March 8, 2024 Short Story

Urban Odyssey

Urban Odyssey Artwork by DALL·E

The bagel rolled out of my sweatshirt pocket and spun to a stop in the bus lane. That was my lunch and I really wanted it, so despite the Staten Island Express hurtling towards me, I stepped off the curb, snatched up the cellophane-wrapped sphere, then scampered to safety. The driver must have been stunned but neither braked nor leaned on his horn, and passersby didn’t even glance in my direction, as if a grown man chasing a rolling bagel into traffic happened all the time. Yes, the streets were packed, but I was alone. Quintessential midtown Manhattan.

I stuffed my cream cheese on an everything into my pocket and wondered: could I still eat it?

Buses had been speeding down this street for years, the rolling rubber, exhaust fumes and general grime of the city ground into the exact spot where my bagel had landed. It had only been a few seconds, but could I just ignore decades of filth and toxicity?

I would decide later. Now I had to make a diagonal cut across Central Park so I could get to the museum before my timed entry ticket expired. I started jogging, clinging to the bagel I might or might not eat. I had picked up the bagel early, dashed home to spread cream cheese, carried it to the railroad platform, onto the train, up the Grand Central Station escalator, north for twenty blocks on Fifth Avenue, and now, into the park…. I was invested in that stupid bagel, even though I could just buy a new one. But no, I wanted that bagel.

Why hadn’t I worn a sweatshirt or jacket with a zippered pocket?

I checked the time: I had to finish this half hour stroll in 20 minutes, and seemed to be doing okay, though inside the park it wasn’t easy to travel a straight line. I looked above surrounding trees, fixed my eyes on the Dakota Building two blocks from the museum on Central Park West, and took a series of curving paths in that direction. The whole way I kept my hand in my pocket, never loosening my grip. I would not lose that bagel again.

I got to the museum with two minutes to spare and felt more glee than this simple accomplishment deserved. They probably would have let me in even if I was late. The place was not crowded at all.

As I showed the guard my timed ticket, I pulled out my bagel to make sure it still was okay, laughing at myself because what could have happened in the past twenty minutes?

“I’m sorry sir.”

“Excuse me?”

“No food allowed.”

He had to be kidding.

He shrugged and smiled.

“You can eat it before you go in.”

But that wasn’t the plan.

“Can I check it?”

“You want to check your bagel?”

“I’ll check my sweatshirt, put the bagel inside.”

“Good idea.”

I stuffed the bagel as deep in my pocket as I could, then handed my sweatshirt to a retiree

I assumed was a volunteer trying to fill up his day. I wanted to mention the bagel and gently tell him to make sure it didn’t fall out, but didn’t want him to think I doubted his competence… which I did a little, but still, there was no need to insult him.

He held the sweatshirt vertically, slipped a hanger inside the sleeves, then nodded at me with a smile as he handed me a claim ticket.

“Don’t lose this. You’ll need it later.”

He was doubting me? I was almost as old as he was, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t keep track of a claim check!

And yet, I was doing an “old man” thing: getting insulted too easily. What difference did his little comment make? I was here to enjoy the exhibits, and his small slight, perceived or real, shouldn’t make a difference.

Time flew, and before I knew it, my pleasant hour at the museum was over. I could have stayed longer, but enough was enough, and I had to admit, I really was ready for lunch in the park. I shook off my hesitation about “eating a dirty bagel,” reassured myself that I had wrapped my sandwich thoroughly, and convinced the God of Cleanliness that the contents had not been touched by any impurities. Cellophane was a very good barrier to the outside world (even air couldn’t get through… I once saw a movie where a thug suffocated his victim with plastic wrap).

I handed the old man my claim ticket with an extra “take that” attitude. If he said anything about how good it was that I hadn’t lost my ticket, I would have slugged him. But he just smiled and brought me my sweatshirt.

My first act was to pat the pockets. Nothing on that side, must be in the other pocket.

Also empty!

I felt around more aggressively but again came up empty.

“Excuse me,” I said. I told him about the bagel.

He laid my sweatshirt on the counter and patted it.

“I don’t feel anything.”

“I know!”


“Can you look in the back room? Maybe it fell out.”

“Sure. Be back in a minute.”

He was away for more than a minute, and with each passing moment my spirits sagged. I was almost ready to step behind the counter to find out if he had collapsed back there, when he finally emerged.

“Nothing, right?”

“No, no, no. Here it is. Somehow it was on the other side of the room from where I hung your sweatshirt.”

“How could that happen?”

“Maybe it fell out and someone kicked it across the room.”

Someone. He was the only one back there.

But that was beside the point. My poor bagel. First a dirty city street, now a dirty museum floor. I doubted they cleaned back there often, if at all, and even if they did give the linoleum a wipe every week or so, they probably used a filthy mop dipped in filthy water. For certain, the surface was not “so clean you could eat off it.”

I took the bagel from his hand and studied it: still wrapped neatly, no sign it had been booted like a soccer ball all around the coat check area. But it had been booted. How could I eat it now?

“Do you think this is clean enough for me to eat?”

I was asking the coat check guy like he was an expert in food quality or a scientist at the Center for Disease Control. How would he know?

He sadly shook his head.

“You don’t think that would be a good idea, do you?”

“Not really. Then again, couldn’t hurt you too much. It is wrapped nicely.”


Suddenly the old man seemed a lot smarter than he was moments earlier. I didn’t want to

risk any follow-up discussion, so I rushed to the park, found a fairly secluded (for New York) bench under a canopy of trees, and pulled the bagel from my pocket.

Everything still looked perfect: cellophane clinging to its contents, no dirt visible on the bagel or the wrapper. I squeezed: still fresh.

With great ceremony I pulled apart the folded cellophane, each light tug releasing the mouth-watering scent of onion and garlic. The bagel was a beauty, densely packed with sesame, poppy and rye seeds, the last an extra treat from my local baker. Finally, with each edge of the wrapping pulled apart as far as possible to avoid unnecessary contact, the bagel sat there naked, ready for my first happy bite.

I looked around, stretching out the moment. Leaves were changing color, yellows and reds floating down as a brisk breeze shook the trees. I leaned forward to protect my bagel, but kept listening to the rustle, a soothing sound that always calmed me. At that instant, I was exactly where I wanted to be.

Something landed gently on top of my head. I reached up to remove a fallen leaf, trying to guess the color. But there was no leaf. Instead, I felt a sticky liquid. I checked my fingertips: a yellowish white goo the consistency of pudding or paste or mucous or… no this couldn’t be: bird poop!

My bagel!

I looked down: untouched.

But on the corner of the stretched-out cellophane…. How much poop could one bird drop?

I did a quick mental measurement: two inches. Could I still eat the bagel? How close was too close?

Maybe bird droppings weren’t as poisonous as they seemed, but how could they not be? I was no bird expert, but I was pretty sure this was excrement or urine, or maybe a combination of both, and that couldn’t be clean. And yet, the cellophane only contained some splattering, not the full bomb that had zeroed in on the top of my head. The bagel itself remained untouched.

But I was fooling myself. It was time to face reality, and maybe it was for the best. I probably shouldn’t have even considered eating food that had rolled across as many dirty surfaces as this bagel. The poop was God’s final warning, in case I was too consumed with desire to make a rational decision before.

With resignation that this was never meant to be, I stood, my hand beneath the bagel, the edges of the wrapper flapping in the breeze. I couldn’t bring myself to fold the cellophane closed, to have that damn bird’s impurities actually touch my beautiful cream cheese on an everything. Then I noticed something promising. Only one side of the bagel’s outer edge was near the splattering. The other side was safe. The bagel was cut in half, so I’d eat the left hemisphere and discard the right.

But again, I was being ridiculous. There had to be a bagel place around here where I could pick up a new one. I scolded myself: just fold up the cellophane and toss it. But as I stepped towards the garbage, cellophane still dancing in the wind, I felt someone looking at me.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Do you have any spare change? I haven’t eaten since yesterday.”

As a rule I never spoke to people looking for handouts, even though I knew I was being selfish. But suddenly, I had a brainstorm: I could not eat this bagel, but I also couldn’t bring myself to drop it in the trash. I’d give it to this hungry person in need. It was a perfect compromise.

It also was perverse. This poor guy might be famished, but that didn’t mean he wanted to get sick. And yet….

I lifted the left half of the bagel which was farthest from the poop, then crumpled the cellophane around the right half, cringing as the sticky goo was smeared over all those beautiful seeds.

“Would you like half a bagel?”


He stepped forward and took what I’d offered between his dirty fingertips. Oddly, that comforted me because the bagel had to be cleaner than the hands that would holding it. If he got ill, it wouldn’t be my fault.

He sniffed, then held the bagel away from his face to get a good look.

“Is this rotten or something?”

“No. It’s delicious.”

“Then why aren’t you eating it.”

“Look, if you don’t want it, throw it away. I’m just giving it to you because you’re hungry.”

“What’s that smell?”

“Onion, garlic, and lots of other good stuff.”

“I know onion and garlic, but this is something else.”

“Then don’t eat it.”

He handed me back what I had given to him.

“You take a bite first. I want to make sure it’s okay.”

Was this guy for real? I had to prove that my gift was worthy? No way.

Then again, this was yet another chance for me to at least get something out of this bagel saga. I broke the half-bagel in half again, held up both sections, gave him one piece, and without more than a split-second thought about where this bagel had been, I took a bite.

My salivary glands exploded so violently that it hurt my jaw. I immediately regretted giving away anything.

Meanwhile, the beneficiary of my beneficence still was sniffing the remaining one- quarter with the intensity of a food connoisseur.

“Look, if you don’t want it, you don’t have to eat it.”

I held out my hand, but the guy was not willing to yield. Instead, he split the top and bottom, then aggressively licked off cream cheese I had amply applied hours earlier, his long pink tongue alternating between sides. Finally, he scrutinized his work, gave a final swipe with his tongue, and put the pieces back together before placing the remnant of my once beautiful bagel in my palm.

I didn’t want to touch the “thing,” so I drew back and watched the bagel drop to the pavement.

“That’s not good,” he said.

“Don’t worry. I wasn’t going to eat it anyway.”

He nodded, gave me a military salute, and trudged away, pushing a shopping cart loaded with garbage bags. Suddenly I felt bad for the poor soul, as annoying as he was, but I also felt bad for myself. My perfect day had been ruined for a stupid reason: bad bagel management.

But how shallow could I be?

I sat on the bench thinking of alternatives. I didn’t know if there was a bagel place around there, so maybe I’d get pizza, or a turkey sandwich, or maybe I’d go into a coffee shop and pick something off the menu. I had money, I had time, and there was no reason to stay in mourning.

I stared at the mutilated one-quarter bagel now part of New York City’s littered streets. They kept the park clean, so my bagel would be swept up soon and given a decent burial. Long live my cream cheese on an everything.

I stood to leave, figured out which way to walk, then glanced down one last time. Two squirrels were nibbling away like this was the best lunch they’d eaten in a long time. The onion, garlic and all those seeds didn’t seem to bother them at all. In fact, I’d never seen two happier squirrels.

As they each tore off a small chunk and scampered up a tree, I smiled. It was a fitting ending for a bagel that deserved a far better fate.