Have you ever smelled a dead body?

I admit it, I don’t know what it’s like to live in poverty. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a situation where I have no money and no real options. But I thought I had come to understand the stress and desperation of living without. I was wrong.

Poverty also means seeing friends and family become victims of death and violence. It means drugs and addiction and despair. And it means knowing what a rotting dead body smells like.

Today as I rode the train from Washington, D.C. back to Chicago to resume my journey I sat next to a man who grew up in the projects. He described growing up in the projects of DC, and of the ever-present violence and drugs. Once, he said, he was at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street, now a tourist destination, and though the place was packed no one was ordering food. Instead everyone was shooting heroin. And he talked about being out with friends and suddenly getting a whiff of death. “Where’s the dead body at? I know there’s a dead body,” he said.

The conversation brought me mixed emotions–disgust that someone could smell a dead body and be so nonchalant about death; sadness that someone could grow up in such an environment; and shock at having my comfy view of life shaken yet again.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper