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The smell of sweat and ruin in Buenos Aires

April 24, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST

I saw a homeless man ride the bus when I studied in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I assumed he was homeless by his tattered clothing. He paid three pesos in coins and slowly walked to an available seat. A black baseball cap covered his gray hair. He wore a matching jacket and long denim shorts that hung off of his 120-pound body. He looked old and tired.

Everyone on the bus knew he was homeless. People were whispering about him. And though I couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying, their body language said they were disturbed. Some people changed seats to distance themselves from him, and others covered their noses with their hands or a jacket they were holding. The bus ride of no more than 15-minutes felt like a grueling hour. I thought about where his family might be, or if they knew that he didn’t have a place to stay. I wondered where he was headed.

I couldn’t help but stare. He sat peacefully at the back of the bus next to a window — eyes closed, head gently resting on the pane. I’m sure he knew that his stench made people uncomfortable, but he didn’t seem to care. As my stop was approaching, my roommate and I moved toward the door. Simultaneously, the homeless man rose up and walked to the door as well. I hung my head down; his odor was too strong. The bus stopped and the doors opened, and my roommate and I hopped off. As my foot hit the pavement, I heard a scream. I looked back. The homeless man was trapped between the bus doors. His slim body tried to shimmy out of the doors, but there was no use. He tried to yell, but it wasn’t loud enough. Other passengers called to the driver to open the doors to release the man. But once the driver opened the doors, the homeless man inexplicably returned to a seat. Perhaps he was tired from his previous shuffle. I couldn’t look anymore. Tears began to form in my eyes; I looked at my roommate and told her it was the saddest thing I’d seen in my three months studying and living in Buenos Aires. She shook her head and responded: “Yeah. I’m just glad to be off that bus,” and we continued down the street.

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