Smell Well

In the car yesterday, I detected an unmistakable fragrance—Eau de WD-40.

We have a fickle latch on the door from the garage into our house. Twice this past week I turned the key in the lock and felt the mechanism go click, then stick. Jiggle the knob all you want. There’s no opening the door. I will eventually replace it, but so far I’ve let myself in through another door and enjoyed fixing it.

Take it apart and put it back together. That’s my standard repair protocol. If I take something apart and can’t put it back together, well, clearly the stupid thing is busted. If I can put it back together and it still doesn’t work, there is a measure of success. I did no harm. But if I can actually make something work, I am the man. Or in gender-neutral parlance, I am the person. Yesterday, standing in the mudroom, I was the person. An efficacious repair person who knows mechanical devices often resume smooth function when treated with that mysterious substance, that fragrant oily elixir, WD-40.

I must have got some on me. A sweet scent, a personly—no, a manly scent—I wore with pride.

Odd. I am not now, nor have I never ever been, a fragrant man.

Like most kids, watching my father shave, I was mesmerized by the rite and transported by the Old Spice he slapped on his shiny cheeks and jaw. 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 a seafaring boy.

Then came seventh grade. In second hour gym class my locker was next to Ronnie Fritz. After showers one day we were dressing for our next class. He started splashing stuff on his face.

“What’s that?” I said.

“Cologne.” He screwed the cap on the bottle and showed me. Canoe.

Cologne, I guessed, was like after-shave, only different. I was still a few years from shaving. But something told me I was ready for cologne.

“Let’s see,” I said.

Junior high boys were 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 says she loves Canoe,” Ronnie said.

It did not smell like a canoe, which is probably good. It smelled like a floral disinfectant. I wet an index finger and daubed some on my jaw. Ronnie 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 class.

It was social studies with Mrs. Smith, until 11:28; then lunch. I sat 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 going on, but I all could picture was fumes rising from my upper body, shimmering in the air around me, a toxic chemical aura. I looked around. No one seemed to notice, but I was in agony. 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 in my hometown. The chemical plant was eight miles up the road in Midland. It gave off an acrid smell, a chemical stench that surprised you every time, much like, years later, the smell of wet tobacco pervading the air in Durham, North Carolina, took me by surprise. 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 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 contrary position, observing that our sense of smell is both instantaneous and “highly specific, and accurate, not unlike the spectroscope, a scientific instrument, which can faultlessly identify atoms inside and the molecules they make up by measuring molecular vibrations.” 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 PLOS Biology, “Humans outperform the most sensitive measuring instruments such as the gas chromatograph. These results indicate that humans are not poor smellers (a condition technically called microsmats), but rather are relatively good, perhaps even excellent, smellers (macrosmats).”

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, as it were, schnase) and the retronasal route (the olfactory apparatus in the back of the oral cavity). One of my wine-head friends tells me after you taste a wine, you can’t scent it full-on again in that sitting. “Do all your nose work first,” he says. (If he is right, this is the second reason I would never want to taste WD-40.)

In Somm, the 2012 movie about four 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, slight botrytis, 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 my wife and me. Then our son smelled it and tasted. “Pear,” he said without a moment’s hesitation. Adding, “I hate pear.”

I don’t know if I’m microsmat or macrosmat as much as, in given situations, like my son, antismat.

In high school and college I briefly flirted again with fragrance. This time it was musk. Men wore it, women wore it, the scent seemed elemental, earthy, and powerful. Maybe, I thought, if I could grow a mustache, I could wear musk and not feel like a complete fool. But the more I smelled it, the more it struck me as too powerful, so overwhelming I would be back in the canoe, totally conspicuously smelly.

For years 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, to a cell phone near you: digital smell. How long before we can access every imaginable fragrance on iSmell? What a world. Dude, smell this: 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 food has little or no smell or taste in the zero gravity zone. Space, 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, feeling earthsick, I might want to open Google Scent and click on freshly cut grass or burning leaves or pumpkin pie. Or maybe Old Spice.



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