I am on my way to my birthday dinner in Manhattan. I enter the subway and get down to the platform just as an F train is pulling into the station. I hop on the train and grab a seat between a couple of white college looking kids and a middle aged black man.
The train has barely left the station when a homeless man enters the car and starts singing a song about chicken.
He is “playing” the harmonica and I can’t really tell what he is saying but it sounds like he is singing the song “Feelings” except every time the word ‘feelings’ should appear, he is using the word ‘chicken.’ It is apparently an appeal for somebody to give him some food.
Typically in this situation I don’t make eye contact, I just look down, which is what I am doing now.
I have my legs crossed and am staring at my knee as the homeless man works his way through the train asking people for money. Of course I was the only one he touched on the knee. I can’t stop staring at my knee praying for something else to happen.
So he passes through our car and moves on to the next. The black man to my right takes this as his cue to rant about how dumb it is to sing about chicken.
I have no iPod with me, no reading materials. I can’t even pretend to be immersed in anything. I had planned to lose myself in self-reflective birthday thoughts, but instead I am suddenly part of a conversation I am not participating in.
The black guy next to me is cracking jokes and being extremely loud about the homeless man who just left the train. He is hitting me on the arm like we are old buddies. It is when I turn to acknowledge him that I smell the hot wind of brandy.
And sure enough he pulls out a fifth of V.S.O.P. wrapped in a black plastic bag and takes a big sip.
I don’t say anything, I just smile politely and nod.
The two white kids to my left however, see this as an opportunity to make a new friend. So now drunk guy on my right, and white kids on my right are talking. The white kids start using slang they hadn’t been using before, saying things like “you gotta do what you gotta do” and using words like “hustle.”
My mouth remains shut. And then the drunk guy starts talking about his career in Mortuary Science.
Yep that’s right, he’s a mortician.
And anybody can do it too. Do you know how I know? Well because my new friend tells me right off the bat that he did ten years in prison before getting his Mortuary Science degree and if he can do it, anybody can do it.
He says other things as well but all I can focus on is the fact that I have never sat this close to anybody who has been to prison.
But he goes on. Being a mortician is quite easy. He shares that all you need to do is take the glue and plug the holes.
It’s just all holes. Nose holes, ear holes, pee holes.
At this point the white kids are just eating this stuff up. I have yet to speak but they are asking all kinds of questions. Where he went to school, when he went to school, etc.
And he's not quiet. He is talking loudly, not yelling exactly, but the train is quiet and his voice carries. And I imagine the rest of the train is just as eager to hear his story as we are.
He then tells us a story about how when you die it is possible to die with an erection. How does our friend know this? Well apparently a girl in his Mortuary Science class got kicked out of school for having sex with a cadaver.
And then he makes gigantic masturbatory gesticulations while laughing wildly.
At this point my insides are folding themselves into origamied discomfort.
I also learn that he loves being a mortician it because the gas that preserves dead bodies gets you high:
Ya know because it’s basically just Angel dust. That’s true!
He says that aside from the fact that he gets high, a dead body is
The worst smelling shit of your life. And women stink more than men because…
I’ll spare you the details on that one.
I still have not spoken but the white kids keep egging him on and making puns, acting like this was the first black person they have ever spoken to in their life.
You know what they say about Mortuary Science, people are dying to get into it.
I am so uncomfortable yet I am about as still as a cadaver, somehow thinking that will make this stop. But it doesn’t.
He’s doing quite well for himself. Apparently he is making $120,000 a year but he really wants to go back to school for autopsies.
Because you know, basically I’m a doctor then.
I nod. Because that is the only thing my body will let me do. But now I’m straining my neck trying to see what kind of watch he has on, trying to indiscreetly check out his sneakers. I am trying to gage if this guy is making six figures why is he sitting on a train drinking a fifth of brandy.
He touches on other topics like how he has no idea how to use a computer. And then, he asks me a direct question, which means I have to actually speak. He asks me what I am in school for. I tell him I have been working for six years.
The only benefit of this is he can stop telling me to major in Mortuary Science. But he doesn’t stop leaning into me, over me, exhaling his 80 proof beliefs upon my ears.
Eventually he tells me it makes sense that he hangs out with dead bodies because:
You know, I done killed some ninjas.
Except he didn’t say ninjas. Understand?
So now my heart is in a full out rave panic mode as I try to comprehend when this train ride is going to end and how I am going to get away from the mass murdering mortician who spent a decade in prison.
The train pulls into Queensbridge and he tells us this is his stop. He then gives us all five and leaves us with this piece of advice.
Get into mortuary science.
Then he stood up and I saw he was wearing a Spider-Man t-shirt.