I don’t know how it is in other cities, but here in San Francisco, public transportation is the primary source of entertainment/despair for the vast majority of the population. When I meet new, attractive people and can’t think of anything to say beyond hurr I want to rub my face on your face, I can always count on the bus system to provide at least a cursory “Ugh, the MUNI, right?” before we lapse back into awkward silence.
Aside from the sheer incompetence of the SF bus system, it’s also incredibly, disgustingly filthy. “Someone shit on the MUNI,” is a frequent diatribe I hear at parties. Or “Someone left their bag of trash on the MUNI.” Or, memorably, “A woman got stabbed with a pair of scissors on the MUNI and left a trail of blood on all the seats.”
I admit, though, I sort of used to dismiss all of these stories as histrionics. So you saw someone barf in a Taco Bell bag and then gently place the bag on the lap of a child? Big deal! Everybody’s gotta barf somewhere! Pee in a bottle’s just pre-kombucha to a seasoned city girl like me! Somebody get me a book deal already, amiright? Et cetera.
But about six months ago, I noticed a teeny-tiny bump on my wrist. I scratched at it, unconcerned. The next week, the bump had not vanished. Instead, it had grown into an eraser-sized blot. I started getting nervous.
“I think I have arm herpes,” I said to one of my roommates, brandishing my forearm. The Scab was now the size of a quarter, crusty, red and oozing. Worse, another tiny bump had bloomed further down my arm. It’d been feeding.
My roommate peered at the thing, pointedly not getting too close. “Looks like a cigarette burn,” she said, nonchalant. “You get too drunk this weekend?”
“You can get herpes anywhere,” I wailed, retreating to my room to scratch and brood.
After stupidly sending a picture text to my mother and getting an angry phone call back, I finally slumped my way to the doctor, where I was informed that I did not have arm herpes (or a wayward cigarette burn). It was, in fact, a blooming staph infection.
“But -- " I stared at my doctor. “How -- isn’t that…a hospital thing?” She twitched an eyebrow at me. “Ride any buses lately?” Good God. Thanks a lot, MUNI.
“So, you know,” my doctor continued, snappily writing me a prescription, “I’d wash any sheets, clothes. Chairs.” Basically, I gathered, pretty much anything I'd brushed up against on my travels around the city. Anything the ooze had touched was staph’s kingdom. And for the last fortnight, I’d been its queen.
I am just one person. I may be a semi-disgusting individual, with a penchant for eating burritos in bed and eating the congealed rice I find there hours later, but I also try my best to not actively spread my own feces around this city. But I made the fatal error of touching a bus that someone else had touched, and now I have a peony-shaped scar to prove it. How many other people are out there, sloshing their ooze over everything in their path?
If you think this is just an isolated incident of bad luck, I invite you to read this New York Times story recently voted (by me) Most Likely to Encourage You to Wear a Full-Length Latex Glove. It goes into grim detail about all the microscopic passengers on San Francisco’s other behemoth public transit system, BART. Apparently, the place is teeming with MRSA, mold, and other delights that can’t even be quelled with rubbing alcohol. As San Francisco State biologist Darleen Franklin puts it, “Somebody probably was wearing shorts and had an infection, and there you go. It is concerning.” Wear shorts, spread crotch-MRSA (or get someone else’s up in there). Science, why?!
It ain’t just public transportation, either. To the surprise of no one, researchers have bravely asserted that hotel rooms are apparently crawling with other people’s tiniest leftovers. No surprise, really, when one considers the nightlife of the typical hotel duvet.
And apparently, 20 percent of makeup testers have bacteria, yeast, or traces of fecal matter on them. I know that in practice, that probably means that someone didn’t wash their hands as well as they could have before trying on the Maybelline or whatever. But as far as I’m concerned, a statement that pairs “20 percent of fecal matter” with “lipstick” instantly conjures up the grim knowledge that I have eaten someone else’s poop. Or their yeast, for god’s sake. Who is this masked bandit yeasting up all my precious cheek stains? Who would do such a thing?
Most troubling, I think, is that even with this in mind, there’s not much you can do about it. I mean, yes. Don’t use the actual testers. The video I linked suggests using your finger on lipstick to apply it to your skin, which I think is just going to contribute to the problem. I put my mouth on strangers’ mouths all the time. Putting my mouth on strangers’ fingers -- and, therefore, their credit cards and dog heads and taqueria salsa bars -- is reserved for way past the third date.
But eventually, if you’re trying to match tone to skin, that pigment (and all its microbial passengers) has to jump on you somewhere.
Even if you don’t put the testers in your mouth, you’re just gonna touch something else! Horrible mental exercise: Touch your face. Then look at your hand. Then think about everywhere that hand has been in the last 24 hours. Commence obsessive tooth-brushing. And to think we’re not even supposed to use hand sanitizers anymore!
Let’s face it, everybody: human beings are fucking horrifying. If those fancy new Google Glasses come with blacklight-vision, we’re all going to look like giant slugs trailing around smears of fecal matter and yeast (yeast) for everyone else to just put their mouths all over.
Because you know we WILL put our mouths on them, even indirectly. According to Dr. Kate Winslet in "Contagion," the average person touches their face 2,000 times a day. That’s probably a slight exaggeration, but god knows I’ll take any excuse to make sure my jowls haven’t grown down any farther. I’m already touching my face at this moment, and I just thought about this article for the last half hour. It’s unstoppable!
Though I suppose it says something about sheer human stubbornness that despite the knowledge that our entire world is veritably pulsing with gnashing, crawling bacteria, most of us still manage to ride public transportation and interact with others on the daily without tearing out all our own teeth and dunking ourselves in an ammonia-bath. The human immune system is a pretty impressive thing, overall, and it’s probably not guaranteed that you’re gonna contract E.coli every time you stay at a Motel 6. If you can stomach it, it’s probably okay to just wash your hands once in a while, keep an eye on any suspicious scabs, and leave the rest up to Vitamin C and Germ Jesus.
And if you’re still feeling queasy, I’ll leave you with this anecdote. I was riding BART home the other night when a middle-aged, well-dressed gentleman sat down on the seat across the aisle. He smiled, clearly relieved to relax after a long day, and reached into his bag, taking out a loaf of bread and some peanut butter. As I watched, frozen in numb horror, he set the pieces of bread on the seat beside him, spread the peanut butter, and made himself a sandwich. And then ate the whole thing. The whole thing. Covered, probably, in other peoples’ shorts-yeast. For the record, he seemed to be still upright when I got off to barf at my next stop.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m late for my date with my jug of bleach. I'm feeling a liiiittle...itchy.