Tuesday, October 22, 2013

American Literary Smellscapes: Sheehan’s Pool Room

I’m beginning to think that H.P. Lovecraft was quite the olfactory-minded artist. He certainly was smell-aware, based on the first six stories in The Complete Works, which I’m reading front to back to work up a frisson of creepiness for Halloween.

Lovecraft’s story Old Bugs was written in 1919—at the dawn of Prohibition—but set in the future of 1950. Its combination of moodiness, detail, and a Big Reveal reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Here’s how it starts:
Sheehan’s Pool Room, which adorns one of the lesser alleys in the heart of Chicago’s stockyard district, is not a nice place. Its air, freighted with a thousand odours such as Coleridge may have found in Cologne, too seldom knows the purifying rays of the sun; but fights for space with the acrid fumes of unnumbered cheap cigars and cigarettes which dangle from the coarse lips of unnumbered human animals that haunt the place day and night. But the popularity of Sheehan’s remains unimpaired; and for this there is a reason—a reason obvious to anyone who will take the trouble to analyse the mixed stenches prevailing there. Over and above the fumes and sickening closeness rises an aroma once familiar throughout the land, but now happily banished to the back streets of life by the edict of a benevolent government—the aroma of strong, wicked whiskey—a precious kind of forbidden fruit indeed in this year of grace 1950.
H.P. Lovecraft
Old Bugs (1919)

Gwyneth Paltrow and the Scent of Fame

Gwyneth Paltrow’s movie career stalled for a while following her 1999 Oscar for Shakespeare in Love. Now she’s back in the money with a role in the Iron Man franchise. But all may not be well. Based on our careful monitoring of the smellebrity scene we predict major life changes in her future. Doubtful? Think back to when Britney and K-Fed made headlines with their noxious B.O.

Paltrow’s recent Vanity Fair kerfuffle has revived attention to some unkind olfactory observations about her personal hygiene habits. By some accounts she was a bit ripe in the armpits at this spring’s Met Gala, allegedly because she rejects AP/deo products that contain aluminum. One view is that the sniffy comments are payback for her undiplomatic remarks about the event. Whatevs. Here at FN we’re just happy to report on a good, old-fashioned case of smellebrity B.O.-mongering.

Exit question:
If Bruce Jenner really is entertaining the idea of becoming a woman, as our reading in the supermarket check-out lane suggests, then shouldn’t there be some olfactory evidence? Perhaps a change in his cologne purchases? Inquiring nostrils want to know.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Haunted Literary Smellscapes of America

I shall never forget the afternoon when first I stumbled upon the half-hidden house of death. It was in mid-summer, when the alchemy of Nature transmutes the sylvan landscape to one vivid and almost homogeneous mass of green; when the senses are well-nigh intoxicated with the surging seas of moist verdure and the subtly indefinable odours of the soil and vegetation. In such surroundings the mind loses its perspective; time and space become trivial and unreal, and echoes of a forgotten prehistoric past beat insistently upon the enthralled consciousness.
H.P. Lovecraft
The Tomb (1917)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Armpit Love

It’s been a while since our first tentative sniff at the case of famously stinky teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson. Now he’s back in the news with remarks to the Portuguese magazine Activa, translated here, regarding the olfactory nature of his attraction to women:
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be perfume. I like the smell of people. It is really strange and I’m sure it has to do with pheromones. We like people because subconsciously we like the way they smell. I always find this very interesting to observe.”
OK, that’s a pretty conventional view. But what struck us was this reference to an article in Vogue that we seem to have missed.
In 2012 [Pattinson’s girlfriend at the time] Kristen [Stewart] told Vogue magazine: “I’m so in love with my boyfriend [Robert Pattinson] I love the way he smells. And him me. 
“Like, he loves to lick under my armpits. I don’t get this obsession with washing the smell off. That smell of someone you love – don’t you think that’s the whole point?”
Pit sniffers of the world, unite!

When it comes to underarm odor, RB apparently works both sides of the street. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Unless you’re one of those prudes on a film crew who find him a little overripe. Or you’re some inhibited loser who doesn’t like having your unwashed armpits licked by a guy nominated for Best Actor in a Canadian Film by the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Really, loosen up. Get a life.

Exit question: Is there a formal term for people who are pathologically attracted to armpit smell?

Bonus question: If not, what should we call them?

UPDATE October 18, 2013

FN Commenter Lindaloo offers “pitophilia.” Not bad: it is easily understood. Some googling around reveals “maschalagnia” as the appropriately arcane and unpronounceable designation for armpit fetish. But maschalagnia strikes me as one of those formalisms that shows up frequently in tedious academic tracts but is rarely used by clinicians or researchers. For example, it is mentioned in about eight volumes on Google Books (including such time-wasters as There’s a Word for It and Lecher’s Lexicon). Meanwhile on PubMed, the go-to source for working scientists, it doesn’t produce a single hit. QED

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Smell and the Occult Sciences

To help you gear up for the ghoulish festivities of Halloween, FirstNerve presents a few aromatic tidbits from the Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World, published in 1903 by J.H. Yewdale and Sons Co., of Chicago and Milwaukee.
He who smells the flowers or wreaths at a funeral, will lose his sense of smell. 
It is unlucky to put perfume on your clothes the first time you wear them. 
Happily, a frivolous and irreverent spirit can be changed into that of a profound and meditative thinker by the habitual use of bergamot. 
White rose begets a love of sloth and indolence, and the famed patchouli will, sooner or later, cause the moral downfall of its devotee. [Heh. God damn hippies.—Ed.]

Monday, October 14, 2013

Model, Stripper, Playboy Centerfold & Perfumer

I’m trying to think of any other perfumers I would like to see naked.

Still thinking.

Wait a sec, I have to turn my Jean-Claude Ellena bobblehead around. It’s making me self-conscious.

Still thinking.

OK, I’ve got one. Make that two. But obv I can’t tell you who they are.

Wow, that wasn’t easy. Fragrance evaluators is a different story. Several hot ones leap to mind. Why the difference?

Thought experiment for tomorrow: smell scientists I want to see naked.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

ISDP: The Chill of an Early Fall

Dry leaves are falling from the dark, twisted trees near FirstNerve Manor and the nights have turned chilly. Historically, the October 13th edition of ISDP is a sparse one, reflecting seasonal condition unconducive to decay and putrescence, and this is no exception. In fact, after reaching deep and scraping the bottom of the malodorous barrel there is only one case to report.

A body found near a homeless camp by a cemetery in Greensboro, North Carolina, was that of a 68-year-old man who appears to have died of natural causes. “Police were called to the area near a cemetery after someone reported a bad smell about 6:10 p.m.” on September 16th. There you have it.

Sorry Gator fans, but given our famously strict standards the demise of a University of Florida history professor doesn’t quality as an ISDP event. The department chairman alerted police when the faculty realized their colleague hadn’t been seen for a week, and his body was discovered by campus police who were making a wellness check. However, the episode may yield a nomination for the 2013 Norman Bates Award™. Officer Jessica Lynn Zarate noted in her report that after being admitted to the apartment by the deceased’s roommate, she “could smell a foul odor coming from upstairs.” Evidently the roommate hadn’t noticed it or didn’t think it was noteworthy.

Wheels of Justice Update: “San Diego man accused of killing wife, cooking her body dies of cancer while awaiting trial.” That would be Frederick Hengl of Oceanside, who was “arrested last November after neighbors complained of a foul odor coming from his home.” Mr. Hengl was nominated for the 2012 Norman Bates Award™.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Richard Branson’s Potty Problem

I didn’t post this earlier because I thought it might be some kind of spoof. (Virgin Trains? Really?) Apparently it’s not.
Virgin Trains set for £3.5m refurbishment – to remove smell from corridors 
Richard Branson’s rail franchise set to work with the Government to finally deal with problem of unexplained spreading toilet odour
In fairness, smell is one of those things designers and engineers often fail to take into account. (Yes, I’m talking to all you fans of municipal composting.) Malodor can be hard to diagnose and even harder to eliminate. [Esp. when the malodor is caused by elimination!—Ed.]

Sunday, October 6, 2013

. . . But You Can’t Pick Your Chimp’s Nose

A feel-good, gross-out, nasal science story:
US biologist discovers new species up his nose after research trip to Africa 
Nasal surprise led to discovery of new method of spreading disease from chimps to humans.
“It’s not really practical or safe to pick ticks out of chimps’ noses,” said [University of Wisconsin veterinary pathobiologist Tony] Goldberg.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Pewey Decimal System

From the women’s bathroom on the first floor of the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch came that ripe, familiar tang. 
On this day, the stench came from one of the disabled-access stalls, where, through the cracks in the door, a cart heaped with belongings was visible. 
Informed of the situation, custodian Richard Mathews asked, “Was she naked?”
In college, the textbook for my Abnormal Psychology class pushed the Next Big Thing: storefront community mental health clinics to provide easy, non-threatening care and meds so that the severely mentally ill could be de-institutionalized. It struck me then as a fantasy. Decades later, the reality hasnt worked out too well either.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Berkeley, California. In the air: brewing beer.