Saturday, August 25, 2012

American Smellscapes: A Fresh Take on Philadelphia

In the new September issue of Philadelphia Magazine, editor Christine Speer Lejune gives readers a tour of the local smellscape, ranging from the Schuylkill River to Center City to the Tinicum Marsh. She describes herself as “smell-aware” and I’m inclined to agree.
. . . there are also notes that seem to be uniquely Philadelphian, at least in combination: hot scrapple and Italian meats and horse droppings that get stuck between old cobblestones.
Nice. I especially liked the “onion-grease bouquet of cheesesteak.”

Along the way she teams up with a lady from the Philadelphia Water Department to identify the source of a longstanding diaperish malodor at 20th and Chestnut. They find it emerging from one of the city’s 76,000 sewer openings. [Dude!—Ed.] As they are, uh, savoring the streetcorner stench, a light bulb goes on:
That’s when it strikes me that people in a city are linked by shared olfactory experiences, like members of a family who know the aroma of Nana’s red gravy. Sometimes this shared experience is warm and magical (notice, in the first days of spring, all the shared smiles in Rittenhouse Square); sometimes, as at my sewer, it’s oddly intimate, almost embarrassing—“like our city farted,” as one colleague puts it, poetically. I wonder for a minute about the level of intimacy among Philadelphians back in the pungent days when folks emptied their slop jars out their windows.
Now there’s a powerful thought.

One can imagine a Center City conversation in the 18th Century:
Mrs. Rittenhouse: “OMG! David, do you smell that?” 
Mr. Rittenhouse: “Why, yes I do Hannah.” 
Mrs. Rittenhouse : “The Franklins sure have been eating a lot of scrapple this week!” 
Mr. Rittenhouse: “Indeed.”

Monday, August 20, 2012

Perfumers Squared at Elements Showcase

Just a quick report from day one of the Elements Showcase in NYC.

I attended the panel presentation hosted by Robertet, the French fragrance & flavor house now celebrating their 160 years of creating rose essences. VP Arnaud Adrian ran down the basics of harvesting and extracting fragrance from Rosa damascena and showed a beautifully produced video of the company's operation in Senir, Turkey.

Then moderator Jennifer Powderly, Robertet's marketing director, turned to two perfumers who each had created a full fragrance to demonstrate the use of the company's rose essential oil and rose petal essence. They were invited to discuss their creative methods in general, and the aesthetic logic behind their demo fragrances in particular.

First up was Olivia Jan, a French perfumer with Robertet. She described how she works to express a specific emotional state in her fragrances, often by imagining a story with a particular time and place. She sometimes engages the happy, playful quality of rose by blending it with apple or raspberry, or uses other fruits to achieve a more feminine impression. For the demo scent, however, she went for the "darker side" of rose by adding a smokey woody note (based on elemi). I enjoyed how she synaesthetically described matching the "roughness of the wood" against the "prettiness of the rose floralcy."

Next up was my old pal Mandy Aftel. Always a champion of natural materials--she says she is "besotted by them"--Mandy's modus operandi is to begin with a pair of key raw materials. In this case it was rose and tarragon absolute. She thinks of rose as her "workhorse," but also values it as a "great smoother." In other words, when she has added a bunch of "strange and eccentric" notes to her sketch (such as ginger, saffron, black pepper or pimento berry), the rose will smooth out the olfactive hububb.

Mandy has a charmingly animistic way of thinking about her work. She sees the raw materials as "friends," and when filling in the space between her two key materials, she "reaches for the friend she thinks is going to create the feeling" that she is after. All in all a fine panel, accompanied by blotters of the individual essences and finished fragrances.

Th-th-t-that's all for now, folks!

Friday, August 17, 2012

American Smellscapes: Where Garlic Means Back to School

San Jose Mercury News columnist Sal Pizarro gets pulled into the past by a scented breeze blowing up from Gilroy:
I would never call the South Bay smelly, but I was absolutely overwhelmed by a specific aroma this week: The powerful scent of garlic, drifting 33 miles up to downtown San Jose from Gilroy, in the early morning. 
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t repulsive. But it slammed me against a wall of very strong memories tied to heading off for school on a September morning every year in South San Jose.
Apparently it’s not just him.

P.S. I remember a garlic storage depot just off I-80 in Fairfield. It was so strong we used to roll the windows up when driving past. It’s been gone a long time now.

P.P.S. In nearby Davis, my cue that the school year was about to being was the ketchupy smell of tomatoes being processed at the Hunt’s cannery north of town.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Amy Who?

Say, gang, who wants to sniff some Amy Childs by Amy Childs?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

C’mon people, she’s been on television! (In England, at least.) And she’s easily the most famous person from Barking. (Serious.) Most critically, she is credited with starting the vajazzle craze a couple of years ago. [The what?—Ed.] [If you have to ask, you don’t want to know.]

Ms. Childs launched her eponymous perfume at a Boots store in London today. The Daily Mail was all over it. Their headline:
Amy Childs greeted by a very short queue of fans at perfume launch
Amy was confronted by a very short queue of shoppers ready to snap up her less than imaginatively self-named fragrance, Amy Childs.
That’s a cheap shot—especially coming from a journalist named Fehintola Betiku.

But it makes you wonder: Has the celebrity fragrance boom peaked? (Or bottomed out, depending on your POV?)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

ISDP August 2012: Storage Wars

Like the sweaty, fat person on the evening commute bus who plops himself down and takes over the arm rest, the thirteenth of August has arrived in typical fashion: hot and humid. As always, we have no choice but to tuck in our elbows, breathe through our mouth, and type up the compilation of gruesome olfactory incidents that is FirstNerve’s most popular recurring feature: I Smell Dead People.

Is your spouse busy? Are the kids all playing Xbox? Good. Then you can relax and savor this month’s edition.

It’s been an exceptionally hot August. How hot? So hot that there were three ISDP incidents in the Pacific Northwest. Teresa Blackman at Oregon’s has the first case:
The man found dead inside a van parked in Portland’s Old Town area on August 6 died of natural causes, police said. 
. . . A passer-by alerted police just after 6 p.m., after noticing a foul odor coming from the vehicle, according to Lt. Robert King with the Portland Police Bureau.
Two bodies were found in Everett, Washington.
The Everett Police Department is investigating two suspicious deaths discovered at a local apartment complex. 
On Monday August 6 just before noon Everett Police officers were dispatched to 9009 West Mall Drive to check on the welfare of the occupants of an apartment after a call was made to 911 by neighbors reporting foul odors emanating from inside the unit. 
When officers went inside they found two bodies. 
 Tuesday afternoon the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office identified the deceased as 50-year old Sandra L. Williams of Everett, and her 25 year old son Spencer L. Williams.
The third incident is from Portland, Oregon’s KPTV:
The manager of a Gresham storage facility made a grisly discovery over the weekend. 
Police said he found a woman’s body inside one of the units.

Officers responded to Money Saver Mini Storage at 19215 NE Halsey after the manager opened a storage unit because a foul odor was coming from the area.
The body was that of 18-year-old Anisa Marie Swearingen of Portland. According to Helen Jung at The Oregonian, she had been in trouble with the law:
Swearingen, who was facing charges of methamphetamine possession and delivery from a February arrest, was supposed to appear in Multnomah County Circuit Court last Tuesday. Her trial was scheduled to begin the following day. 
But when she did not show up, a judge issued a warrant for her arrest for failure to appear, according to court records. 
Swearingen also faced charges of unlawful possession of a firearm and tampering with physical evidence in connection with an arrest last May.
In relatively short order, Gresham police arrested the 56-year-old Portland man who had rented the storage unit. He’s been charged with her murder.


Weird how you can go two years or more without a storage locker ISDP and then you get two in the same month. Cindy Leise and Brad Dicken of The Chronicle-Telegram in Ohio have the second story:
The man police suspect of killing his 26-year-old girlfriend and stuffing her body in a storage bin at the Tower Boulevard apartment complex where they live was arrested Thursday in Lexington, Ky. 
 Lorain police Lt. Mark Carpentiere said Albert Fine, 30, was taken into custody without incident by Lorain police officers and members of the Northern Ohio Violent Fugitive Task Force, who had traveled south after receiving information about Fine’s whereabouts. 
. . . Fine will be extradited back to Ohio to face charges in connection with the death of Catherine “Kat” Hoholski, Carpentiere said. A court hearing will likely take place in Kentucky today, he said. 
. . . Hoholski’s body was found with the help of a cadaver dog after weeks of complaints about an odor at the Villas of Beau Monde apartment complex, according to Lorain County Coroner Dr. Stephen Evans.
Weeks of complaints? Oh, man.

Ahoy, there!

National Park Service rangers in Nevada discovered a decomposed body in a houseboat on Lake Mead.
Authorities said a suspicious vehicle and a foul odor led to the discovery of a body in a houseboat at Lake Mead Friday. 
Rangers with the National Park Service said the body was located just off Northshore Road near Mile Marker 8. 
. . . Rangers were led to the body after a call reporting a suspicious vehicle with a foul odor. When authorities arrived, they found the body in the houseboat.
Meanwhile, in Cranston, Rhode Island, a dead woman was found inside a garage.
Police said the body was found around 8:19 p.m. last night in a two-car garage after neighbors complained of a foul odor.
Here’s some unsavory local detail:
Residents in the area expressed shock in response to the incident and said people who currently live in one of the apartments in the house were outside on the steps grilling the other night while police guarded the crime scene on the curb.
Grilling? Really?
Richard, a neighbor who asked we not publish his last name, said today that he was troubled to hear about the young woman’s body being found. He has lived in the area for 35 years and things have changed in the neighborhood, he said. 
Most of us try to keep things up around here,” he said as he swept the curb in front of his property. At the house where the body was found, he said, things have gone downhill. 
“There used to be an elderly woman who lived there and she kept it up really well,” Richard said. “Now, just look at it. Who parks on the grass?
People who grill despite the stench of death, that’s who.

The victim was eventually identified as a 20-year-old woman formerly from Dorchester, Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, Florida adds to its extensive log of ISDP incidents. This one from FOX10 TV in Pensacola:
Evangelist Nathaniel B. Nicks was cutting the grass in the front yard of his church when he says he smelled a strong, foul odor coming from across the road. 
Nicks followed the odor and found a dead body on the edge of the woods near the church Saturday afternoon.
Around the same time, up in Macon, Georgia:
Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones says a badly decomposed body was found after 6:00 p.m. Saturday, when a neighbor smelled a foul odor coming from a home on the 4300 block of Houston Avenue.
The coroner has some friendly advice for local residents:
Jones says this is the second case recently of a badly decomposed body being found in the area, and people should make sure to check up on their neighbors. 
Haunted house.

Here’s a disturbing report from Queens, New York:
An unidentified woman’s body with nearly two dozen stab wounds was found in the attic of a home on the service road of the Van Wyck Expressway in Richmond Hill last weekend. 
Police were responding to a call of a foul odor . . . they discovered the body wrapped in plastic in a container in the attic of the home. 
According to police, the house was the same one where a 32-year-old man committed suicide on July 20. An NYPD source said the call about the foul odor that led cops to the body was made by the brother of the suicide victim who had gone to the house to collect the deceased man’s belongings.
Good grief.

Another 2012 Norman Bates Award™ Nominee

Linda Lou Chase, 72, of Lansing, Michigan is the latest nominee, from an incident that is already being referred to as the Case of the Mummified Boyfriend.
A woman who kept the mummified remains of her boyfriend in her home for more than a year now faces criminal charges. 
 Linda Lou Chase faces multiple counts of forgery, according to the Jackson County prosecutor’s office. 
Police and prosecutors say Chase collected and kept at least $28,000 in social security and pension checks meant for Charles Zigler. 
Investigators say he apparently died of natural causes—but that she kept his body in the home they shared for some 19 months. 
Police discovered the body after Zigler’s relatives got suspicious. Zigler’s body was found sitting in a chair in the house.
Thank goodness the relatives got suspicious. “Hey, how come Uncle Charlie hasn’t moved from that chair in six months?”

As usual, the UK’s Daily Mail provides more vivid coverage (and photos):
Explaining her reasoning for keeping Mr Zigler’s body, Chase previously said she did it to have a partner for watching NASCAR races on TV with. 
‘It’s not that I’m heartless . . . I didn’t want to be alone. He was the only guy who was ever nice to me,’ Ms Chase said.
Yeah, don’t try to make it weird or anything.

Dept. of False Alarms

From the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Police Log for July 24:
10:51 a.m. Assisted the fire department with gaining entry into an apartment after a foul odor was reported. The odor was attributed to cooked peppers.
Dude, you gonna eat that?
9:56 p.m. A caller reported youths toilet-papering cars.
Damn youths.

Until next time we leave you with a Zen-like exit question: Do dead bodies in Detroit stink if there is no one left to smell them?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fifty Shades of B.O.: The Olfactory Fetishes of E.L. James

* * *

UPDATE: Welcome, readers of The New Yorker and fans of Alastair Gee! If you like olfacto-literary deconstruction, you might also want to have a look at Eustace Tilley Cogitates or The Bad Smells of Toni Morrison.

* * *

It’s a monster bestseller. It’s pissed off the feminists. And it may be why all the soccer moms in our neighborhood are eyeballing the checkout guy at the ShopRite. In other words, there were more than enough reasons to leaf through volume one of the Fifty shades of Grey trilogy. As we did so, we couldn’t help but notice that author E.L. James is fully engaged on the olfactory front.

Here is the opening of the infamously spicy Chapter Seven:
The first thing I notice is the smell: leather, wood, polish with a faint citrus scent. It’s very pleasant, and the lighting is soft, subtle. In fact, I can’t see the source, but it’s around the cornice in the room, emitting an ambient glow. The walls and ceiling are a deep, dark burgundy, giving a womb-like effect to the spacious room, and the floor is old, old varnished wood.
OK, so the heroine-narrator sounds like the Century 21 lady leading you through a classic center-hall Colonial with updated detail work. Soon she’s pointing out the furnishings—wooden cross, iron grid on the ceiling, padded bench (oxblood leather!)—and then Mr. Grey’s accessories: whips, riding crops, restraining cuffs, yadda yadda.

Yet such attention to ambient scent is, in fact, relatively rare in the book. E.L. James is much, much more interested in body odor. You might say she’s obsessed by it.

Mr. Grey, the super-fabulous, super-hunky, super-wealthy object of Anastasia Steele’s affection is a very fragrant fellow. His is a “clean, wholesome scent” with some additional features:
He smells of freshly laundered linen and some expensive body wash.
Whoa. He has a driver, a live-in housekeeper, and his own helicopter, but he doesn’t . . . wear cologne.

James invokes Grey’s B.O. at every turn.
. . . brushing his hair with my nose, smelling his clean, fresh smell. 
He’s close enough for me to touch, for me to smell. Oh my . . . sweat and body wash and Christian. It’s a heady cocktail . . . 
I reach for the body wash and it smells of him. It’s a delicious smell. I rub it all over myself . . . 
He smells clean, fresh, heavenly . . . 
His jacket is warm, far too big, and it smells of him . . . delicious. 
I’m lying on top of him, my head on his chest, and he smells divine: freshly laundered linen and some expensive body wash and the best, most seductive scent on the planet . . . Christian. I don’t want to move. I want to breathe this elixir for eternity.
Alright, already! Clean and fresh. We get it. And enough with the linen and body wash.
His proximity is heavenly. He smell of body wash and Christian, an inebriating mix . . . 
He runs the tips of his fingers down my cheek. Oh my, his proximity, his delicious Christian smell. 
“My pleasure, Anastasia.” He kisses me, and I inhale his sexy Christian smell. 
. . . I know it will take an eternity to expunge the feel of his arms around me and his wonderful fragrance from my brain.
Christian, divine, heavenly, eternity. Wait, are we in Bible class?
I nuzzle up against him, eyes closed, my nose at his throat, drinking in his sexy Christian-and-spiced-musky bodywash fragrance, my head on his shoulder. 
It’s a delicious smell. I rub it all over myself, fantasizing that it’s him—him rubbing this heavenly scented soap into my body, across my breasts, over my stomach, between my thighs with his long-fingered hands. 
  . . . turning my face into Christian’s chest, I inhale his unique scent and nuzzle him . . . 
I am curled on his lap, my head against his chest, as we both calm. Very subtly, I inhale his sweet, intoxicating Christian scent. 
Our tongues entwine, our passion and ardor erupting between us. He taste divine, hot, sexy, and his scent—all body wash and Christian—is arousing.
Whew! That’s one good smelling dude. But it leaves us wondering about the endless olfactory tropes. Is this repetition a feature of romance novels? Perhaps so. (And despite all the soft-porn BDSM hype, Shades of Grey is totally a romance novel. We had to skip past large swaths of gag-inducing emotional narration, boring phone conversations with supportive family members, and page after page of “does he like me?” and “do I like him?”)

And what of Grey’s olfactory take on Anastasia?
“You smell so good,” he murmurs . . . 
“You smell divine.” He nuzzles behind my ear. 
“You smell so good, Anastasia,” A tremor runs through my whole body. 
“Do you know how intoxicating you smell, Miss Steele?” he murmurs . . . 
“You smell so good, Anastasia. So sweet.” His nose skims past my ear down my neck, and he trails soft, featherlight kisses along my shoulder. 
“You smell as divine as ever, Anastasia,” he whispers as he places a soft kiss beneath my ear. I moan.
Well there you have it: she smells pretty damn good herself, although in a completely banal, non-specific sort of way. She doesn’t seem to wear any perfume of her own. Nor does Mr. Moneybags bother to buy her any.

What are we to make of all this? E.L. James uses olfactory imagery to drive home the point that Mr. Grey, despite his outré sexual habits, is intrinsically a good man, i.e., one worthy of Anastasia’s affection. James layers on the fresh linen and expensive body wash to underline Grey’s wealth and freedom from the mundane. How dreamy would it be if he smelled like Tide® and some no-name brand of shower gel from Walgreen’s?

On the other hand, Anastasia’s blandly positive B.O. merely restates her inherent purity (she’s a virgin as the book begins) and intrinsic desirability as a woman. No worries about smelling fresh or whether Grey will approve of her choice in perfume. No need to make an effort to impress. It’s the ultimate chick-lit fantasy: “Mr. Wonderful loves me just as I am!”

E.L. James is already hawking a CD of all the music mentioned in the trilogy. We imagine high-end body wash brands are pounding at her agent’s door, looking for product placement in the upcoming film. Can a film tie-in fragrance be far away? The female fan-base may want their man to smell like linen and body wash, but given the nature of the Fifty Shades fantasy, they may not see the point of an Anastasia Steele perfume.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


An Associated Press wire story has been getting some big play:
Nose for crime: $1.2M in French perfume nabbed. [MSN
A nose for crime: Masked thieves nab $1.2 million in French Givenchy perfume [WaPo
Masked thieves nab $1.2M in Givenchy perfume in France [USA Today]
First question: Who writes these headlines? Thieves don’t “nab” things, thieves are the ones who get “nabbed.”

On a Friday night a week ago, a gang of thieves overpowered a guard at the Givenchy plant in Beauvais, about an hour north of Paris, and drove off with two truckloads of perfume. The trucks—and perfume—were later found abandoned.

Second question: What the hell happened? The interesting part of this story isn’t the heist, it’s the abandonment of the loot.

One Jean-Marie Salsat is quoted as saying, “the bottles were found unused, with the stoppers still in.”

Third question: Stoppers? Is this 2012 or 1812? Calling all perfumistas: Does Givenchy market a perfume in a stoppered bottle?

Let’s turn to Matthieu Brandely at Le Parisien, for better coverage en française. His lede gets right to the heart of the mystery:
Le coup était presque parfait, mais que s’est-il réellement passé pour que les malfaiteurs abandonnent aussi étrangement leur précieux butin? Les camions étaient-ils munis d’un traceur? La marchandise était-elle « marquée »? Les malfaiteurs ont-ils flairé un piège? Et dans ce cas, pourquoi les camions n’ont-ils pas été incendiés? Les questions ne manquent pas après le casse commis chez Givenchy. 
[My ham-fisted, Google-assisted translation: The caper was almost perfect, but what happened that made the perpetrators strangely abandon their precious booty? Were the trucks equipped with a tracker? Was the merchandise “marked”? Did the robbers smell a trap? And if so, why were the trucks not burned? No shortage of issues after the break-in at Givenchy.]
According to Brandely, the robbers were a team of six or seven guys dressed in black, wearing masks and gloves. They overpowered the guard at the shipping dock and made off with two 12-ton trucks, loaded with five or six tons of palletized goods. The following Tuesday morning, the trucks are discovered at a rest stop in the town of Brie-Comte-Robert, about 40 min southeast of Paris. All the merchandise is intact, except for a few boxes that had been ripped open. (No mention of “stoppers.”)

We are left to wonder: did the fence fail to show? Did the thieves think they were made? What spooked them? Perhaps it’s wise not to overthink it. After all, million-dollar perfume heists can be the work of rank amateurs.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Last Swig from the Bottle of Zeitgest

Having amused ourselves so long at his expense we are truly sad to report that lemony-scented Coty CEO Bernd “Zeitgeist in a Bottle” Beetz is stepping down.

While that means an end to the $1,632,600 salary and probably most of his perqs, BB will remain on Coty’s board of directors. In his newly found free time, he intends to write a book. We promise FN readers we’ll do whatever it takes to post a photo of us having our copy signed by the author.

In the meantime, we’ve got to find a new source of mockery. BB’s replacement, Coty Prestige President Michele Scannavini, doesn’t look promising. What can you say about a guy named Michele? [Wait! His name is Michele? Mockeryville, here we come!—Ed.]