Late last night in Manhattan people began noticing a sweet smell in the air. The mystery scent lasted into the early hours of this morning. About thirty-five people called the city’s 311information hotline.
This isn’t the first time it’s happened. Beginning Thursday night, October 27, 2005, a sweet, maple syrup-like smell was noticeable in northern New Jersey, all over Manhattan, and into Brooklyn and parts of Staten Island. Lots of people blogged about it as it happened. I got a good snort of it the next morning here in Montclair, NJ.
The headline writers at Breitbart.com played it straight: “Strong, Sweet Smell Reported in Manhattan.” The New York Times, however, went cutesy tongue-in-cheek ironic: “Good Smell Perplexes New Yorkers.”
In a followup story, “Good Smell Vanishes, But It Leaves Air of Mystery,” the Times quoted the police commissioner and the mayor as saying the smell was not dangerous; it then spent eight hundred words on inane man-on-the-street interviews with a labor organizer, a Canadian diplomat, a chocolate shop owner, and a free-lance camera man.
The mysterious sweet smell returned to New Jersey on consecutive Thursdays in December: the 8th and 15th. On January 5, 2006, the Times waddled in with a rambling, inconclusive report which opened with cracks about smelly New Jersey and ended with a gnomic, postmodern twitting of rubes who think the war on terror is real:
Ms. Collins, the paralegal, said she had thought she might be going crazy when she first smelled the odor in October, but realized other people outside her building were talking about it. “I thought: ‘This is it. The terrorists are going to get us with the maple syrup smell.’”
A year later, on January 8, 2007, New York City was blanketed by a stinky, sulphur-like odor reminiscent of the warning agent in natural gas. The FDNY got about 400 phone calls, Con Ed around 700. The Mayor said the smell was not harmful; others helpfully pointed fingers at New Jersey. The headline in the next day’s Post: “N.J.’s P.U. Ripens Apple; Belching Bog Blamed For Citywide Gas Stink.”
Two weeks later, the Times ran an idiotic opinion piece by Luca Turin, “What You Can’t Smell Will Kill You.” Taking his lead from the paper’s dismissive news coverage, Turin opened cutesy:
Now that the mystery smells of Manhattan have abated, are you still wondering whether the Grim Reaper’s cologne will smell like maple syrup or rotten eggs when he comes for you?“Don’t worry” is easy advice to New Yorkers when your dateline is London, England. But the nine hundred words of Turin’s gaseous essay aren’t reassuring. In classic Timesian fashion, he stokes reader’s anxiety about things they have no control over and which they can’t even detect—odorless carbon monoxide and the odorless poison sarin.
Don’t worry, because here’s the thing: the more powerful the stench, the less likely it is to do harm.
He ends on a note of faux reassurance:
So relax if you can, and remember that a widespread stench with no obvious source means a powerfully smelly molecule is in the air. If so, a little goes a long way, and a little can do no harm.
No one would be interested in wind patterns that might diffuse an airborne chemical or biological agent over Manhattan. And no one would devise a fiendishly simple test of same by releasing a innocent-smelling compound and timing its olfactory arrival at various points throughout the city. That’s as silly as thinking “the terrorists are going to get us with the maple syrup smell.”
Another year goes by, and on January 6, 2008, a pungent chemical- or petroleum-like odor covers Ocean, Gloucester and Salem Counties in southern New Jersey. As people phone in reports of the odor, it becomes clear that it moved in from the west in a plume-like fashion. Yet there is no final determination of the nature or source of the smell.
Exactly one year later we arrive at last night’s recurrence of the sweet smell. The Times plays the headline straight—“Mysterious Sweet Smell From 2005 Returns to Manhattan”—but reporter Trymaine Lee is dismissive of any terrorism angle.
Some have theorized that the smell came from New Jersey. Others theorized that it was generated by a candy factory in Manhattan. There were also fears that the odor was linked to an act of terrorism.
So according to the Times, “it came from New Jersey” and “it came from a Manhattan candy factory” are theories, but links to terrorism are merely “fears.”
Perhaps there is nothing to worry about—just some nutty Willy Wonka in a Manhattan candy factory that ace journalist Trymaine Lee is too lazy to locate. Or something over there in Jersey (not our problem!). Then again, malicious intent can arrive under fragrant cover. Maybe it’s time to wake up and smell the maple syrup.