If you ask New Yorkers what their city smells like, their immediate and vigorous answer will include such items as these:
· Dog poop
· Sweat (from other people, as in the subway)
· Chemical vapors
· Grilled meat from block parties
· Diesel fumes
· Smells from halal and hot dog vendors
Summer, of course, is the worst season for unpleasant smells, since the heat “cooks” the garbage and other undesirable deposits.
|Man's best friend, but ...|
To these I’ll add another provided by a friend who lived for many years in Brooklyn: the sickly sweet smell of mice dying in the walls after the landlord has spread poison, a smell that lasts from ten days to two weeks until their little bodies desiccate. For my friend this is quintessential olfactory New York.
And if you press New Yorkers for some positive olfactory experiences, they’ll think a minute and perhaps come up with
· Toasted bagels
· Fruit tree blossoms in spring
· The aroma from a pizzeria, with hints of yeasty bread, cheese, and sausage
· In Brooklyn, the aroma of freshly roasted coffee emanating from several little wholesale coffee companies hidden in brick buildings
· Italian sausage cooking at stands at the annual Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy
|Sausage stand at the Feast of San Gennaro.|
Obviously, the negative experiences outweigh the positive ones. And New Yorkers complain: 13,054 odor complaints to 311 (the city’s complaint and information number) over the last four years, or about eight gripes per thousand residents. And to judge by the number of complaints, Manhattan is the smelliest borough by far. Unless, of course, it simply has the most residents willing to lodge a complaint, which may well be the case.
To the smells already mentioned, I’ll provide a few more, both pleasant and unpleasant, from my own experience.
· The aroma of fresh baked bread emanating from some invisible bakery nearby, especially delicious on a cold winter night
· On the street, the acrid smell of fresh asphalt when a pothole has just been filled
· Roasted chestnuts from sidewalk stands in the fall
· Hot air from dry cleaners, sometimes with a chemical edge to it that is probably toxic
· A smell of rubble, plaster, and splintered wood heaped in dumpsters outside residences or shops undergoing renovation, their interiors, when glimpsed from the sidewalk, totally gutted and devastated
· Exhaust fumes from buses as they pull away from the curb
· In parks, the cloyingly sweet summer fragrance of Canada thistle and milkweed flowers, the soothing scent of a wild mint and, in the fall, a rich cidery tang from rotting apples scattered on the ground under apple trees
· When pavement is being replaced, a smell of wet cement
|Canada thistle, a fragrance that intoxicates.|
|Wet cement plus graffiti. The photographer wonders: vandalism|
or history in the making? Will it one day be another Pompeii?
Yet many smells escape me, for my sniffer isn’t the most efficient. So let’s consult an expert. A neuroscientist in town last spring to register the smells of a New York morning stood outside Grand Central Station during the morning rush hour and reported the following:
· A toasted onion bagel
· The “briny, salty, fishy” smell of the East River, delivered by the breeze
· A “really powdery, moist, kind of sweet smell” from steam rising from underground
And inside the terminal, where shops abound:
· High-end coffee (instead of the cheap coffee of the 1980s)
· Disinfectant from trains
· Brown-black shoe polish
· Cheap air freshener from a Town Car coming from a man’s suit
And outside again, going toward Bryant Park:
· Hot dogs
· The “sour, tangy, birdy smell of pigeons”
· Cigar smoke
|They're hard to get away from, but you don't have to feed them.|
There speaks a true expert, a scientist of smell. And recently, on a so-called Smellwalk in Brooklyn, participants who sniffed trash cans and doorways and even trees reported such smells as these:
· Acqua di Gio cologne from a European tourist
· Recently chewed gum in a trash can
· Cigarette smoke
· A marijuana joint
· Blended wheatgrass
But when the tour organizer, who has led walks to create Smellmaps of various European cities, was asked for the characteristic smell of New York, she reflected a moment, then announced, “A warm, musty smell that comes from the cellar.” Not, I confess, a smell that I have experienced.
Every so often an unusual smell – unusual for the city – arrives to spice our urban living. In April of this year New Yorkers awoke to a heady smell of windborne smoke whose source was easily located: a brush fire in New Jersey a good hundred miles away. And periodically, from 2005 to 2009, a mysterious maple-syrup-like aroma visited our nostrils, its source an enigma. Finally, in 2009, Mayor Bloomberg announced triumphantly that the probable source had been detected: fragrance-processing plants in New Jersey making use of fenugreek seed, a spice employed in this country more for industrial than culinary purposes. Not an unpleasant odor, but many New Yorkers were of the opinion that New Jersey should keep its smells to itself. (I shan’t chronicle the smells of northeastern New Jersey, which combines extensive marshland, a pig farm, and an oil refinery.)
The city of New York, then, teems with smells, some offensive and some not, though New Yorkers tend to emphasize the stinks. For perspective, let’s have a look at nineteenth-century New York and see how it compares.
By all accounts, nineteenth-century New York stank. Sidewalks were often piled high with kitchen slops, cinders, coal dust, broken cobblestones, and dumped merchandise, while the streets were rich in horse manure that, in rain, became a thick, ankle-deep slime that smelled like bad eggs dissolved in ammonia. And when dry weather prevailed, the thick traffic on streets like Broadway ground the manure into dust that blew up from the pavement as a piercing powder that covered the clothes of passersby, invaded their nostrils, stung their eyes, and even blew into their residences to assail the furniture and upholstery. And in any weather there might be a dead horse in the street. Only the arrival of the horseless carriage relieved the city of these pestilential smells.
And that wasn’t all. The middle class lived in handsome, well-scrubbed brownstones on Fifth and Madison Avenues and their side streets, well removed from the seedy West Side of the 30s and 40s, which housed the gas facilities that provided them with gaslight, and such urban amenities as stables, distilleries, hog pens, slaughterhouses, tanneries, swill milk dairies, breweries, and a varnish factory, all of which emitted their distinctive aromas. But if the wind was from the west, this symphony of smells could find its way eastward to the fashionable shops and restaurants and hotels on Broadway and to the brownstone neighborhoods as well.
So how did people cope? By holding handkerchiefs to their nose. Ladies, if they had to face these affronts to gentility, sprinkled flower scents on their handkerchiefs, behind their ears, and on perfumed sachets that they carried with them. But the best solution was to retreat into the sanctity of the home and guard it with vigilance, and so arose the cult of the parlor.
The parlor was the shrine and sanctuary of the affluent middle class, its refuge from the nasty smells – and nasty sounds and sights – of the turbulent city outside. It was a feast of velvet and brocade, a stage for the gleaming white keys of a pianoforte, an assemblage of bibelots on whatnots, its shaded sanctum scented with cedar and lavender and rose. Here one received callers of note, prominent among them the minister of one’s church. In such an atmosphere one could forget for a while the reek of manure-laden streets, a whiff of hog pens and distilleries, and clouds of eye-stinging dust. (More on the parlor in a future post.)
Another feature of nineteenth-century New York was a section of the city where no lady ever set foot, except to take a ferry or steamship: the waterfront. But that waterfront offered a unique assortment of smells, as its docks welcomed ships from every major port in the world. A stroll there brought to one’s nostrils an amazing sequence of aromas: fresh pineapple from a stand; sawn wood from a steam engine cutting up firewood; gas smells from a riverfront gas works; garbage smells from a mountain of refuse fed continually by a line of carts, while ragpickers crawled over the trash to scavenge bits of food, or shoes or scraps of metal to sell to the junk man; smelly hides being unloaded from a ship; hogsheads of tobacco ready to be shipped abroad; hints of tea, palm oil, and strange spicy aromas from crates and barrels being unloaded on docks serving the China, Australian, and African trade; a fine mist of flour as a grain elevator delivered flour from a spout to be weighed, bagged, and carted off; a smell of coal as workmen grimy with coal dust and sweat unloaded coal from a canal boat; and a smell of brine from an oyster market, and fish smells from a fish market. Such a roster of smells reveals the tremendous activity of the waterfront in those days, and what the city has lost commercially since, albeit with an improvement in relative tranquility and waterfront recreation.
|Ragpickers scavenging in a mountain of trash, 1866.|
Let’s return now to the smells of today and end by mentioning two less than enticing aromas imposed on us by those longtime friends of mine, the trees. An import from China, the gingko (Gingko biloba) is a common shade tree here with distinctive fan-shaped leaves that turn yellow in the fall. At the same time it bears its fruit, tawny or yellowish little balls that litter the ground, the smell of whose fleshy pulp has been likened to dog poop, an odiferous cheese, rancid butter, or vomit. If one endures the smell and if, wearing disposable gloves to prevent irritation to the hands, one removes the pulp, inside is a greenish nut that some consider tasty. Having endured the stink, cracked the shell, and fought through to the nut, I once tried it but found it uninteresting, not worth the ordeal required to harvest it. Furthermore, if consumed in quantity, it can be toxic. In the city the fallen nuts get crushed by pedestrians on the sidewalk, and people wonder where that offensive smell comes from. Yet up in the North End of Central Park I have seen Chinese ladies gathering the fruit on the ground, whether for culinary or medicinal purposes, I do not know, since Chinese tradition sanctions both. My conclusion: leave the gingko fruit to the Chinese ladies, who probably know what to do with it; only the hardy should mess with it.
|Fruit of the gingko.|
Wolfgang H. Wögerer
And if, strolling the city’s streets in spring, you should detect an odor that some have described as a mix of (ahem!) semen and rotting fish, though others just say semen, don’t assume some oversexed teenager has been active in the vicinity. Instead, look around and see if you don’t find one or several trees bearing quantities of little five-petaled white flowers that, if sniffed, prove to be the source of this wanton odor. Such is the callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), another import from Asia and the second commonest shade tree in the city, which puzzled me for years until I finally consulted the city and they identified it. I knew it only as a mystery tree with white flowers in the spring; I had never stuck my schnozzola into its blossoms to discover this surprising -- and for some, offensive – odor.
|Charming to look at ... until you sniff.|
Finally, to end on a more positive note, I’ll mention McNulty’s at 109 Christopher Street (yes, that street) in the West Village, which boasts of being the country’s leading purveyor of choice coffees and rare teas. Entering, you encounter the aura of a bygone era with sacks of coffee and chests of tea with obscure markings from faraway lands all around you, and even scales reminiscent of the nineteenth century. Above all, one’s sniffer is intoxicated by the mix of aromas: oolong and herbal and black and green teas from India and Kenya and Sri Lanka and China, and coffees from Indonesia and Hawaii and Jamaica and Costa Rica and Columbia and Uganda and Ethiopia and Yemen and – but why go on? A rare symphony of aromas, unique, unforgettable.
My Gauge of Estimation: Just devised, it’s self-explanatory. Very subjective; feel free to challenge or supplement it.
The Gauge of Estimation
My rating of the living creatures known to me; a purely personal judgment, riddled with prejudices, flexible, subject to change.
I admire (from most to much)
1. Activist American nuns (they’ve even gone to jail for their convictions)
3. Dalai Lama
4. Honeybees (industrious, well organized, essential as pollinators)
5. Doctors Without Borders (they have guts)
6. Teachers (minus a few bad apples; overscrutinized, underpaid)
7. Greenpeace (they have guts too)
8. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont
9. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
10. Jimmy Carter (a better career post-White House)
11. Immigrants (we need them; they work hard)
12. Organic farmers (ditto)
13. Spiders (they have a bad press, eat flies and mosquitoes; I never kill them)
14. Investigative journalists (fewer now, when we need more of them)
15. Salvation Army
16. Painted buntings (our most beautiful songbird, but I’ve never seen one)
17. Michelle Obama (I’d vote for her)
18. Snakes (U.S.; beautiful, harmless unless provoked)
19. Labor unions (to counterbalance corporations)
20. Bald eagles, falcons, hawks (fiercely beautiful)
21. NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association) (they fight a lonely fight, plead only for consensual relationships)
22. Apple (in spite of its faults; endlessly inventive, and I love my Mac)
Pending (I haven’t decided, may need more info; from hopeful to less hopeful)
1. Pope Francis
2. Mayor de Blasio
3. Chelsea (on her own at last; we’ll see)
4. Poets (poor things, so sensitive and so alone)
5. FBI (at least, not as bad as the CIA)
6. New York’s Finest (we need them, but …)
7. Bill (brilliant but at times stupid -- Monica, etc.)
8. Hillary (wants so much to be President)
I dislike (from much to most)
1. Sarah Palin (but keep her around for laughs)
2. Blue jays (the bullies of the bird world)
3. Worms (they serve a purpose in the biosphere, but…)
5. Mosquitoes (they love my blood)
6. Governor Andrew Cuomo (eliminated his own Commission to Investigate Corruption; in my eyes, a hack politician)
8. Justice Clarence Thomas (came up the hard way, but I believe Anita Hill)
9. Fundamentalists (they commit the sin of simplicity)
10. Bankers (the big guys, not the small fry; manipulative, irresponsible)
11. CIA (because…)
12. Terrorists (of all stripes; takes in more people than you may think)
13. Koch Brothers (one is bad enough, but two…!)
14. The tobacco industry (at least their lies are known)
15. The Tea Party crowd (partisanship first, the nation last)
16. NRA (National Rifle Association) (even nine-year-olds should shoot)
17. ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) (secretive, far-reaching; too often they write the laws our states adopt)
I hold in the utmost contempt (from much to most)
2. Telemarketers (recorded messages, incessant, stupid)
3. Dick Cheney (his finger in every dirty pie)
5. Monsanto (the company I love to hate; GMOs, etc., and their ex-execs infest our government!)
7. Congress (except for a few good souls, two of them noted above)
8. New York State Legislature (the lowest you can get)
Coming soon: Brownstone and brownstones (the material, the residence, the Victorian parlor). Then: Ralph Fasanella and his take on Joe McCarthy, the Rosenbergs, the Cold War, Vietnam, a Crucified Iceman, and so much more.
© 2014 Clifford Browder