A minor story that didn't pass my smell test

When I read this story I suspected there was more to it than was being reported:

(04-21) 18:28 PDT Bellingham, Wash. (AP) --

Police said a Cost Cutter store employee was punched in the mouth after he confronted a customer about his body odor. Police spokesman Mark Young told The Bellingham Herald that police went to the store after a report of a fight and found employees holding down a man.

The newspaper said customers apparently complained while the man was in the store Sunday, and the employee decided to discuss it with him when he returned the next day.

Young said the store employee was not going to ask him to leave the store, but only approached him to share the complaints. Young said the man snapped and threw a bunch of batteries and punched the worker, causing a minor injury.

Common sense suggested that this was not an ordinary "customer" with "body odor." Store customers would not go to the trouble of complaining about regular body odor (such as sweaty armpit smell) on another customer. They would likely ignore it and go on about their business.

So I suspected that the man must have been emitting an overpowering stench -- the kind not associated with normal people or with regular, even unpleasant body odor, but the kind associated with people who are incapable of caring for themselves on the most basic level. Like the guy I encountered in the New York subway who made me realize that we give preferential treatment to suffering dogs:

I remember riding the New York subway once and being overcome by the stench of a man who was sleeping on five or six seats. The car was nearly empty, and people kept moving out of it and into other cars simply because the foul smell of rotten vomit and fecal material was strong enough to make a normal person wretch. (Really, the people leaving looked like they were going to get sick if they stayed.)

"We'd never treat a dog that way!" I remember thinking at the time.

And we wouldn't. Because, to our enlightened way of thinking, dogs have the right to be cared for when they are clearly unable to care for themselves, whereas humans don't. In the name of some perversion of "rights" theory, humans are allowed to rot away in public places, because society has no right to help people who are clearly unable to take care of themselves if they are unwilling to accept help.

I suspected that the "customer" in the store was probably no more of a customer than the man in the subway, and that his body odor was probably that same sort of overpowering stench that would make you want to vomit.

Not only should a person who neglects himself to that point get help, but customers should not have to put up with anything that unhygienic in a stores -- especially stores like Costcutter where food is sold, and where public health laws prohibit even the cleanest dogs and the cleanest bare feet for public health reasons.

Anyway, it turned out that my suspicions were probably right. The man was in there stinking up the store for four hours and (If the commenters to this local story know what they're talking about), he is mentally ill, and has a long history of arrests for typical homeless person type charges.

Boehringer apparently was in the store for about four hours Sunday when the complaints were made by other customers. When he returned to the store Monday, the employee approached him, either to talk about the complaints or about loitering in the store -- police reports are unclear on that.

"It doesn't appear (the employee) was going to ask him to leave the store. He was just sharing the complaints, but the conversation didn't get far," Young said.

Boehringer "snapped," Young said, throwing down a package of batteries and punching the employee in the mouth. The employee suffered a minor injury that didn't require treatment.

I feel really sorry for the owner of the store, for the employees, and even for the arresting officer (who undoubtedly did not want the poor wretch in his nice clean police car). There really isn't much anyone can do, other than play "let's pretend that we're dealing with a normal rational person and hope the courts do something." No one wants to do anything. They don't want him in the store, the police car, in court, or in the prisons. And of course the mental hospitals will only hold him for a few days, and then he's out, and free to go back to his favorite store where he can wallow in his filth all day, yell at the products on the shelves (which is how some commenters characterize the problem) and drive away customers. I think this one probably hit the nail on the head:
Since we closed Western State mental hospital, we in this state have been paying for it daily.
The strict Thomas Szasz Libertarian approach is simply to treat the mentally ill the same way we would treat normal people. The problem is, that does not happen. We can't treat them like everyone else because they aren't like everyone else. If I went into a store and punched out a clerk, I'd be charged with assault and battery, I'd show up in court to face charges, and if convicted I would get probation or prison. On a fourth offense, I would most likely be sent up for a period of time. The problem with mentally ill people is they don't show up for court dates, judges don't want to send them to prison because they don't belong there and will be victimized, and everything just gets deferred until they really do something bad. (Like, saw open someone's chest.) And so, while I would agree that it's inhumane to send someone like that to prison, where should they go? It's completely dysfunctional to just pretend they're normal. (Just a regular old customer with body odor who lost his temper....) Same thing with the term "homeless" -- the implication being they're just like the rest of us only they lack housing.

It's just a minor story, but it reflects massive denial.

posted by Eric on 04.25.10 at 12:39 PM


We have Jimmy Carter's Solicitor General to thank for this one. Who argued in the supreme court that just because a person is mentally ill does not give society a right to sequester them. They took it to the extreme, and I am a libertarian saying this, to the point that people who are obviously incapable of caring for themselves were turned loose form mental institutions and became homeless in short order.

Eric, If I have time this week I will get on lexus nexus and look up the case law on it. I am not sure which case it was, but I do know it was the carter administration. I suppose they wanted more democratic voters out in society. (sarc)

xhristopherus   ·  April 25, 2010 3:56 PM

If I remember correctly, there is the standard of the mentally ill person posing a threat to themselves or others which must be met in order to place them in institutions. Clearly, the standard is met in the cited case.

xhristopherus   ·  April 25, 2010 3:58 PM

Odor and especially body odor is about the last taboo. And that is rapidly ebbing too.

Dealing with that person in the subway is much different from helping a dog. People are pretty good judges of when the dog might bite and how dangerous dealing with him is.

But dealing with the homeless person is quite different. He has more power than the dog and is more unpredictable. The consequences of a mistake are far greater.

KTWO   ·  April 25, 2010 6:39 PM

It's just amazing to me that our society is in this fix. The clear, humanitarian thing to do with such mentally ill persons is to care for them in institutions designed for this purpose. If I found myself off my meds and wandering in the street, I would hope that I'd be cared for, not left to rot in my own vomit.

I honestly don't know what arguments can justify closing public mental institutions in the face of such suffering people.

Pious Agnostic   ·  April 25, 2010 7:04 PM

Unfortunately the problem is that people in the US became convinced we were "just like the USSR" and "locking up people we claim are mentally ill."

We live in a downtown area and my walks take me past a lot of people who seem to be barely holding on to some sort of reality (often not our own.) One homeless man followed my then 13 year old son, accusing him of running over someone (never figured out who) on purpose.

If you complain of it, you get told it's good for "raising your consciousness" or nonsense about "afflicting the comfortable." but it is NOT good. It's driving businesses away from downtown and "afflicting the comfortable" assumes the comfortable have some responsibility and or ability to help these people. We are NOT living in Victorian England. Most of us would help if we could. Also, this is assuming that the comfortable are comfortable, not struggling ma and pa stores whose customers are driven away.

Most of these people are not poor because of lack of opportunity and/or care from society. Most of the people I pass or overhear are mentally ill, pure and simple. And apparently we're not to enforce our standards of sanity upon them.

Look, as a writer, with a lot of writer friends, I understand shaky mental health. we all look out for one another for depression and such. We're even willing to lend support to slightly more serious stuff. I'm not suggesting we lock up people who deviate from the norm.
But this stuff is life-hampering. This is not such a borderline thing. These are people who can't wash, don't understand how to get the help that's available, or self-medicate with alcohol. They deserve better than to be used by smug idiots to "afflict" the rest of the middle class. They deserve help, as any good samaritan would provide for physical illness. Unfortunately our hands are tied.

Sarah   ·  April 25, 2010 10:44 PM

I would think that "sanity" and "insanity" are descriptors of the opposite ends of a continuum.

Anyone who decides to attack a stranger with a hacksaw is clearly not populating the "sane" end of the continuum. Well, "exactly how crazy IS this hacksaw-wielding, chest-slicing maniac?" Can anyone think of a RATIONAL motivation for attacking a stranger with a hacksaw?

So, under your regime, anyone who commits a random, violent crime is not a candidate for incarceration for a predetermined (by the Court) period of time? Undeserving of PUNISHMENT, by your logic? Only rehabilitation (if this is even possible)?

Mike Foster

Mike Foster   ·  April 27, 2010 4:07 PM

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