So, the other day I’m sitting on the Slow Boat to China (also known as the #1 bus up Bank Street)  when I see two elderly people get on who look like this is going to be their last trip anywhere while in an upright position.

The two, a man and a woman, ever-so-slowly and laboriously heave themselves onto the bus and drop down in the priority seating area on either side of another elderly woman who looks to be in much better health and physical condition.

The two old people who are clearly late for an appointment with the Grim Reaper don’t appear to be together, but are similarly afflicted with what can only be double pneumonia or the final stages of Victorian-era tuberculosis.

They cough and wheeze and hack non-stop. Their faces are ashen-grey, their eyes rheumy, their bodies thin and bent. Their clothing is old and shabby and not too clean. They are alarming everyone on the bus who isn’t young, plugged into their iPods and/or totally wrapped up in themselves.

The woman sitting between the grisly pair looks especially anxious. I am sitting well out of the immediate contagion area, and am still trying my best not to breathe too deeply. The woman in the middle is doing everything she can to make herself very small; to will the closure of all her pores; and to bury her mouth and nose in a thick bundle of tissues. I don’t know why, but she tries not to be obvious about shielding herself by pretending to wipe her nose with that thick bundle of tissues for a really, really long time without stopping.

As the coughing pair continue to cough and cough and cough, I try to send the woman in the middle an urgent message with my non-functioning telepathy: “MOVE! Why don’t you move? No one would blame you. You look terrified. Save yourself!”

Those people look like they have something horrible, I think to myself. I hope I can’t catch it from way over here. Why are they out in public? I see each of them has a bag from the grocery store. Don’t they have anyone to care for them? To get them some groceries? How awful.  But still, what if one or both of them just stops breathing altogether?

I picture the old woman (who seems marginally closer to death than the old man) gasping a final, desperate breath of stale bus air and collapsing in the slush-covered aisle of the vehicle. Would someone step up and give her CPR, I wonder? Would I?

I shudder.

In any case, it doesn’t happen and she continues, just barely, to survive.

Why doesn’t the woman in the middle move? I think. I always move if someone near me looks or sounds like they have the plague or is particularly smelly. XUP Jr. is  horrified when I do that.

“MOTHER!” she hisses, at me. “That is SO mean!”

I don’t think it’s mean at all. I wouldn’t blame someone sitting next to me if they moved because I looked green like I might hurl into their lap or something.

“MOVE!” I try again to beam my message to the healthy woman in the middle.

Then the sick woman coughs something into her hand. It has colours. I’m halfway down the bus in the high seats, but I’m pretty sure I can see her examining wet hues of red and green in her hand.


She wipes her hand on the seat between her and the other woman.

This sends the healthy woman shooting out of her seat like a projectile. She repositions herself out of the danger zone.

“Yay for you!” I silently cheer.

The healthy woman looks grim and roots around in her bag for more tissues which she thrusts with both hands at the sick pair. The old man waves them away in a paroxysm of coughing. The old woman grabs them all and commences to coughing into them with even greater fury.

“You should both be home in bed!” the healthy woman says to them gently and with much concern.

 “Fuck off!” the sick, old woman manages to rasp, quite clearly and loudly.


32 responses to “Phthisis

  1. Reminds me of a sketch by the stand up comic, Jasper Carrot entitled “The Nutter on the Bus” which had this famous line, “The nutter on the bus. Why is it that the nutter on the bus always wants to sit next to you!”

  2. Yuck City! I wish I could buy you a car.
    When I was in Vancouver I was so excited to get to ride the bus (I always took cabs when I visited cities) that I wanted to chat up people like I was at a bar, but my Vancouver host shot me a look like, “NO! Keep to yourself.” It took all the fun out of it. Or maybe she was right.

  3. What a ghastly encounter. One hates being reminded of one’s mortality. One also hates being reminded that someone afflicted with illness or injury isn’t always a kindly long-suffering angel. Bastards get old and sick too.

    Thanks for breaking the word”Phthisis” out of mothballs. I am personally fond of the term “Consumption” when referring to someone nearby who appears to be coughing up a lung in public.

  4. Classic…lol. I wonder how that experience will affect the healthy woman in the future. Will she take as long to move? Will she show as much concern for a stranger? Somehow, I get the feeling she will, because sometimes, that’s just who you are.

    Daniel brings up a good point. I think it’s pretty common to assume people afflicted with things, like deafness & blindness, are sweet and angelic, when in fact, all they are are people like you and me, who are deaf & blind.

  5. Wiping her hand on the SEAT….? And then telling the other lady to “Fuck off” ?

    Good Lord.

    Typical. Sounds like yet another case of some old-fart exploiting their age, to get away with behaving like an idiot.

    If a 25-year old had done this, they’d have been puched upside the head, and/or kicked off the bus.

    But this old bat gets away with it…because she’s “Old”. And she knows it.

    What’s sad (assuming she’s not senile)…is that she’s had 6-7 decades to learn how to behave like a civil human being, and still hasn’t figured it out.

    I can’t remember the last time I had to take an OC Transpo bus. It’s been over 20 years. And I don’t miss it at all.

  6. Hey! I think I saw this very same pseudo-corpse on the 86 the other day!
    She was at the front and I toward the back but her hacking made it through the protection of my Skull Candy ear buds and Frankie Goes to Hollywood!
    There were folks in her general vicinity who quickly ceded all of the priority seating to her by the time we hit Russell Road.
    The woman should be in a hospital. Or a box.
    @Friar – yeah – good move staying away from the buses. Very wise.

  7. oh, too funny. bus rides are always a great adventure. i remember this guy coming up to me, inches away from my face and saying “i like soup!” and just walking away.

  8. she did NOT say fuck off, did she????
    oh god, the bus makes me take very very shallow breaths. i cannot wait for open window season.

  9. I felt bad for the old pair, until the last sentence. What a disgusting, repulsive, miserable old battle ax! Somebody should put her in a home!

  10. Euuugh … just … gah.
    She probably had no one who cares enough about her to do her groceries because she’s such an ugh-person. Gross.

  11. Glen – Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with a little pee. And the best thing about buses is the wide cross section of humanity you see there. Well, except for rich people or anyone with enough money and sense to own a car – you don’t see them.

    LGS- Where would comedians and bloggers be without the nutters?

    Geewits – I could buy a car if I really wanted one. I’m not destitute or anything. I just really don’t like driving and I don’t want the commitment and headaches of having to maintain a car, but thanks. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking to people on the bus. I do it sometimes.

    Daniel – You’re welcome. I did put the word “consumption” in my tag list. It very aptly describes that disease that seems to consume the entire person.

    Skye – Or maybe she started off sweet and angelic but the pain and suffering of her illness made her rude. The poor healthy woman looked mortified.

    Violetsky – No, it was pretty funny to watch, too.

    Friar – Aw, you’re missing all the fun. And yes, some of these old people get away with murder. One old coot who’s always on the buses has an obsession of always having to be the first one on. He’ll step on you and shove you out of the way whether you’re young, old, disabled, abled, male, female and no one ever says anything to him.

    Betsy Mae – Ya to both.

    Trashy – The funny thing is she wouldn’t be allowed in a hospital or medical office with that cough. They’re very picky about that sort of thing these days.

    Smothermother – I could fill a book with crazy and/or amusing bus stories. All the zany regulars; the occasional walk-on…it’s just like a sit-com. Say….that gives me an idea…

    Jazz – Well since I was far enough back, it WAS rather entertaining

    MM – Oh excellent! All the required emotions wrung from my readers. My favourite novels are always those that make me laugh, gag and lose my appetite.

    Woodsy – That’s actually one of my favourite French words. Even if you don’t know what it means, when someone says it, you get the message right away!

    Meanie – She did indeed and quite clearly, too. Some people giggled; the healthy woman looked mortified like she’d been slapped, poor dear.

    Pauline – The man was at least doing his best to suppress his cough and to cough into his coat or something. The woman was just hacking into the air or into her hand and then touching everything in sight. I had a mental checklist of things to avoid on my way out of the bus.

    Quack – Which came first? The behaviour or the desertion? She seemed very neglected all around. I can’t imagine what was wrong with her, but she definitely should have been under medical care.

    Friar – You know, I thought I was going to get hell from people for mocking sick old people, but everyone here seems to be far more judgmental that I was. I don’t know what her whole story is — maybe she was dying of cystic fibrosis or something that isn’t even contagious and is just sick and tired of do-gooders trying to help her. Who knows. Or maybe she’s just a rude old battle-ax. People are fun, aren’t they?

  12. Julie – Ooops – I missed you. Why are you laughing at the poor old healthy woman? It’s strange how she went from not daring to be assertive enough to even move her seat to offering her opinion along with the tissues. That’s a big leap.

  13. @XUP

    Judgemental? Perhaps….

    The unhealthy coughing and wheezing, and such…I’m willing to accept…

    But the wiping of the phlegm on the seat…

    That’s where I draw the line!

  14. I love you. I miss it here. I have to make the time. Simply have to make it. That’s all there is to it.

  15. As a driver it can be more than a little akward when we are aware of a situation like the coughing woman you describe. We are not supposed to make anyone feel singled out. We are not supposed to cause anyone to feel slighted, insulted or unwelcome. When I ride the bus, in or out of uniform, I try to be polite and not get in anyone’s space. I’m almost certain I would have got up and moved after the first cough.

  16. She might have been 99.99% dead, but that old sicko broad has balls!
    “Fuck off!”
    I love it!

  17. Egads – I need to get my bike out of the back of my garage and in for a tune-up soonest so I can get off the bus for six months or so!

  18. Eeeew! Sounds like early dementia. I am saving my sympathy for the bus driver who cannot get away from situations like this.
    Oh yes. Bus riding can be very entertaining. As are you.

  19. Friar – Ya, that was pretty gross.

    Mayopie – I’m beginning to see why your wives divorced you. You start off all lovey-dovey and attentive and flattery. Then in a burst of manic enthusiasm of love you get involved in all sorts of stuff that takes up your time and spreads you so thin that you become invisible – figuratively and literally.. But anyway, thanks for the love. Fortunately I’m just your part-time blog mistress and not your wife, so you’re welcome back any time you can spare a moment.

    OCDriver – Ya, I didn’t expect the driver to do anything. Much as I’m inconvenienced, pissed off and generally revolted by a lot of transit passengers, I’ll defend to the death everyone’s right to use public transit no matter what their circumstances or load of baggage. (Barring anything illegal, of course)

    Mo – I know eh? Especially if you’re not the poor woman in the middle.

    Bob – Ya, I guess she wasn’t interested in hearing some obvious advice.

    Finola – I hope you have a safe route to get to work. I don’t or I’d do the same thing. I’ve tried it before, but it was so scary and I had so many near misses I gave up after a few months.

    Mary – It wouldn’t be early if it was dementia – she was pretty old. Much as I was grossed out by her; the whole thing was also kind of sad – sick, old, poor people without proper medical care and no one to help look after them…

  20. I’m with Finola. I was thinking of getting my bike out on Tuesday when I got back to Ottawa and saw how nice the weather was and how the streets are bare. Then I got my Dad’s cold (from sharing the steering wheel) and I am doing my own gross sneezing but no lung hacking. Well, not “gross’ because I use a tissue.

    Hanging out with old people imparts some valuable lessons, not the least of which is teaching me how not to act when I am old.

    Interesting comment from OCDriver too. I know we see letters to the editor about the bad drivers but the vast majority of drivers I have encountered are normal human beings.

    That is too bad you are afraid to bike to work. Would it help if I was a bike buddy for you for several days to give you confidence? I am not kidding – I could bike over there each morning and bike with you to work and home in the afternoon. What else am I doing except campaigning anyway and even that, I can’t do too much of too far ahead of the election. It’d get me out of the house too.

    Finally, timing is everything. Once, I was on the undergound in London and this guy sat beside me and commenced to sniffling up a waterfall of snot. I reached into my backpack without hesitation and handed him several tissues which he took with surprised gratitude. A win-win situation. But if I had waited, the moment would have been lost.

  21. Julia – That’s very nice of you but I sold my bike to Stella’s man. I never leave anything laying around that I’m not using.

  22. Whenever I encounter people like that, I smile.

    Because they’ll be dead soon.

    That’s the great thing about the human body, it has a built-in expiration date and miserable old bastards like that eventually die.

  23. i’m pretty sure my insides jumped when i read that she put her spat on the seats. JEEBUS!

    i’m glad that lady FINALLY took note of your mental telepathy to her and moved to save herself. i sure as hell would’ve moved and would move if someone was “hacky/snotty” like that. rude or not, you have to take care of yourself.

    if their feelings are that sensitive they shouldn’t go out in public ever.