What Does It Smell Like Where You Are?

By | October 15, 2020

Welcome. Typically, when it begins to get cold in New York City, the subways fill up. Those who, like me, have been cycling or walking for transportation in the warmer months, eventually capitulate to the season, bundle up and hunker down, pack in underground with the rest of the commuters in their down parkas and boots.

This year, everyone’s pushing their tolerance for the elements to the brink. Whether we’re sticking close to home or commuting, we’re avoiding others in enclosed spaces, their bodies and breath. It occurred to me recently that it had been months since I’d smelled perfume. Once, every third person on the train smelled of the same fragrance, a sandalwood-heavy number called Santal 33 that I learned to associate with fall, with city dwellers in a hurry; the uptown 2 train to Times Square on weekdays at 8 a.m. in the fall was the Santal Express. What does the subway smell like now?

The Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao has built a “personal smell museum of Los Angeles,” where she lives. She’s cataloged the smells she encounters in her office, her neighborhood, “the glorious, artificial vanilla sweetness of a commercial bakery, and then, with absolutely no warning: the high stink of garlicky cured meat” she notices while driving.

In “A Natural History of the Senses,” the writer Diane Ackerman bemoans the inadequacy of language when it comes to describing smells. We tend to compare scents to other scents (“it smells smoky,” “it smells floral”) or we articulate how a smell makes us feel (say, “good” or “disgusting”). More powerful, she writes, is the link between scents and past experiences. “Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”

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We have “petrichor,” a single word that means “the scent of rain on dry soil,” which is glorious (one word for such a complex scent!) and disappointing (why isn’t English abundant with such concise words to describe specific scents?). It’s a noble pursuit, though, trying to describe what we smell. It’s creative, intimate, pulling from your memories to convey to another the experience of your own inhalation. Take how Rao describes a near-universal present-day experience: “If your sense of smell hasn’t been affected in the last few months, then what you smell in your own mask is familiar, private and monotonous — and impossible to ignore.”

That’s what I suspect people smell a lot more of on the subway now, that private interior of one’s own mask, itself ripe with memories. In her book, Ackerman calls breath “cooked air”: “There is a furnace in our cells,” she writes, “and when we breathe we pass the world through our bodies, brew it lightly, and turn it loose again, gently altered for having known us.”

What scents would you put in your own “personal smell museum?” What is the smell that, for you, is so singular and specific that you wish you had one word to describe it? What does it smell like where you are right now? Write to us: athome@nytimes.com. Include your name, age and location. We’re At Home. We’ll read every letter sent. If you were forwarded this newsletter or happened upon it online, sign up to receive it here. And as always, more inspiration for leading a full life at home appears below.

Credit…Markian Hawryluk/KHN
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Credit…Ryan Liebe for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.


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