Scents and Sensibility


True story. Artist friend from ’80s develops smack problem, solves it during several trips to Silver Hill (famous alumni: Truman Capote, Joan Kennedy, and, uh, better not say), begins earning huge money from painting, lapses on, of all things, cocaine. Granted, not the usual route— superdown to megastimulant— but that’s what’s fun and jaunty about drug dependency. It’s so . . . unpredictable.

Then, one night, after 14 months of sobriety, artist friend does a freeze at opening of gallery run by tiny little dealer with penchant for spike heels, younger lovers, and head-to-toe Prada. Soon enough is giving self hypodermic pokes of speedball concoctions, rubbing powdered drugs on genitalia, et cetera. With same methodical compulsiveness that makes artist’s work worth looking at, soon takes to snorting as though hardwired for the job. Upgrades, as habit-velocity accelerates, from little twin-chambered Hoover to Electrolux 2000. Becomes a creature so organically wedded to totalizing sensations of nasal excitement that might as well be truffle hound.

To this point, tale could be generic one from Naughty Decade (vide: Jean Michel Basquiat). As further proof, artist friend eventually sucks perhaps $100,000 into sinus cavity before concluding that day has come once more to get clean. Artist friend does so without $2000-a-week trips to the New Canaan countryside, using time-honored group support/group shame techniques of Narcotics Anonymous— a/k/a Star Search by those who’ve dined with newly sober junkies who juice themselves by naming famous names from “the rooms.”

Alas, by now, artist friend has seriously damaged interior structure of nose, has nearly perforated septum and has so deadened complex nerve receptors that cannot anymore be said to possess an appreciable sense of smell. Too bad for artist, since was always fond of quoting Henry Green’s famous remark that heaven is lying in bed on Sunday morning eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.

Which brings us to Crunch Fitness on morning of November 21. Artist friend by now a fitness junkie. Counts among roster of well-paid care-givers personal trainer, personal nutritionist, personal applied kinesiologist, acupuncturist, chiropractor, massage therapist, colonic irrigationist (never get ex-junkies started on their bowels), as well as cute 22-year-old manicurist at Bloomie Nails, who
tidies damaged cuticles and leaves artist with fingertips that would be the pride of an old-school garmento: buffed pink and with admirably white half-moons.

Artist friend now very picture of fastidious wholesomeness. Drinks 22 daily ounces of mixed organic vegetable juices, with wheat-grass chaser, but still cannot smell a rose or detect unpleasant odors. This might be thought a bonus by those in gym on this Monday morning, particularly group of Thai kickboxing aficionados who find themselves downwind of unbelievably pungent fart emitted by steroid-drenched, big-titted gym boy grunting out hack squats at the Smith machine.

Artist friend sits nearby, oblivious, arms hooked over separate apparatus, increasing already formidable size of biceps by doing preacher curls. Artist working low reps, high intensity,
using personal trainer’s help to force a pump. Is on third and final set when— attempting to throttle one extra repetition— tilts head downward, yanks bar up, and whacks self hard between the eyes with 80 pounds of chrome-plated steel. Then it happens, the miraculous olfactory version of the Eureka! moment when black-and-white Kansas becomes a Technicolor fairyland in The Wizard of Oz. Suddenly, for artist friend, New York is that different kind of world.

“When I’m walking around New York I’m always aware of the smells around me,” Andy Warhol— or whoever ghosted for him— wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again). Now, artist friend strolling about the city so acutely aware of smells that could be crazy protagonist of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: all nose, all revelation, all the time. “Seeing, hearing, touching, tasting are just not as powerful as smelling if you want your whole being to go back for a second to something,” as Warhol noted.

Whereas, say, August is locally a season of high-profile odors (ripening cabdriver urine, bum barf, doggie doo) that don’t necessarily call out to one’s inner being, late autumn is replete with subtler aromas reminiscent of the past. Maybe it’s only Edith Wharton’s past, but no matter. Test-driving the Lazarus nostrils one recent day, artist friend and self take a four-hour walk from the East Village to Midtown to discover if, as Andy Warhol also said, “Smell really is transporting.”

It is. We find, for example, the city awash in ubiquitous floury toasty smell of pizza; of ammonia on sidewalks; of yeasty bagels at Bagel Cafe; of anomalous meat lasagna at Kim’s Smoke Cafe (“Nicotine + Caffeine = Mentally Nutritious”); of sticky swampy barbecue sauce at Dallas BBQ; of onions and pierogis mixed somehow with woodsmoke at Veselka’s; of dusty oregano at Angelica’s Herbs, where a sign defies further precision in description by warning “No Note Taking Allowed”; of Kenya AA and Vanilla Almond and Ethiopian and Costa Rican and Honduran and Pumpkin Spice coffee at Porto Rico Importing Co. (established in 1907 and currently the hipsters’ provisioner of choice); of the
mummy’s-dust odor exhaled by old earth at excavation sites; of tanned-leather exhaled by Old Money­pretending seating at George Smith sofas ($11,000 for a six-footer); of Macanudos being used to colonize public space by a clueless bunghole with more money than taste; of aldehyde in massive cloud formations intoxicating the makeup groupies at Sephora, where an Envy-soaked salesman is spotted reaching into the
V-neck of his knockoff Gucci to squeeze a zit.

There is, everywhere, the scent of candles, New York having been transformed apparently into some vast ecclesiastical retailing temple: Flame of Desire, Glimmer of Nature, Light of Spirit, Brightness of Sky, Ray of Sunlight, Spark of Fire at Sephora; Diptyque Heliotrope, Foin Coupé, Bois Ciré, and Thé at Takashimaya; Casablanca Lily at Banana Republic to remind one of the idea of spring as imagined in the middle of winter and purchased and gift wrapped by late fall.

There is the unadorned paraffin smell of the nave at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where pilgrims light $1 candles and give wide berth to a homeless man sprawled in a pew and smelling of eons-old crotch funk. There is the vaguely cat’s-pee aroma of eucalyptus at the Union Square Greenmarket, always a sure sign of seasonal transition. There is, at Rockefeller Center, the merest whiff of 75-year-old, 73-foot-tall Norway Spruce from Richfield, Ohio, which, as 41-year-old patrol officer Tom Lake explains, “You can only really smell if you stand in just the right place.”

On blocks throughout the city there is the ubiquitous cloying reek of honey-roasted peanuts. And, by way of Proustian compensation, there is also— in a solitary brazier on the east side of Broadway between Spring and Prince streets— that loveliest and most indescribable of endangered urban aromas: the roasting chestnut. Artist friend, when coming to that one, stands stock still with eyes shut tight and drinks it in.