Tuesday, January 13, 2015

ISDP: The 2014 Norman Bates Award

There was not much new to report for the past month. A sheriff’s deputy sent to evict a tenant found a foul-smelling corpse instead, the woman who won the contents of an abandoned storage unit at auction discovered inside it the malodorous remains of two infants in a plastic bag, and a person strolling in a park near Dallas’s Love Field spotted some bad-smelling human remains in a drainage ditch. In none of these case were the remains discovered based on smell, and therefore they all fail to qualify as ISDP incidents. Rules are rules, people.

In contrast to the lack of new ISDP cases, we have a bumper crop of candidates for the Norman Bates Award™. The nominees are:

Doris Kirby, the 78-year-old woman in Decatur, Alabama who lived for a month in a home with the body of her husband who had died of natural causes.

Terry Cunningham, 44, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who lived in appalling conditions in a house with his two daughters, wheel-chair bound son, and his older brother for several days after his brother’s death.

Ray Tomlinson, 62, of Clinton Township, Michigan drove to Michigan from Glendale, Arizona in a van with his 92-year-old wheelchair-bound mother and the body of a 31-year-old woman who died shortly after they left Glendale. Mr. Tomlinson kept on driving under the impression that he had 48 hours to turn in the body. Meanwhile, the van’s AC failed and his mother was not able to use a restroom.

Chava Spira, 28 years old, of Borough Park, Brooklyn, who lived for months in a trash-stuffed apartment with the remains of her 61-year-old mother, Susie Rosenthal. Ms. Spira and her mother were recluses and Ms. Spira was known for screaming incoherently into the building’s courtyard.

Mr. and Mrs. Jarrod Tutko of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The couple had six children ranging in age from three to thirteen, “several of whom suffer from serious medical conditions, including one who is deaf.” When a son died in the third floor room to which he was confined, his father waited several days before bringing the body downstairs and informing his wife.

Ila Solomon of Lafayette, Indiana, lived for about ten months in a house with the body of her dead husband, while allegedly collecting his Social Security and VA payments.

The six family members and seven live-in fellow cultists who lived for six months with the body of a 52-year-old Hamilton, Ontario, man sealed in an upstairs bedroom. They were praying for his resurrection.

We also have three nominees from the Overseas Division:

Harish Badhai, 55, a former air force officer from Shastri Nagar, Meerut, India, lived for about a month with the body of his older brother Harendra Badhai, a former doctor.

The man in Alexandria, Egypt, who killed his brother nine years ago and kept the body in a freezer. It was discovered after a power outage led to decomposition and foul odor.

The 55-year-old woman in Munich, Germany who shared a bed for five years with the mummified remains of her 83-year-old mother.

Wow. It was not easy to pick a single winner from such a diverse and promising bunch. But pick we must. Here’s some insight into our decision process. Mrs. Kirby’s bid is undercut by the fact that she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease; in addition to fogging her memory about her husband’s demise, it might have made her less able to smell its consequences. Mr. Cunningham’s home was in such a degraded shambles that living for two days with the remains of his brother barely registered on the grotesquery scale. Likewise, the Tutkos of Harrisburg lived amid conditions so bizarre as to overshadow their Batesian achievements. The anonymous Egyptian freezer owner didn’t live with the deceased as much as store him away out of sight and smell. The cult in Ontario had their (perhaps delusional) reasons for waiting around. All these nominees are easily dismissed.

That leaves some outstanding finalists: Ray Tomlinson for his cross country drive with corpse and without air conditioning; Chava Spira for her months-long trash-filled co-habitation with her mother’s remains; Ila Solomon for her venal 10-months spent collecting the government benefits of her dead husband; and the German lady from Munich who slept with her mummified mother for five years. Of these, it comes down to Chava Spira and the German lady. The fact that an aunt continued to drop off food at the apartment long after her mother passed away detracts somewhat from Ms. Spira’s bid.

And thus, after due deliberation, we present the 2014 Norman Bates Award to the anonymous 55-year-old lady from Munich, Germany. She epitomizes the spirit of Norman Bates.

Unser Gl├╝ckwunsch!

The Shape of Smells to Come

There is a certain charm to the stiffly drawn illustrations found in United States patent documents. The clear, static, highly conventionalized style evokes comic books and instruction manuals. Yet, in contrast to the ponderous, formal, lawyerly text of the patent, the hand of the artist can give the images a certain style of their own.

Here is Figure 1 from U.S. Patent 3,902,851, “Method of detecting odors and apparatus therefore,” by Andrew Dravnieks. It was granted on September 2, 1975. The illustrator did not sign his work, but I think it qualifies as a type of olfactory art.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Grieving and Thieving

A news headline from Dublin, Ireland, late last year: “Bereaved woman ‘stole nine bottles of scent’, court told.”

My authorial juices start to flow. The narrative snaps into place:
A distraught widow, desperate to recover the sensory presence of her late husband, grabs a bottle of his favorite cologne from a store shelf. Then, hoping to sustain his comforting olfactory ghost for years to come, she stuffs eight more bottles into her bag and flees the store. She is apprehended by mall cops and at trial the judge is torn—should he sentence her by the book or show mercy because this is clearly a case of nasal insanity?
But reality intrudes. Natasha Gleeson of Corduff Crescent, Blanchardstown, was caught on security video shoplifting perfume and aftershave. Her solicitor told the court she was “recently bereaved” but this looks like a lame attempt to invoke sympathy from the judge.

Still, it has the makings of a great story.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Literary Smellscapes: Joan Didion on Leaving New York

When Joan Didion, a native Californian, recounts her change of scene to the East Coast and back, it is scent that drives her back and forth in time, as through a wormhole. It begins with a foreshadowing, the mirage of new smellscape that locates her far from her roots:
“I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there—but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs. I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”
Later, scents pull her back into specific times and places:
“Now when New York comes back to me it comes in hallucinatory flashes, so clinically detailed that I sometimes wish that memory would effect the distortion with which it is commonly credited. For a lot of the time I was in New York I used a perfume called Fleurs de Rocaille, and then L’Air du Temps, and now the slightest trace of either can short-circuit my connections for the rest of the day. Nor can I smell Henri Bendel jasmine soap without falling back into the past, or the particular mixture of spices used for boiling crabs. There were barrels of crab boil in a Czech place in the Eighties where I once shopped. Smells, of course, are notorious memory stimuli, but there are other things which affect me the same way. Blue-and-white striped sheets. Vermouth cassis. Some faded nightgowns which were new in 1959 or 1960, and some chiffon scarves I bought about the same time.”
In the end, the notes of a familiar smellscape tell her that she is home once again:
“The last time I was in New York was in a cold January, and everyone was ill and tired. Many of the people I used to know there had moved to Dallas or had gone on Antabuse or had bought a farm in New Hampshire. We stayed ten days, and then we took an afternoon flight back to Los Angeles, and on the way home from the airport that night I could see the moon on the Pacific and smell jasmine all around and we both knew that there was no longer any point in keeping the apartment we still kept in New York. There were years when I called Los Angeles “the Coast,” but they seem a long time ago.”
Joan Didion
Goodbye to All That (1967)
(Slouching Towards Bethlehem)