Monday, May 20, 2013

The State Library and the Great Unwashed

I'm sitting in the State Library reading about public health, but it's hard to concentrate. Something smells, really smells: it is the penetrating odour of the great unwashed.

Stomach-churning tendrils ease their way up my nose and I push my breathing high to bypass the olfactory nerves. I look around, but there is no homeless person to be seen. No dreadlocks, no stained old coats, no sleeper at a desk hinting at the origin of the smell.

Annoyed, I turn back to my book. I have a few hours without my kids, and I'm using the time to learn about health and its relationship to social status; but this stink makes it impossible. How can I concentrate when the room smells of urine and muck? And where is the smell coming from?

I keep reading, and breathing carefully, and furtively looking round. Finally I realise that the person is long gone; only the smell remains. It rises from my chair. As my thighs warm the padded seat, the unleashed odours float upwards.


There are no other seats, and I need to read. My jeans are thick and easily washed, so I curse and turn the page.

There I sit: nice jeans, styled hair, warm leather boots, ethically made t-shirt; my heavy winter jacket is draped over the back of the chair; and I am reading that a poor black man in Washington DC can expect to live 20 less years than a rich white man living a dozen miles up the railway line in suburban Maryland.

As I tut-tut over the dying men of DC, a few real DC faces flash before my eyes. Uri, the lean Russian man who slept on the steps of our church. Miss Rosa, the recipient of a food charity program with whom I often chatted in a putrid stairwell. Melvin, the security guard, shot in the shoulder while patrolling our church car park, an injury so common in his milieu he never thought to mention it to his employers.

What a hypocrite! Here am I with all the money, leisure and opportunity in the world, thinking I have compassion because I will read about the social factors of health; but the latent smell of homelessness makes me outraged. Yet until I recognise that the smell belongs to a real person as individual as Uri, Miss Rosa, or Marvin, and as precious in God's eyes as one of my own children, my readings in public health will be little more than a self-congratulatory exercise; very much worse than useless.

In shame I say a prayer for compassion, inhale deeply, and stay seated.

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