite the quasi-open air of Midtown, I felt as stifled as prisoner number eight million and one, trapped in a miniscule cell in the sweltering heat, without windows or air circulation, and of course, sans cleaning, disinfection, or proper sewage disposal procedures. The puddle itself was about three feet in diameter and the splatter factor was close to six feet. If a bird exists in this world, dear police officer, sir, that can produce a like amount of shit and fly -- or at least hover in the air long enough to get it out -- I'd like to meet him. And maybe have lunch.
At this point, I should probably note that in hindsight, I don't believe the unhelpful officer was actually one of New York's finest. Not only was he alone, but his uniform looked suspiciously more like a police uniform from, say, Ricky's than one earned at the Academy. Plus, I suspect those Aviator sunglasses were hiding tired and blood-shot eyes, and were I able to smell anything other than stale excrement, I'm confident he would have smelled of smoke, sex, and sin leftover from his performance during Ladies’ Night at the nearby Lace Cabaret.
In my state, however, these details escaped me. The stripper cop was kind enough to point out a McDonald's across Seventh Avenue where he suggested I could wash up. In the upstairs women's restroom I used toilet paper (and the stranger’s handkerchief) dampened with water from my water bottle to get the top layer of filth (which had started to crust) off my face, hair, forearms, and hands. The clothing, I accepted, would be a total loss, but wiping off the top layer from my jacket sleeves made me feel a bit better. One might wonder why I used toilet paper dampened with my own water to wash up, as opposed to stronger paper towels and actual running water. I myself still wonder why a food service establishment that serves billions and billions daily in the heart of Times Square had neither paper towels nor running water in the sink in the ladies’ restroom, but that's another story. From the bathroom, I called my boss and told her I was going to miss our 9 a.m. meeting. I still think she believes "I'm covered in shit" was some sort of euphemism, but she forgave me and I credit her for leaving an anonymous stash of lottery tickets in my desk drawer later that day (none of which were winners, by the way).
Despite the clearly sub-par cleansing situation, I had made enough progress to be able to hail a cab. As the kindest driver in the world whisked me home I called my (sound asleep) boyfriend to prepare him for my arrival. I choked through tears and hysteria that had until this point been contained and kept repeating, "I'm covered in shit! I'm covered in shit!" Bless his heart, the cab driver finally showed the anger and indignation I'd been waiting all morning to see from pedestrians, the stripper cop, and the staff at McDonald's! He made it to my apartment in record time, yelling and cursing the entire way, presumably at the monstrosity that had been my morning and the general cruelty of this city â€“ although the shit I brought into the backseat of his cab may have prompted the outrage as well. For a moment, we were kindred spirits fighting against our common enemy: all the shit in the world. And, as I understand it, the curse he put on me during our ride was partially repealed after I tipped him exorbitantly. Indulgences abound.
The rest of the story is rather uninteresting: tears, scalding hot prolonged shower – “Baby, can you bring me another bar of soap?” – hysterical sobbing in the fetal position, trash bag full of shitty clothes, near composure, and re-telling the story to our visiting friends who had returned from watching Destiny's Child perform on the "Today" show.
What actually splattered me that fateful morning remains a mystery, unlike perhaps, the mystery of why those friends never returned for a visit. Was it a bucket of human waste poured out a window of the abandoned hotel I walked by (a known refugee camp of sorts for many a hobo/starving artist)? Was there, as the stripper cop suggested, a freak herd of enormous flying birds that flew over the city and accidentally ate seed laced with Dulcolax? Could it have been an erroneously discarded sewage tank from a passing airplane? I don't think I'll ever know for sure, and my therapist assures me that is for the best. I lost pieces of myself that day: dignity, naiveté clothing, but there were valuable lessons rolled into the experience as well. McDonald’s is indeed as filthy as we all fear; stripper cops are not to be trusted; and finally, shit does in fact happen unexpectedly. I’ll be ready for the battle next time. I’ve started carrying my own handkerchief.