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iSmell–coming soon to a nose near you

When I was a kid, I loved to watch my father shave, the brush, the whip-cream soap, the razor, and most of all, Old Spice. The bottle alone, with its ocean blue galleon and red curlicue font and its peg-leg cap, was exotic. Some nights, once he was done shaving, he would pat my cheeks with his Old Spicy hands, and I would walk out of the bathroom feeling like a seafaring boy. Soon after, of course, I would go back to smelling like a boy. 

Then came seventh grade.

In second hour gym class my locker was next to Ronnie Fritz. After showers one day, once we were dressed for our next class, he started splashing stuff on his face.

“What is that?” I said.

“Cologne.”  He screwed the cap on the bottle and showed me. “It’s called Canoe.

Cologne. I thought it must be after-shave, only different. I was still a few years from shaving. But something told me I was ready for cologne.

“Lemme see that,” I said, leaning in for a whiff.

Junior high boys were already smelling up and down the hallways, with Hai Karate, with English Leather. Eddie Maurer wore Jade East. Ricky Burmeister and Mike Howe swore by Brut. Dave Marolf was a British Sterling man. 

“Peggy Bohnoff,” Ronnie Fritz said to me in the locker room, “loves Canoe.”

It didn’t smell like a canoe, which is probably good. It smelled like a floral disinfectant. I upended the bottle, wet an index finger, and daubed some on my jaw. Ronnie Fritz nodded encouragement, said I would be a girl magnet. I shook a few drops into my hand, rubbed Canoe on my cheeks, then a few more drops, and then a few more, applying it generously, luxuriously, all over my face.

We closed our lockers, tied our shoes, and went to third-hour class.

I lifted my hands to my face, sniffed at the air around me, feeling flammable.

It was social studies with Mrs. Smith, until 11:28; then lunch. My seat was in the right rear corner of the room. About five minutes into class, I realized I was too much in the Canoe. I tried to pay attention to what was what happening in class, but I all could do was picture fumes rising from my upper body, shimmering in the air around me, a toxic chemical aura. No one seemed to notice, but I was in agony. I had to do something. I couldn’t wait until lunch. I was asphyxiating myself. Finally I went to Mrs. Smith’s desk and asked to be excused to go the bathroom, where I pulled down lengths of brown paper towel, wetted them in the sink, and scrubbed my face, trying to erase the scent. I pumped foamy white soap from the dispenser and sozzled it around my palms, lathering my chin, cheeks, upper lip, then rinsed and regarded by red face in the mirror, trying to smell myself.

Back in class, a few minutes passed.  I lifted my hands to my face, sniffed at the air around me, feeling flammable. I reeked. I told myself: I will never do this again.

Certain days back then, when the wind came out of the northwest, you could smell Dow Chemical in my hometown.  The plant was eight miles up the road in Midland. It gave off an acrid smell, a chemical stench that surprised you every time. And the thing is, you couldn’t not smell Dow on those days. Driving through Midland, past rust-colored tanks, past switching stations and distillation units connected by endless intricate networks of green pipe and valves, you could close your eyes and unsee the industrial sprawl and the sick greenish air. But there was no escaping the odor molecules pinging across your olfactory receptors.

It is commonly thought that the human sense of smell is underwhelming, nowhere near as powerful and accurate as that of other creatures. Humans are sight-dominant, perhaps because we walk upright. We have noses, not snouts. D. C. McCullough, writing for The Guardian, takes the opposing view, observing that our sense of smell is both, he writes,
“instantaneous and highly specific and accurate.”  Odd, if true, because the language we use to describe scent is nothing if not minimal, even impoverished.  Smells good.  Smells bad.  Smells sweet, sour, floral, rotten… Yet smell scientists celebrate the human nose.  According to the Public Library of Science Publication for Biology, “Humans outperform the most sensitive measuring instruments. Test results indicate that humans are relatively good, perhaps even excellent, smellers.”

There are definitely super-smellers, those in the perfume industry, for example, and those in the food and wine industry.  Wine tasting, most oenologists will tell you, is 85 percent nose.  Their olfactory appraisal involves both the orthonasal route (the schnase) and the retronasal route (the olfactory apparatus in the back of the oral cavity). One of my wine-head friends tells me that after you taste a wine, you can’t scent it full-on again in that sitting.  “Do all your nose work first,” he says.

In Somm, the 2012 movie about four apprentice sommoliers preparing to take master exams, an individual lowers his nose to a glass of white wine, inhales, and delivers this bouquet profile: “On the nose this wine is clean, no obvious flaws. This wine has a moderate-plus intensity. This wine is youthful. It’s showing bruised aromas: bruised apple, bruised pear, bruised peach, honeysuckle, chamomile, lavender; (whiff) limestone, wet wool, hay, pistachio, tea.” All that? Really? Lavender and wet wool in the same glass?  While I’m skeptical and impatient with winespeak, I am also willing to defer to a good nose.  My wife will identify an ingredient in a complex dish immediately. She’ll smell and taste, turn to me, and say confidently and usually correctly, It’s tarragon, obviously.  One evening a friend, invited to our house for dinner, brought her prized dessert and invited us to guess her secret ingredient. She stumped me.  She stumped my wife.  Then our son smelled it and tasted. “Pear,” he said without a moment’s hesitation. Adding, “I hate pear.”

If you asked me, smell chemistry, as it pertains to the production of smells we sell and buy, has been a dismal fail.

For years, in the classroom I was subjected to a dizzying range of scents as I stood at the podium while fragrant students filed in, both men and women, redolent with manufactured odors—shampoos and conditioners, colognes and perfumes, lotions and body washes, deodorants—aggressive smells often applied in profusion, frequently to the point of bringing tears to my eyes. You could classify student scents: candy shop, flower shop, candle store, compost pile, with an occasional blast of ashtray. Smell posed a real occupational challenge. If you asked me, smell chemistry, as it pertains to the production of smells we sell and buy, has been a dismal fail.

And yet progress marches on.  Coming soon, I’m sure, to a cell phone near you: digital smell (hand). How long before we can access every imaginable fragrance on iSmell? What a world (sniff). Dude, smell this: it’s bacon!

Scientists have zeroed in on smell at the center of our galaxy. They’re out there looking for amino acids and the origin of life, and in a dust cloud they find ethyl formate, the chemical smell of raspberries. Closer to home, astronauts in orbit say that food has little or no smell, or taste, in the zero gravity zone.  And space itself, their noses tell them, when they bring the scent of it in on their space suits, smells like burnt steak, hot metal, or welding fumes.

Imagine life without smell.  If I were up there in orbit, feeling earthsick, I might want to open Google Scent (hand) and click on freshly cut grass (sniff) or burning leaves (sniff) or pumpkin pie. Or maybe (sniff) Old Spice.

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