“Dog Shit” * Nonfiction * Ro Miller

I stepped in dog shit right before getting on a Brooklyn-bound Q train and spent the remaining twenty-six minutes considering scent as a social factor.

The first thing about dog shit is the feel of the sole of your shoe sliding beneath you. The squish is muted, but immediately there is an odor. Not one that you can smell but rather one that exists as quiet disgust in the back of your throat. A quick glance backward pushes the nausea into dangerous territory as you look down, mutter profanities, and scrap the shoe frantically across the pavement. That’s how it starts. What follows next is a paranoia that comes with the understanding that you now, in fact, reek.

During the first moments of the train ride, there were no available seats. Forced to stand, the quiet, sneaking odor rolled up my body into my nose. If you have ever smelled bad and been aware of it, you know the strange perceptual state it places you in. Suddenly, a sense that is often at the edges of our sensory experience forces itself to the center. You become acutely aware of the possibility of stink, even if the stink is not consistent. The occasional whiff only reinforces the certainty that no matter how you position your feet, your current neighbors are catching whiffs of the unpleasant odor. The wonderful thing about the subway is that unpleasant scents are standard, and non-engagement with the unpleasant is an unspoken rule. So, me and my stink became an unpleasant periphery to the worlds of those in my car. Something, and someone, that is pressing against their storyline but which only truly encroaches as a minor detail.

Minor, unpleasant details are an accurate description of the transit experience. The early morning closeness, the weighted silence, and the looming fear that an unhoused individual may shatter whatever delicate peace exists within a subway car. When I first moved to New York, I thought that this fear was that these people, desperate and addicted, would attack commuters like the “non-contributors they are.” I gave the average Manhattan commuter too much credit. Their disdain, their fear, revolves around a much baser foundation. It is based on scent. A minor, unpleasant detail that reminds us of the minor, unpleasant human forced to operate within a failing healthcare system and an increasingly unbalanced economic reality.

You can avert your gaze and put headphones in, but most of us cannot mitigate smells. We don’t usually need to. Our country is in an ongoing process of de-odorization that has resulted in a curated olfactory landscape designed for commercial pleasure.

As I neared my stop, I grew comfortable with the fact that no one cared. If they noticed at all, it was only to grimace, glance, and move. I didn’t need to worry about the occasional unpleasantness of my odor because everything would be done to escape that unpleasantness. All I had to accept was the twofold reality that my subway neighbors only cared about escaping the range of the scent and that lack of care wasn’t personal. It wasn’t me that they scrunched their nose up at while waiting for the train to stop to change cars. It was just the reality of the scent. I had stepped in dog shit and thereby become an inconvenience to those around me.

All I had to do was scrap that shit off my shoes, get rid of the stench, and I would once again be accepted back into the transit flow. There was no sympathy to be had; why should there be? Scent always fades into a bad experience you can spit out when you get off the subway.


—About the Author—

Ro is a graduate of the Master’s in Performance Program at NYU. They are a conceptual artist with a focus on scent, performance and storytelling. Currently, they are working on an ongoing performance series featuring scented clowning. They are the Assistant Director at Olfactory Art Keller and the Co-Founder of the performance collective Residual.

*Check out Ro’s previous piece with us, “Scent of Faith,” about a smell of a different order!