A man committed suicide in my apartment building two weeks ago. They retrieved his body last Tuesday afternoon, about 10 days after he killed himself. Tuesday was a hot and humid day, and the smell was filling the building. The police came and brought fans and propped doors open to clear the air, and by the evening the smell was blown out of the building and into the neighborhood – broken up into small enough molecules to not be particularly noticed by anyone. It had been getting really bad in the apartment.
Last Sunday, two days before they found his body, my building manager posted a note on the door to the apartment saying he would go through everyone’s apartments on Friday in order to find the “source of the odor that has been bothering residents.” I live on the third floor of the building, and the man had lived on the first floor, and the smell hadn’t invaded my floor much, until that weekend. That weekend the smell got really loud.
My building is always full of such strange and curious smells, which I, sometimes reluctantly, process and think about throughout the day. There’s nearly forty apartments in here, and over forty people are cooking dinners, having sex & farting, and then attempting to shower their days away, which coats them with a brand new cloak of scent. The air smells busy in here. It used to be even more complex, but Management God recently blessed us with new carpeting in the hallway, and the old smell of “confused & rotting cherries mixed with human filth” was replaced with “new carpet smell!” I filed away “new carpet smell!” in my brain, simply as that, because I haven’t had many encounters with fresh carpet, and had never remarked on it’s aroma. It was a smell to replace the creepy smell of poorly-managed apartment carpet, and it’s sterile aroma was welcome to my nose.
But on that hot Tuesday, the whole apartment reeked of death. Like new carpet, I hadn’t smelled a neglected dead human before. A friend asked me to describe the smell to him, and the only words I could use to describe it were “hot garbage,” which feels so trite and I’m not satisfied with, but it’s all that came to me. However, I know that if I ever smelled it again, I would immediately recognize it. It’s one of those smells that clings to you. It’s a sad smell to have filed away. You hope you won’t smell it again, but quite likely will.
I’m sorry to linger on something so tragic and disturbing as the smell of death. Smells have become really important to me, and I try to treat my nostrils as a second pair of eyes (so to speak, since we can sometimes only discuss the importance of a sense by relating it to how much we trust our sight). I realized, after his suicide, that I wanted to spend some time writing about how smells have been, and are, important to how I live and understand the world.
Being bipedal, we interact with the world primarily with our eyes, and secondly with our ears. We stand on two legs and stare at the world, instead of hovering our faces above the ground and following our noses. We describe scenes by how they looked to us. We look at pictures of people we like. We spend thousands of dollars to correct our vision, and protect our eyes with sunglasses. We make movies with beautiful landscapes, and dream of vacations to places in order to “see the sights.” We can send people to prison for the rest of their lives based on “eye-witness accounts.” We don’t trust the human sense of smell enough to use a “nose-witness” account in a trial, but we would use quadpedal dogs and their amazing noses to sniff out drugs, or track down runaways (sidebar: apparently there are dogs that can detect cancer by smell.) Smell is certainly treated as less important to the “human experience.” You can still drive a car, work most jobs, and go about your life mostly unscathed if for some reason your sense of smell is gone; blindness and deafness are treated as disabilities.
When I was 19, I was working in coffee shops. I wanted to become a coffee-wizard, and all the coffee-wizards I knew were constantly sticking their noses into everything.
I made a conscious decision to start narrating & categorizing all the smells I encountered. Whether it was the beans, dry coffee grounds, wet coffee grounds, hot milk, cold milk, the inside of a dirty blender – I would smell it and try to remember it’s smell. I don’t really care now about becoming a coffee-wizard, but when I started cooking, smells became even more important. Some smells make you want to eat, some make you want to shower, some scream “FIRE!” at you, and some smells wander in from the parking lot, reek of cologne, and seem to linger far longer than you’d like.
I feel like I have a pretty good nose on me now. It has taken a lot of work, and I still have a lot of things to smell and develop faster recall. When I first started working at beezy’s, however, I was fooling myself into thinking I had a good sniffer. My boss had a good sniffer, and it would scare me sometimes (in a fun way). One epic time, she ran back into the kitchen from the basement because she could “smell the noodles sticking to the bottom of the pot.” Allow me to reiterate: FROM THE BASEMENT. I probably told her she was possessed by demons, and she probably ignored me as she grabbed a spatula to scrape off the noodles from the bottom of the pot.
I think people ignore most of the smells they encounter, or at least they don’t stop and allow them to be a source of orientation. We’re not really trained to be aware of our noses, as much as we are for our eyes & ears. We lose a lot of knowledge of the world if we don’t narrate our smells. We’ll have a narrow understanding of our settings if we don’t map the smells that emanate from the corners of our houses.
Since I’m going off to culinary school, they’re going to be drilling the phrase “mise en place” into my brain, which means “putting in place.” Essentially it means your set-up, either for a recipe or for service. It’s also the source for some pretty douchey tattoos that culinary students have a propensity to get.
Every tool & ingredient you use WILL have a spot, and if you don’t intentionally give it a place, you’re not in charge of your own environment. Your environment will be controlling you, and you’ll lose speed, composure, and make a lot of mistakes. I like to have a smell mise en place when I’m cooking in the kitchen. There’s the smell of bacon grease coming from the oven shelf, the smell of chorizo climbing out of the steam well, the smell of onions cooking in butter over on the stove, and the smell of cookies that need to come out of the oven right fucking now, in fact, right fucking 2 minutes ago. If smells are in their places, then you can notice a change. You can smell when something really needs to be stirred, when a burrito needs to get flipped to another side, or that the dishes need to be restacked, because you can smell the mustard from the bowl used to make egg salad travelling further than you’d like.
If you’re sensitive to smells, you can sound a lot like a psychic, too – like my boss knowing that the noodles were sticking. Or knowing that somebody has walked into the room before you can see them. There are times somebody will come into my mind, and I’ll be thinking about them, just to turn around and see that they have walked into the restaurant. Unscientifically, I’m going to say that it’s probably because I was smelling them.
This did happen to me once, and I know that I specifically smelled them. There’s a gate at the restaurant that comes between the walk-in and the back door to the restaurant. It was in the morning and we hadn’t opened up yet, so the gate was locked and I couldn’t see the back door very well. As I was rushing out to the walk-in, I noticed a smell, and immediately I associated it with the smell of a guy I’d been dating. And by “dating,” I mean we had hung out about 3 times. I’d been in his apartment once, and I hadn’t really taken a smell inventory of him yet. It was a vague smell (not like a cologne or anything specific like that), but it unmistakably made me think of him, so I went with it.
I walked back into the restaurant, and looked out the window into the parking lot, and saw him half-way across the lot. He had tried to stop by to say hi, saw that we weren’t open yet and turned around. I ran out to the parking lot to stop him, and say hello.
“Whoa!” He said. “I didn’t see you in there! How did you know I was out here?”
“Well…this is going to sound weird. But I smelled you.”
I think he wasn’t very impressed, and mostly kind of insulted. Obviously, that guy didn’t work out. I would have been impressed if someone could detect my presence by smelling me (once again, I am my own perfect lover.)
Lovers become very close with each other’s smells. The smell of Abercrombie cologne takes me back to the excitement of my first boyfriend when I was 14.( He was so classy.) The mixture of Polar Ice gum and cigarettes makes me think of my friend Larry, when we attempted to date each other. I can smell an old love-of-my-life every time I get my clothes dry-cleaned. That’s a weird one I haven’t figured out yet, since he doesn’t ever get his stuff dry-cleaned.
I had the pleasure of eavesdropping on a very sweet conversation between two of my guyfriends, who were both spending time away from their respective partners. They were talking about how hard it was to get used to having the bed be empty, and one of them suggested that trading pillows might make it easier to have your lover out of town.
“It’d be nice to still be able to smell them.” He said. The other guy heartily agreed, having traded pillows before with his girlfriend, and said “Yeah, that makes it a LOT easier.”
Anyone can vastly improve their sense of smell just by talking about what you’re smelling. When you smell something, know that it’s coming from something and going somewhere else, even if it seems boring. Smell a whiff o’ arm pit? Somebody might be waiting for a high-five behind you, and you don’t need to be a prick about it.
Smells inform you, remind you, and also change you. Smelling a new smell gives you a new way to talk, and a new way to understand. It can be happy, and it can also be traumatic.
I’ve had a pretty difficult time processing my neighbor’s suicide. I’m pretty sure it was the old man who would walk to the bus stop at the same time in the morning as I would walk to work. I haven’t seen him in awhile. I liked him. I liked having a familiar face walking in the fading darkness every morning. He wore a big hat, and would carry plastic bags around his belt. He would fill the bags with abandoned pieces of plastic & items other people called garbage. He would stop to pick up this one church’s recycling containers that would blow into the street all the time.
I wanted to know for sure if it was him or not, since I was pretty sure the apartment they were pulling the body out of was his – but one of the building managers told me it “wasn’t his place to tell me who it was.” I didn’t want to be in the way and “nosy” (though it’s hard to not be nosy with the smell of death emanating), so I left it at that. I’m not too happy that I’m just going to have to wait to see the man walking to the bus stop in the morning in order to confirm whether or not it was him.
Suicide sucks. It sucks that a person lived a life full of decisions which felt very important, made one last decision, and then be found because the smell of his body rotting for a week and a half was growing too pervasive to put off until Friday when Ethan was going to go through all the apartments. I would like anyone’s death to happen different than that. I want a better way to deal with death when it happens, and a world where life can be more appreciated by those around you. I don’t think anyone in my building really wants to chat about what happened, and I certainly don’t want to force more sadness on anyone.
But for over a week, we all lived in his smell together. It was there to greet us in the hallway everyday, as if questioning whether or not anyone was going to investigate it further, or just allow it to grow. It was a smell that marked a change in an animal. It was a smell that marked the end of certain organisms, and the ushering in of others. It was the smell of death, and a new entry into my life’s smell bank.