Monday, August 13, 2007

Scents of New York

New York has a multitude of fragrances that bombard you everyday on the street.

In Oklahoma, you don't experience a variety of aromas while walking down the street. Because you never walk down the street. You drive everywhere you want to go. I lived in Tulsa (the second largest "city" in OK) for eight years, and the longest distance I walked was from a no-door-ding-parking-spot to the front doors of a Wal-Mart Supercenter. While driving, you do get an occasional whiff of a water treatment plant and inevitably ask the person in the passenger seat if she farted. Or you catch the scent of a skunk or a chicken farm on the outskirts of town and try to hold your breath for a mile (unless you use my great-grandfather's advice, "Breathe it in deeply and get the worst over with, right off the bat). But that's it.

In NYC, however, I'd be insane, for reasons that don't need to be explained, to own a car. And I walk through a cornucopia of scents everyday. I feel like I'm in a twisted version of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, but instead of tasting "cherry," "strawberry" and "schnauzberry" flavored wallpaper, I smell things that are pungent and often indefinable as I cruise down the sidewalk. But there are a few scents, good and bad, that all New Yorkers must know like the back of their hand, because they don't wince, lose their balance and scream "whoa" like I do when they come across them. Here are the major ones.

1. The Subway. It's a warm sunny day and you begin your descent into the subway. On the second tier of steps that leads down to the platform, it hits you: rank B.O. But that's not all! It is always mixed with the musty, dank, thick-as-chunky-mustard smell of the subway itself. And there is a difference between the two scents, even if the sour subway aroma resembles that of the smell of a few of my relatives after a day in the fields. The two scents some how meander along the walls, tracks and platform, but never quite blend together.

2. Foyers. The inside of every foyer in every apartment building in New York smells identical. Okay, obviously I haven't been in every single one, but I've been in at least half a dozen buildings in each of the Burroughs (except the Bronx, I don't know anyone there but may have to venture up there to validate my observation). The scent is hard to define because, after living here for only three weeks, it's already as familiar as my clean bodily scent. I can't smell myself unless I have just finished running three miles, which is my dirty bodily scent (B.O.) and the first of the two key ingredients to the aforementioned "subway" smell. Only your spouse or girl/boyfriend knows your clean bodily scent. They smell it on your shirt or after you get out of the shower. When I get out of the shower, my wife says she likes my smell; I think I smell like Suave: Ocean Breeze body wash. So, maybe I'll go back to Oklahoma for a couple of weeks and return, better equipped, to describe this allusive scent.

3. Food. I don't really need to describe this one. But it's amazing how many different kinds of food I can smell at different times of the day while I sit on my fire-escape and smoke a cigarette. I live on the fifth floor and my fire-escape is above a poor excuse for a courtyard that is surrounded by the walls and windows of my building and another that sits on the other side of the courtyard. These two buildings and 40 (approximately) windows serve up fragrances from a smorgasbord of ethnic dishes. Even with my dulled smoker's sense of smell, I can enjoy Indian, Mexican, Soul-Food, American, and Ethiopian (I think it's Ethiopian. It's the only one I'm not completely sure about) wafts of delight--all before 2 p.m. (I know I need to get a job. I'm working on it. I just moved here! Jeez!) And unless I'm really hungry, this is one of the scents I enjoy most.

4. Women. I don't need to describe this one either. But I will say it is nice to walk up out of a subway, or B.O.-chunky-mustard hell, and enter into the light of day as a woman walks by (Yes, I know that all women don't smell great, but most smell better than men.) A soft citrus breeze. A cool floral wave. A sexy perfume. A nice ________ (fill in the blank). You know what I'm talking about. And it's never arousing, you don't have the opportunity to get aroused while hoofing it down the busy streets of New York. It's just a pleasant surprise and momentary escape from the multitude of other scents that bombard you.

5 - 100. I could tell you about dog vomit and shit, human vomit and shit, car exhaust, Starbucks, retail stores, wet cement, hot asphalt, cigarette smoke (which obviously doesn't bother me), wet grass, fresh rain . . . and a multitude of others, but you know most of them or wouldn't want to hear about the others. And how many pseudonyms can one think of for scent? I tip my hat to food critics.

6. or 101. Vomit. I know I said I wasn't going to talk about the above, but I am curious if many other New Yorkers have had this same experience. I've been here three weeks and have come accross vomit three times. I know it was human vomit at least once, because it was on the subway and an attempt had been made to conceal it--it was partially enclosed in a plastic bag and covered with newspaper. On second thought, it could could have been a doggy bag, I don't know. But three times in three weeks? The other times were on the sidewalk and on a running trail in Central Park. The only time I actually smelled it was in the subway--it wasn't horrible, but there is no air circulation on the subway. A faintly putrid aroma just sat in the car and was given an extra dose of oxygen everytime the doors opened, but the air always comes in. Is this normal? Should I expect to see a puddle of vomit every week for the rest of my future in New York?

This is all still novel for me and I'm interested in discovering more. Hopefully I won't be cursing these smells before the year is out. We'll see. Oh, fall! No matter where you live, the fall season always brings a different spin on everything, especially smells. But don't worry. I won't wait two months just to write and tell you, again, about my olfactory adventures in The City.


  1. I think it's really amazing and very Proustian of you that you chose to start with SMELL as you describe the city.

    And you have no idea how I'm enjoying vicariously your experiences. I'm not just kidding when I say we'll come and visit someday. Guh.

    Now you'll feel so much in common with Mark Doonesbury, yes? Rant on, dude...


  2. I agree with Dana. Though I think In Search of Lost Time would have been much more interesting if it began with vomit instead of a madeleine.

    Oh, and we need playlists.


  3. You've captured one of the sets of experiences I actually miss about NYC.

    Try not to look EVERYONE in the eye!

    : )