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Uncommon Scents

May 8, 2009 | by Melanie Chartoff

Certain smells used to bring back memories. But with the world now overrun with false fragrances I fear I will no longer remember anything.

I felt an enormous sense of peace sitting in shul last Saturday. I breathed easily, my heart leaping open to the events around me. Reasons were myriad. One, I was witnessing the Bar Mitzvah of a nice neighborhood boy from whom I'd been buying God knows what magazines for years mostly to have fun with him as he migrated door to door. Two, there was so much love in the room, especially when Josh's Mom lost the power of speech amidst her tears as she spoke of the low voiced manhood that suddenly shouted out when Josh's biological clock struck 13. We were all moved by her natural expression of this natural phenomenon.

But third and mainly, I breathed easily because the modest shul had no overpowering fragrance. No artificial aromatic additives assaulted me upon entrance, no inhalants of heavy incense assailed my sensitivity in this sacred space. I have an overly acute sense of smell, after having been bereft of it for a scary year
(or "smeft," as I named it here. And the overdone scent of shame hangs so heavy in most buildings I enter of late, that I fear for our olfactory sensibilities.

For example, I ran to get wrapping paper from the brand new big box store in the hood. As I walked out of its parking lot into the speedy elevator I was spewed from the bowels of the building into the grand opening of our Bedroom Bathroom and Besmelled Emporium. A wave of artificiality, a tsunami of smell, came washing over my innocent head.

I was spewed into the bowels of the grand opening of the Bedroom Bathroom and Besmelled Emporium.

My first preternatural instinct was to pull my sweater over my face, giving me a tortoise like demeanor as I gasped through cashmere. I'd never known the true purpose of a turtleneck until now. Since the wrapping paper I wanted for Josh's book of mythology was two floors, two escalators away, I made a beeline for it. If I didn't breathe too much, this stench of cloned cloves or eau de artificial apples or whatever the hell it was, wouldn't clog my lungs with unnecessary particulate matter.

"Where is the wrapping paper?" I clutched a B B & B worker feverishly. "I'm allergic to the scent of your store."

"Oh, that's a ways away -- cross through epicurean flavored soaps, take a right at scented candles, take a left at fake stenched flowers... (hearing me hyperventilating)...I'd better take you," he said.

"Let's run!" I said. And we did. I worried that he might keel over from breathing hard, but he seemed inured to nasal insult. "Have they implanted nasal filters in the workers?" I wondered to myself. "Are there any face masks on the way?" I asked aloud.

He grabbed a package, I ripped one out and put it over my sweater face, and we skidded to a halt in the small unscented wrapping paper section. I grabbed a suitably masculine print for the boy becoming a man and the attendant hurled me up the bullet elevator toward the cash register, where I threw down cash and fled that potpourri of putridity as fast as I could go, breathing anew in the gas fume infested parking lot. Never again.

The previous week I'd gone to my local New Age Bookstore, only to flee the frankincense and myrrh stench of oversell of the newage (sounds like sewage) within. The day before, I went to a fine hotel in Beverly Hills to see an old college chum, but had to leave the lobby, so pungent was the fake fir fragrance in the face of no forests in view (very disorienting), and meet her in the coffee shop, where I happily inhaled the cleansing scents of beans and cinnamon. Now I'm all for the smell of fresh baked things in their appropriate place and time, especially homemade potato latkes on Chanukah, or cinnamon rugelach anytime really. But I wouldn't want those smells used as cover up in the restrooms. Human scents can't be as malignantly malodorous as a misplaced miasma of deception.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm all for sanitation, keeping one's unpleasantries to oneself, closed sewer systems, deep-sixing the dead. But, this nation is so ashamed of its healthy, freshness. They've even taken away the real smell of fresh flowers. Roses are all about appearance now, and one has to buy a bottle of fake rose scent to remember what they were really like. Cover up colognes, perfumes, deodorants, toiletries, anti-bacterial soaps cost this nation $50 billion a year. Folks cleanse themselves, then pour stuff all over themselves. Most homeowners require three bathrooms for cover up/ cleanliness rituals.

What is the problem?! I personally like to know how a space or a person really smells to assess its safety for my approach or entry. I even like to know how I smell. Yes. Sometimes, I'll take a left in my low emission Prius and get a quick whiff of the real me and revel. I like to inhale my pillows to get a sense of my true presence. I'm vain about my musk. I exude my scent aggressively, arrogantly, constantly, egocentric about my aroma. I bathe daily, but never scrubadub like I'm radioactive. I want to exist, not as a room deodorant, but as a natural human. Maybe I should apply for carbon credits! But some women - I've had to leave theaters, so strong was the pungency of Poison (no misnomer there!) on the dame next to me. There's hygiene, then there's smellochondria.

So as I waited in a long line of perfume free well wishers to congratulate Josh, I admired the sheer, untainted, odor free self-confidence of this hall of worship, with no obstruction to the inhalation of the pure scent of spirit.

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