Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Olfactory pleasures lost in the smoke of time

They say that no sense is more evocative or emotionally tied than olfactory, and I believe this.  I talk perhaps more than people prefer about perfumes, but a beautiful fragrance can be a talisman against all the nasty crap the world would serve you up in your day to day.

When Wet Ones came out in the 1970s, I remember they had a nice-but-not-overpowering lemony scent-- I'd love to smell that one more time-- it was one of the best fragrances of a cleaning product I've ever smelled. 

Like any other trend-based commodity, industrial scents imbued into household products like cleansers tend to follow some continuum of what is popular in taste for fragrances/perfumes.  We are in a rather insipid fruity/floral ring of the Inferno at present.  All that stuff meant to have marine accords evocative of fresh ocean spray just smell bad to me, so I can avoid that entire range of the candle aisle, too.  I like resins like amber and myrrh, and musk and sandalwood and patchouli is more glorious and varied than you may perhaps realize.  But, again, florals and fruits are everywhere.  Today, the chypree and fougere fragrances of yore smell like "old lady" and "old man" to a lot of young people.  I hope I get to hear today's crop of young adults recoil with horror when future youngsters refer to their fruity/florals as smelling "old."  Yup: it's all a cycle.  Anyway, the marine stuff is unpleasant to me, and it's in a lot of laundry detergent now.

But that is just me-- sea water accords in perfume may smell like heaven to you, in which case, good on you!  It SHOULD be deeply personal.

I feel a twinge of nostalgia for some things I know I'll never smell again.  When I was a kid, one of my vaccinations was something (foul to me at that moment) that was put on a sugar cube, but the smell was strange and unlike anything before or since, and the scent was not unpleasant to me. I feel just on the verge of remembering it, like strands of smoke you can see but never grasp.  It's not sad, just odd.

If you think about it, isn't there something so pleasing and comforting about the sheer un-changing nature of the smell of alcohol swabs on your skin before getting a shot?  No, the shot isn't pleasant, but we feel like we know what we're getting, and that we can rely on this product that's cleaning the area, because we can tell it's the same thing it's always been-- it has that smell.

For me, the undisputed KING of gone-forever smells is leaded gasoline.  Yes, I know it was bad for you to breathe, but when I started driving in the early 80s, it was not entirely a chore to pump my own gas into my car.  I wasn't hunkered down over the pump handle and trying to suck up as much fumes as possible, but the smell was rather delicious to me.

To complement the king, the Queen of toxic odors was the (methyl alcohol?) ditto fluid used in those lovely mimeograph machines.  I loved the feel of the cool, wet paper in stacks fresh from printing and I'd always volunteer to help hand them out.  That purple ink was lovely, too. Probably killed a few brain cells, there.  I never sniffed glue or paint or anything, and these were just mere passing whiffs, but they are cemented for a moment for me, and I'd love to have a little smell-file where I could just call them up and remember. Maybe a scratch n sniff?

Odd experience-- I went to grade school in Marion, Arkansas, and the cafeteria made a rather nice roll for our meals at lunch.  Many years later, I was in Belgium and walking next to a primary school, I smelled bread baking that smelled identical.  It was mesmerizing and a little treat to remember, even if I wasn't destined to taste it again.

What smells do you remember and miss, or abhor and are glad they are gone?


Bob said...

A creosote works. There was one off of 39th Ave. in Gainesville, Florida when I was growing up. Creosote is a carcinogen, so it's not readily available any more, but the sweet pine odor of the creosote being processed was wonderful.

On the other hand, I hope I never have to smell the sulfurous reek of a paper mill ever again. Gah.

Haven't smelled Pledge spray furniture polish since I was in technical school in the Navy, when we used it on our dorm floors before inspections. It made the floors shiny, but also so slippery that people would fall on their ass when walking on them.

Dentist's offices used to have a distinctive smell.

A barbecue restaurant. Most open pit BBQ places have been replaced by restaurants with electric or gas smokers, so the hickory smoke smell of a BBQ restaurant is rare these days.

Jess said...

The smell of burning leaves will return me to Thanksgiving at my grandparents, with my grandfather puttering around his garden in the crisp morning air.

Anonymous said...

I miss the smell of burning leaves in the fall.
Leaves in black plastic bags just don't smell the same.

Have always liked the smell of Hoppe's No. 9. And smokeless powder
burnt on a rifle range, preferably by
a lot of big bore pistols (think
bowling pin match) or a covey of Garand's M1 As, and a few AR15s
all going off at once.

"Commence Firing!"

Buck said...

What smells do I miss? Burning leaves in Fall, by far. And, apropos o' the subject, I miss the smell of Japan. I have a theory that every country has its own unique odor (e.g., like walking by a boulangerie in Paris) and Japan's odor fascinated me. You could blindfold me and set me down anywhere in urban Nippon and I'd know where I was, immediately.

Phssthpok said...

Anise Oil from Grandpa's old fishing tackle box.

Oiled Canvas from the old wall-tent.

The distinctively sharp blend of motor oil and sun-baked vinyl and leather of a 60's/70's British sports car (specifically the TR4 and TR6 my father owned).

The ever so faint lingerings of smoke in my grandparents kitchen despite having gotten rid of the wood cook-stove decades before I was even born.

Tass said...

the smell from my grandfather's wood shop....something about the years of sawdust collecting in the corners and on the dirt floor take me to a happy place!

And for some reason I miss the smell of Dippity Doo...

phlegmfatale said...

Bob - Creosote - yes! The small always makes me think of Shelby Forest in Memphis, always.

Wow - Burning leaves -- recurring theme! Lovely.

Tass-- now I'm longing to smell some Dippity Doo!

On a Wing and a Whim said...

Mmmm, burning leaves. Fall leaves in general, with that crispness and that almost slightly musty undertone...

I miss, deeply and dearly, the scent of clean sub-arctic summer air, lightly fragranced with aspen and birch and wildflowers, with an underbite of the wind having started by coming off a glacier. That faint smell of snow in summer hits me with a small sharp fist of homesickness right in the heart.

homebru said...

In my youth, sugar cubes were infused with polio vaccine to reduce children's tantrums about shots.

And in my time in Japan, the smell was that of fields fertilized with a thousand years of human night soil. OK, also the current open sewer ditches alongside the roads outside town.

pax said...

Wet mimeograph papers get me, too.

Another smell I miss from childhood: the way your sneakers smell after wading in the creek catching tadpoles, musty and wet and somehow green. (I'm not sure what other word I would use. They smelled green.)

The smell of the ocean on the fishing docks: tangy salt air, fish and other sea life, fresh blood and faint decay, warm creosote from the pilings, engine oil and boat fuel.

High mountain campsites in late summer: wood smoke, frying bacon, someone's barbecue cooking burgers or steaks, hot canvas tent, pine woods, faint tinge of wild flowers and the smell of icy cold glacier melt-water from the creek as it rushes down the mountain.