THE TYRANNY OF BAD SMELLS

“Well, I don’t smell anything.”

This is a phrase I have never uttered. However, as far as what others say to me, it’s the refrain of my life. “It’s the Johns nose,” says my mother, each time I, my brother, my father, my cousins or my father’s sisters complain bitterly about some desperately bad odor that is apparently undetectable to my mother. Some people are blessed with unusual senses or talents. But my powerful nose is a powerful curse.

Of course, I’m bound to say that I’ve been grateful for my nose more than once – there’s the time an absent-minded actress draped her costume on a scorching-hot dressing-room light bulb, or the time a guest tossed a lighted cigarette under the old floorboards. And I’ll admit, there is an oddly gratifying distinction in being the one to whom authority is given on the freshness of the milk.

But here, I am not speaking merely of life’s most obvious effluvia, like a family member who, twelve hours ago, ate four hardboiled eggs in one sitting. The world is, in fact, a far more varied olfactory minefield. Christmastime is particularly hazardous. I’ve heard that music encourages shoppers to spend more money, but I’m not aware of a principle stating that stifling bouquets of cinnamon potpourri at the entrance of middle-class retail establishments compel shoppers to buy, and I keep a mental list of the worst cinnamon offenders (I’m looking at you, Bed, Bath and Beyond, as if the Persimmon, Lakeside Birch and Moonlight Harvest candles aren’t enough). The smell is also at the top of my list of reasons for avoiding the subway, trumping both fear of assault and distaste for scenes featuring transit police and truculent, disoriented homeless. At every underground SEPTA entrance in the city, it smells as if someone recently relieved themselves and then immediately dumped a gallon of generic antibacterial hand soap on the pavement.

Of course, some of the most irritating nasal hazards are not a dingy environment, but the people themselves. Again, this is not limited to a mundane and obvious offense like coffee breath or that scourge of student get-togethers, Dorito breath. (I recently toured a cave in Oregon, where the guide explained that cave rats mark their way to the surface with urine. I thought that was what I smelled, but after dropping to the back of the group I found unexpected relief, and realized it had been the tour guide’s breath.) To all heavy wearers of cologne: like the atmosphere of a good-sized planet, your florid, nose-burning reek engulfs you and the seven seats in any direction. You trail the flowery tang like an invisible comet all the way down the hall. You are the reason I usually hold my breath when I pass other people.

Bad smells of the animal kingdom are not always obvious, either. Sure, you expect the stinkbug’s homely brown stench, but while you might like the dusty tomato sheen of a lucky ladybug, have you noticed their pungent, cloying smell? I avoid killing ants at home not because of any altruistic impulse, but because of their stinging acid smell. And millipedes have a dry, thick, heavy stink that drives me out of the room.

A bad smell is a deeper agony than a distasteful sight or an annoying sound. Most sounds, however infuriating, have an easily discernible and often transitory source, such as a car alarm, a speeding siren or a wailing baby, and it could be argued that as long as we have control of our eyelids we can immediately blot out any sight we want to avoid (like the scene in the movie where the grotesque, needle-toothed demon face appears). Eyes squeezed shut or hands clapped to the ears provide immediate relief, but your nose is unprotected. Sure, you can pinch your nose or breathe through your mouth (or follow the advice of the craven nasal defeatists who say “after a while you won’t notice the smell anymore”), but as long as you’re breathing, you’re imbibing the tainted air in an undeniable way, while the smell sinks into your hair and clothes. And a smell can’t be as easily eliminated as, for example, a piercing smoke alarm, despite Febreze commercials which claim that with one spray, slender pastel-clad housewives can disguise the fact that they have cats, a garbage can or a teenage son. If a mouse has the temerity to die under your fridge, the stench will grow worse by the day until you locate the source, jack up the fridge and sweep the putrid furry morsel out – but I guarantee that the odor won’t dissipate as soon as you can remove the rodent.

It is also a deep, often unfortunate truth of the human brain that smells, for good or ill, worm their way into your emotional memory like no other sensation: it could be something pleasant and innocuous, like your high-school summer camp roommates’ shampoo. But every year, when you come home from Christmas Eve church, you don’t want to think of that long-ago holiday evening when the dogs smashed a bottle of rum and then defecated in the pool of liquor – but that was a smell like no other. This is the tyranny of bad smells. They are inescapable and utterly varied: yesterday’s mildewed dishcloth, the banana peel in the trash, or the guy who removed his shoes and blasted them with aerosol deodorant on the packed rush-hour bus.

As my cousin, Johanna, and I helped to prepare our grandparents’ annual Christmas party, I fished the mayonnaise out of the fridge, unscrewed the cap, and brushed the jar airily past my nose, as if by accident, while I grabbed the spoon. The rich, slightly sharp and sweet odor of the mayo mingled with the mild honey-vinegar spice of Johanna’s Dijon mustard – all safe to serve.

“Does it pass the smell test?” Johanna, who had missed nothing, interrupted my olfactory reverie. Regardless of vast differences between us, there are ways that Jo and I are exactly the same. Despite the presence of those who would cry that they don’t smell a thing, I should have known that my cousin would never have faulted me for that crucial exploratory sniff.

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2 Comments

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  1. I read this to Mallory and we enjoyed it thoroughly together! LOL! Any more magazine gigs?! You’re awesome.

  2. I don’t remember any rum and naughty dogs episode, but perhaps that’s because it wasn’t burned into my olfactory memory. I just hope you’ll tell me if the house stinks when you come home.
    Great article!

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