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A Harm City Classic

It was about this time of year, some 18 years past. I had worked the overnight job and the morning job out in Eastern Baltimore County, had journeyed down into Dundalk to work the afternoon job, and was heading home through Highlandtown on the #23. I changed busses at the Highland Café—which was anything but a café—and boarded the #22 for the ascent to Northeast Baltimore. It was a cold, windy day, which always kicked up paper trash and swirled it around.

I took one of the last remaining seats toward the front, as the back was packed with hood-rats. People were already standing in the aisle. There was a reason why this seat had been left open. The first thing you do is touch the seat and make sure it has not been pissed on. The seat was dry. The reason for it being unoccupied was seated by the window next to it.

I never knew his name. The kids called him Nose. He wore torn hospital scrubs and tattered slippers underneath of a large oversized nylon coat which he had stuffed with newspapers. He smelled, but it was 30 degrees out. He wasn’t ripe in that oily homeless fashion that famously knocks people off of park benches from ten yards up wind on hot summer days. He was a white man of about fifty with a bald pate that gave way to stringy once-brown hair impregnated with filth and grease a few seasons old. This mass of hair lay rigidly like plastic flowers on the grease-darkened collar of his dumpster coat. Where a beard should have been were healed sores, with scabs lingering on the downy remnants of a once manly beard, now reduced to a feathery mange-like consistency.

I nodded off on the over-warm bus. Baltimore bus drivers are famous for cranking the heat on a bus up high enough to keep them warm in their ‘weather seat’ upfront. This roasts the rest of the people out. And, if you have been punched in the nose thousands of times, your nose will then begin to run in the unnatural heat, necessitating the need for a tissue in your pocket to dab the beaten down nostril in question.

Just before we hit Route Forty a dozen more students got on. This was a fully packed ‘school bus’, with sixty-five to seventy bodies on a tube provided with 45 seats. Two pretty little girls got on the bus. I stood so that one could have a seat. As I began to move to the back, Nose seemed to have also been of a chivalrous frame of mind, as he too rose and gave up his seat. The two girls squeaked their thanks and took their prissy little seats, chattering away about their day. Nose nodded wearily to me, seeming to feel good that we two lone white men had shown these thirty black boys how to behave.

Nose, was not however, up to shouldering his way through the tightly packed hood-rats as I did, raking faces with the shoulder flap of my duster, and stepping on little sneakered feet with my work boots. I got to the pole at the back door as the bus pulled off and headed up Edison Highway. [Read Rat Ratification, about 100 articles down on this page, for a description of the rat-infested field spanned by the Edison Highway Bridge, where the famous battle was fought by the train tracks.]

More students got on. Nose was hemmed in between a mass of standing teens, holding on to the overhead bar, and kind of gently rocking and swaying with the motion of the bus. Nose was having a hard time staying awake in the heat of the bus. He also had another problem. He sneezed from his swaying stupor, spraying the dainty damsels—coifed in yellow, white and pink—with the effluvia born of weeks sleeping on the cold streets of Harm City.

The girls screeched and made ‘ewe’ sounds, and wiped each other off with the fuzzy cuffs of their jacket sleeves. Nose nodded back off, lolling like a baby being rocked in its carriage as the overloaded bus rocked over the bridge. Then a young hood-rat next to me pointed with his chin and said to his friend, “Yo, check out Nose—shit be nasty up in hea!”

I looked to see a good double strand of greenish biomass stretching from the nostrils of Nose, for a length, of, let’s say: two inches. Some girl behind the two dainties tapped the near one on the shoulder and pointed up at the alien life form descending from the street-weary nasal cavities, a mere foot above her $200 hair weave! The girl looked up and squeaked, cringing over against her friend, with no room to squeeze out of the seat.

The two hood-rats next to me, obviously not favored suitors of these two young ladies, enjoyed the show with snickering smirks.

Then Nose sneezed again and the strands of goo actually held. As the girls squealed and hugged each other like teenage horror movie victims, the tenacious green slime strands lengthened to a hand span and intertwined into one yo-yoing biomass. Those standing around Nose attempted to squeeze away, forcing him forward. He was somehow holding on with his hands half asleep, as he swayed over the girls, who hugged and screeched in horror as the oozing snake of green slime wiggled, swung, lengthened, and contracted, according to the movement of the bus and the labored breathing of Nose.

The near girl had her head jammed under the other girl’s protective arm, while the girl in the window seat looked up in horror at the swinging mess and began to panic, “Oh ma Gawd, yo. We needs a Kleenex up in hea.”

The bus hit a bump and Nose lurched forward as we began heading down into the Belair Edison Neighborhood. The hands of Nose miraculously held onto the overhead bar, the nasal discharge now lengthened ridiculously as both girls broke into screams. The bus then banked onto Erdman Avenue causing Nose and some of those around him to lean-fall into the passengers beneath him.

The hood-rats besides me were saying, “Yo dis shit be hilarious!”

Plaintive cries for a “Kleenex, napkin, paper—or sumptin’!” could be heard from the front of the bus. I had lost sight of the comedy as I offloaded at my stop and laughed out loud, the best laugh I can ever remember having.

I saw Nose a week or so later on the #15, huddled up front in a bomber jacket sneezing and drooling among the old ladies returning from their shopping trips. I have not seen him since.


NEBO is a local acronym for Northeast Baltimore.

When Your Job Sucks

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