Jan 12, 2024

Scents and Sensibility, or Smelling It Like It Is

Hoping there’s no after-shave in the afterlife

By Ed Goldman

We had a waiter at lunch the other day who was either on the payroll of Febreze, the room freshener, or was wearing slacks lined with Cling Free, the fabric softening sheet that prevents clothes from adhering to each other in the dryer. (Theoretically, anyway. I once got laughed out of my high school locker room when I walked into the showers naked except for the argyle sock sticking to my lower back. Given that I was au naturel, maybe I shouldn’t blame the sock for the resultant laughter.)

Then there was the waiter a year or two ago who’d apparently bathed in or fallen into a vat of Rosewater. This can be an overpoweringly putrid smell unless it’s permeating the air in a rose garden.

Edgy Cartoon

Reek in review

And don’t get me started on car salesmen who use enough Jade East after-shave to gag anyone within 10 feet of their pagoda. You’re probably wondering why I was buying a car in a pagoda but I haven’t the time to explain it. Nor the will, frankly.

Why have scents without sensibility begun to dominate our nostrils in the most unlikely of venues? Context counts. When we’re dining, we want to smell the food (even if the aroma is piped in, which it was in a restaurant I used to frequent). And when we go to an auto dealership, we may be looking for transportation but also for the experience of test-driving something with that well-named “new-car smell.” We’re not in search of a car with “old-salesman smell.” And especially not “old-salesman-redolent-of-the-mysterious-Orient.”

There was a little kiosk in a downtown Sacramento mall for a few years that baked and sold cookies. From the moment you walked in you could smell the cookies, at the far end of the building, and it lured you there with the olfactory equivalent of a snake charmer’s pungi. (A pungi is the little gourd on which the charmer plays a seductive tune. For reference, see some undoubtedly racist animated cartoons of the 1940s.) 

Well, one day the owners decided they were doing so well they opened a second kiosk—but this time in the parking lot of a suburban mall, not indoors. It folded within a year—because there were too many other smells in the parking lot preventing your being seduced by the scent of vanilla and dough working as a well-oiled team.

I have to admit that all of these encounters proved preferable to the one I had on my first trip to Europe in 1983. Within an hour of leaving the airport, I was in a Paris art museum. It was a horribly humid August day. The museum lacked air conditioning and the majority of patrons lacked antiperspirants. 

To top it off, this was before smoking bans began going into effect in Europe, considerably after they did in the U.S. The total effect was like being trapped in an enormous smog-filled armpit—or so I imagined, not having availed myself of that experience (and to be honest, not questing to then, now or in the conceivable future). 

Looking for a Great Gift?

Every painting and sculpture I looked at made me slightly queasy—jet lag was probably playing a supporting role—and I nearly fainted at the postcard display. The cards were on a vertical turnstile and a malevolent child in short pants and a Buster Brown haircut kept spinning the turnstile because, well, he could. I slammed my hand into the device to stop it which made the anti-Christ, I mean, little boy, burst into tears.

That aroused the attention of his mother, who, despite the language barrier, I understood was swearing at me, possibly in Lithuanian. I found this out by asking a guard afterward if he knew what šunsnukis and pavainikis meant. And he said—with a delightful French accent, mind you, which made it all worthwhile— “Lithuanian Bastard.” 

I’ve since wondered if he was actually calling me a Lithuanian bastard. That would have really stunk.

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).