It's been a busy few days on the Island of Hawaii. Last Tuesday, 70 or so people rallied at Hilo's Mo'oheau Bandstand in support of single-payer health care. On Wednesday and Thursday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held hearings on the Army's request for a permit to leave radioactive shell casing debris in place at Pohakuloa Training Area on the Saddle. And last Sunday, there was an emergency ad-hoc meeting about Gov. Linda Lingle's controversial move to oust Micronesian immigrants from their current, QUEST-like health program and place them on a much more basic program that wouldn't pay, for instance, for chemo and radiation therapy for cancer victims. (Shameless self-promotion: for coverage of the Micronesian health issue, see my article this week's Honolulu Weekly.)
Meanwhile, over on O'ahu, their council is debating the pressing issue of BO on buses.
The council is hearing a bill today that would establish a code of conduct for bus riders, including prohibition on "bring[ing] onto transit property odors that unreasonably disturb others or interfere with their use of the transit system, whether such odors arise from one's person, clothes, articles, accompanying animal or any other source."
The bill is sponsored by Councilmembers Rod Tam and Nestor Garcia. The Honolulu Advertiser quotes Tam's rationale: "As we become more inundated with people from all over the world, their way of taking care of their health is different. Some people, quite frankly, do not take a bath every day and therefore they may be offensive in terms of their odor."
Hmm. And just how are they going to determine who's exceeded the offensive level? Odor isn't like sound, which can be measured scientifically in decibels. Is there some sort of odorometer that's been recently developed? Are they going to train some experts or import some--perhaps expert wine tasters or parfumiers? (And if so, how much would they have to pay such a person to sniff armpits on public buses?) Are they going to train special pit-sniffing dogs, creating a whole meaning for the term, "pit bull"? And what will the penalty be? A week in lockup, where the smells can be really bad?
And who is to decide what types of odor are to be prosecuted? My ex, for instance, was allergic to many types of perfume. If a woman with the wrong scent on sat next to her, it would definitely "disturb" her and "interfere with her use of the transit system." Should the perfumed lady be prosecuted? And I'm allergic to red pepper. Could I get someone with kimchee breath thrown off the bus?
But let's set measurement and punishment aside for a moment, and get on the blatant prejudice inherent in Tam's statement -- prejudice both ethnic and economic.
Yes, as a former English as a Second Language teacher, I know very well that some cultures bathe less--but they're usually cultures where water is a scarce, as in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. I do remember a confrontation between my Nigerian and Iranian students and my Vietnamese and Malaysians one day, back when I was teaching at the University of Missouri--the former didn't even realize that they were causing nasal discomfort to the latter, until a Vietnamese student spoke up and was seconded by others. To their credit, the Iranians and Nigerians took the Asians' comments to heart, and the atmosphere in the classroom improved considerably. No fines or jail time were necessary.
But how many Nigerians or Iranians do you usually see on the bus in Honolulu?
If you're smelly and riding the bus, it's probably not an ethnic dis-stink-tion. You're probably either a sweaty worker who's just gotten off from a long day at the construction site or a farm or a hot restaurant kitchen, and you're anxious to get home for a nice bath -- or you're homeless, and you haven't been to a beach park with an indoor shower lately.
Tam got into trouble last year by trying to ban people from sleeping on park benches--a measure criticized as targeting the homeless. This is more of the same. If he really wants to improve odors on buses, he should sponsor a bill for more public shower facilities (and more public housing), and stop trying to ban the very people who need public transportation most from using The Bus. And he should stop trafficking in xenophobic slurs about ethnic armpits.
I've never smelled a bus rider as putrid as Tam's statement.