The Smell of a Man’s Destiny

A Chance Encounter With the Suffocating And Sad World of Poverty and a Life Lost

His stone-colored jacket, dirty and worn-out, was at least two sizes too big for him | Photo: Eric Pouhier / Creative Commons

The smell was suffocating. I didn’t know what it reminded me of; never before had I smelled anything like it. I had seen such things before, yet it never had such an impact on me.

It was a regular day, when I had to get up early, get myself ready and go to university. This is normal life, isn’t it? Sleeping in a warm bed, having breakfast while listening to music, putting on nice clothes and going to classes – to learn something new and build a pleasant future day by day. Yet on this day, I was forced to realize once more that what I have is not at all normal nor certain…

As I do almost every day, I was waiting at the Karlsplatz U-Bahn station for the train to come. A friend was with me. We were chatting about everyday hassles, classes, and the weather. Nothing special. When the train arrived, I was very glad to see that not so many people were in there – so we could get a seat and enjoy the ride. We sat down next to each other, facing an empty seat.

We continued chatting, and after a couple of minutes, we arrived at Schwedenplatz. The doors opened, I immediately noticed a man. He was a few meters away, coming towards us. He was quite tall, dressed all in grey and black. His jacket, stone colored, dirty and worn-out, was at least two sizes too big for him – in spite of his beer belly. He was walking slowly, taking little steps.

When he reached the empty seat in front of us, he sat down, barely moving anymore. I couldn’t avoid looking at him, as he was directly opposite me. He had a long, grey beard matching the color of his short dirty hair. I guessed his age around fifty. He looked in my direction with large, lifeless eyes. I wondered if he was looking at me, if he maybe had noticed my staring. I wondered if he knew where he was looking at all. He seemed lost.

These few seconds seemed like hours. I forgot everything around me, stopped talking to my friend. There was something about this man….

It was the smell, a really suffocating smell, which I could not define. At first I didn’t know where it was coming from. Until I realized that it was… his, a mixture of dirt, cigarettes, alcohol, sweat, but much worse. I could barely breathe. I turned to my friend. She looked at me, speaking volumes without a single word.

We got up, turned away, and walked to the end of the car.

“The smell was horrible,” she said with a low voice. I didn’t need to reply, she knew I felt the same. And even here, a few meters away, I could feel it. The intensity of it left me breathless.

At the next station, the train stopped. I turned towards him, wanted to look at him once again. I saw him standing up, walking towards the doors next to me, and looking into my eyes. I was wondering if he knew why we had left, if he knew that it was he that made us go. And yet, he had done nothing. The doors opened, and he went out.

My eyes followed him. Again with slow steps, he went towards a waste bin close to the train. He stopped in front of it, bent down, and reached inside the bin as much as he could with his hand. He wallowed inside it, searching for something. Anything. When he had, he straightened himself up and looked towards the train. As if he wanted to see if anybody had noticed. As if he had done something wrong. I couldn’t see what he was holding in his hand,… and then he disappeared from my sight.

It was then that I knew what his look was telling me, and what the smell meant. It was not only a smell of garbage; it was a whole history. The man had lost his life. He had nothing except for his oversized jacket, a few clothes and what he had found in the bin. He was living outside, with no home, no family, no food, no warm bed.

A few hours later, sitting in a warm classroom, I looked at the people around me.  Listening to the professor, I was still thinking about him. I would never see him again, I thought. Yet the impact on me was strong. Strong enough to be written down.

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