Thursday, May 9, 2024

I Smell


One of this spring's heavily-scented blossoms on our backyard's enormous magnolia tree,
just as it was opening.

Do you smell?

I do.  I admit it.

And I'm not talking about our body odor.  I'm asking if your sense of smell helps color your world.

That's what my sense of smell does.  It reminds me of long-ago memories, whether they're pleasant or not.  My sense of smell tells me of changes in the weather.  And yes, at those times when I can smell my own body odor, it annoys me.

I used to purchase expensive cologne to help mask my B.O.  When I lived in New York City, I would take special trips up to Bloomingdale's on Third Avenue to purchase their then-exclusive line of Lauder Men cologne that for some reason, they sold only in the women's fragrance department.  I remember the clerks would acknowledge my savviness when as a man, I'd stride right up to the Lauder Women counter on Bloomies' fabled, gaudy main floor and ask to purchase their men's product! 

"Ahh!  You know your fragrances!" they'd invariably exclaim with approval, knowing "ordinary" customers had no idea to get a man's fragrance from a woman's counter.

I admit it made me feel kinda special, knowing I possessed an urbane fashion secret in New York City, of all places!  It really burst my bubble when eventually, I overheard somebody joke that they smelled of Lysol after I'd hugged them!

I remember marching myself immediately into the bathroom, taking my shirt off, and sniffing deeply into my armpits.  Sure enough, as a day wore on, that pricey Lauder fragrance would mingle with my body chemicals to turn what in the store smelled so sophisticated into merely eau de Lysol.  After that, I became even more deeply conscious of how other people receive my smell.

When it's humid here in north Texas, where the atmosphere generally stays quite arid, I can smell in the air distinct whiffs of a heavy, moist, musty aroma I smelled daily on my morning walks to the subway in Brooklyn, New York.

Early on those metropolitan mornings, I'd trot down three flights of stairs in our 90-year-old apartment building, which itself exuded nearly a century's worth of diverse residential odors.  I'd then burst from a cramped, stuffy vestibule into what passes for fresh air in Gotham.  I would immediately encounter increasing layers of must-tinged aromatics, walking across our building's private concrete courtyard, its pavement usually still glazed with a fine dew from a night only recently ended.  It was probably the most peaceful time of the day for our neighborhood, and its nuanced smells helped me imagine how that big, grand city was itself rolling out of bed and getting ready for whatever cacophony its denizens would be soon creating.

I can tell you I can't remember anything remarkable odor-wise about my walks back to that apartment during the evening rush!

And when I later lived in Manhattan, mostly all I ever smelled on my walks was exhaust from motor vehicles... and waste rotting in fetid garbage cans lining the sidewalks in my Kips Bay neighborhood.

Yesterday, I was getting my car serviced at a garage I've used for years.  Thankfully, although it is now old, my Honda doesn't break down often, meaning I rarely have to visit my mechanic.  They're located in a small town near my house which has a liberal smoking ordinance allowing for indoor smoking if certain mechanical ventilation standards are met.  And I could distinctly smell cigarette smoke in the well-air-conditioned waiting area.

There was no actual smoke, which told me the ventilation system was working well, and indeed, the place was absolutely FREEZING inside!  But there's no disguising cigarette smoke, especially these days, when so many places even in Texas prohibit indoor smoking.  For me and my nose, having such smoke-free ubiquity makes those instances when it exists even more noticeable.  So eventually, since it was a nice morning outside, I opted to retreat to a shaded bench on the opposite side of their front door.

And I realized how the odor inside my mechanic's place of business was bringing memories to my mind that I hadn't visited for a long time.  Helping grease those memories was my location:  That garage is just down the block from a restaurant where years ago, I worked as a host.  And the host stand was near the front door, which was also near... the restaurant's large bar.

Since this was located in the same municipality as my mechanic, the restaurant's bar also was specially-ventilated to welcome smokers.  Fortunately, the ventilation worked quite well, and I was never really bothered by the smoke itself.  But the odor was still there, especially in the woodwork, carpeting, and furniture.

Then I began to remember all of the various other smells more unique to that restaurant.  Foods obviously have odors, as do the different spices and seasonings in their recipes, which together create unique fragrances for everything from chips and dipping sauces to fajitas and varied beverage options.

After a six or eight-hour shift, I discovered, those smells tend to stay with a person.  I never liked leaving work smelling just exactly like greasy chips, melted cheese, and charred fajitas.  I've never had another job whose essence literally traveled with me, embedded in the fibers of my clothing.

My boss expected me to wear a dress shirt, dress pants, and necktie for every shift, which meant most of my dress clothes ended up smelling just like the restaurant's interior, no matter how often I washed the shirts or took my clothing to the dry cleaner's.  In fact, I'm convinced those dry cleaning chemicals actually served to sear the restaurants' odors into my clothing permanently.

When I eventually got another job, I threw out all the clothing I'd worn at the restaurant.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm mildly autistic, or on "the spectrum" describing that condition.  I've heard autistic people tend to have especially sensitive senses when it comes to smells and odors.  Like the memories of Brooklyn that automatically pop into my consciousness on heavy, humid Texas mornings.  

I have a good friend who shares my interest in cologne, and I'm not ashamed to admit that one afternoon, we actually found ourselves going from one shop to another at a posh Dallas mall sniffing tons of fragrances just for the fun of it.

An emerging category in the personal fragrance industry has become unisex fragrances, or smells that aren't designed for any particular gender.  While overall, the science of how personal fragrances get blended seems to depend more on marketing than biology, my friend and I both find the unisex confections far more pleasing than most fragrances marketed for a specific gender.  They're neither sweet nor musky, but far more complex, with aromas more evocative of ideas and places than emotions or sexuality.

Then, of course, there's that most elusive of all First-World fragrances:  the prized New Car Smell!  Actually, I've heard that some people can't stand the new car smell, but I've never, ever met one of those people.  I have friends who've recently purchased brand-new vehicles and while yes, their cars each have a distinctive, mechanical, synthetic aroma, both are surprisingly pleasant, as industrial aesthetics go.  I've heard that major automotive companies have actually researched the materials, fabrics, and fluids out of which motor vehicles are built, painted, lubricated, and detailed in a quest to determine the chemical recipe of a new car smell - and they haven't been able to do it.

Which, actually, protects the profits they generate whenever they sell brand-new vehicles, right?  No matter how accurately a spritz of bottled "New Car Smell" might smell, it's not like its pricetag could possibly match those dizzyingly-high numbers on dealer windowstickers.

But then too, whether in paper or coin, even money has a scent.


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