Main | Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Christmas Smells Like Crying

This morning on the subway I was standing next to a short Latin man. He was holding on to the overhead rail with one hand and a Spanish newspaper with the other. There was something very familiar about this guy and I couldn't put my finger on it.

At 59st Street, I moved around to his other side to get a closer look at his face. Again, a strong feeling of reminiscence washed over me. I studied his features. He was young, far too young for me to have "known" in any way. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that there was something bizarrely familiar about this guy. I kept flashing back to when I lived in South Florida. He reminded me of friends, he reminded me of going out, he even fucking reminded me of my car. It was driving me nuts and I was frustrated when he got off at 51st Street without me figuring it out.

About 20 minutes after I sat down at my desk, it came to me.

That guy smelled like house music.

It was his cologne, Obsession, that had set me off on an olfactory memory ride. Back in the late '80s, I used to swim through my bottle of Obsession before I went clubbing. Every Saturday night, I would leave my house in Fort Lauderdale and drive 40 miles south on I-95 to join my friends at Cheers, a legendary early outpost of house music. In the parking lot, I'd create a small mist cloud of Obsession and dive into Cheers where DJ Danny Tenaglia was helping shape a new sound that would come to define dance music for the next decade. South Beach hadn't happened yet, Cheers was the place to be for anybody worth their Boogie Shoes. Cheers was my church and I prayed until 7am every Sunday morning, as Father Danny blessed the coked-out scenesters with Jungle Brothers, Gino Latino, Frankie Knuckles, Inner City. Good life, good life, good life.

And I did it all in an amber cloud of Obsession.

Maybe the subway man's fragrance provided such a vivid jolt to my memory because I stopped wearing cologne after that. But maybe not, because like most people my strongest memory triggers are smells.

For example, when I smell coffee...I think of old people. My parents weren't coffee drinkers, but my grandparents and great-grandparents were. When I was a child, the only time I smelled coffee was at my grandmother's house in Newark or my great-grandfather's apartment in nearby Belleville. For me, coffee smells like weird furniture and wooden floors and narrow stairs. It smells like thinning hair and medicine bottles and my grandmother's screeching Edith Bunker voice. Coffee smells like old people.

It drives my friends crazy when I say this. For them, coffee smells like mornings. It smells like potential, like promise, like something is starting. For me, it smells like something ending.

Similarly, the smell of wine doesn't remind me of food or dinner parties or getting wasted in college. It reminds me of Easter eggs. The faintest whiff of vinegar and I'm right back there at in the kitchen of our trailer in North Carolina, my sister and I kicking each other under the expandable vinyl table as my mother is boiling the eggs. Ask me to examine the bouquet of some fine wine and I'm in Paas country, baby. And all you wine snobs who are heading for my comments button right now to say something snotty about good wine not smelling like vinegar can just shove it up your collective asses.

And Christmas trees? Forget it. Christmas trees smell like fighting. They smell like tense silences and booze bottles and thrown dishes. All the Christmas smells are like that for me. Christmas smells like crying.


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