Whilst checking my reflection out in the window of the 51B several Tuesdays ago, I had the odd sensation that it was 2014.
It was a Friday evening, or perhaps Saturday. From the large mirror of my old London bathroom a smooth-faced, skinny-jeaned Stanley turned the cuffs up on his Urban Outfitters bomber jacket. On the countertop sat a still life: iPhone 5C connected to a speaker playing “Pure Heroine” by Lorde. I was going to see “The Grand Budapest Hotel”; I could not wait for my friends to know that I had attended such a cultured screening of such an obscure director.
“Are you boarding?” The American accent plucked me from this catatonic state of nostalgia.
“Sorry…” I replied to the bus driver, bumbling aboard.
This visceral deja vu had caught me out. I felt as if my stomach had been temporarily inverted, like when a turbulent plane suddenly dips.
Though this flashback could be traced to a distinguishable time and a place, what was particularly familiar was an overwhelming feeling of being 13 years old.
Somewhere within this feeling was a palm-sized bottle. Its frosted glass bled from teal to a halfhearted pink culminating in a cork-shaped black cap. In an ostensibly elegant typeface, the words Joop Homme interrupted the colors in a corporate white. It was the cologne I wore every day as a teen.
I hadn’t smelled it in four years until a man passed between me and the window of the 51B, and after him a tart, sugary, invisible cloud of memory.
This experience is not unique. Any smelling human will testify our noses’ capacities to evoke more fervently precise emotion than words or pictures ever can.
And it is no secret that our nostrils are exploited for this ability. Supermarkets ventilate their aisles with the smell of bread ovens and customers think: “freshness.” Dawn Goldworm, director of an “olfactive branding company,” ensures new Nike products smell like a rubber basketball sneaker as it scrapes across the court.
COVID-19 has highlighted scent’s importance tenfold. Positive cases, myself included, report a loss of smell. In our noses’ widespread – though temporary – paralyses, life without nostrils has enhanced an appreciation for life with.
But smell is more than a talking point for big business and pandemic lessons. Smell is the most articulate, direct and sentimental language of emotion.
This has become clear since I moved to California. Sometimes a familiar olfactory pebble skims the surface of my senses, momentarily disrupting the flatness to reveal a deep British blue of forgotten feeling before it vanishes under the quieting ripples of the here and now.
The sanitary spray in my local diner smells like the one used to clean up spilled lunches in my elementary school. From time to time, I find myself eating a Berkeley breakfast with the unworried elation of playground innocence trickling down my spine.
Using my current housemate’s laundry detergent takes me to the pillowcase of a Shabbat sleepover at a Jewish childhood friend’s house. Pangs of dread at the inevitable confession of my dislike for Latkes drift up from my shirt – and somewhere in there is an embarrassment at addressing my friend’s mother as “ema” because that is what he calls her in Hebrew.
My mother posted me my copy of Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” that I needed for a class. Within the package, she included the incense she usually burns. Turning a new page fans a familiar resiny woodiness — and the comfort of home — into Wheeler.
In the air I currently breathe there are undiagnosed smells that will bear nostalgic currency in several years. I can predict a few: burnt coffee on a Moka Pot, the musk of Main Stacks, my housemate’s shampoo. But I don’t know what feelings these smells will connote yet. The emotional intensity of smell is something that is realized with hindsight.
If we ask why smell is so emotionally intense, the most obvious answer is anatomical. The amygdala and the hippocampus (emotion and memory centers of the brain) are directly wired to our noses. But for me, this scientific justification for smell’s psychic punch just doesn’t feel like enough.
I think that smell’s dependence on physicality endows it with such sentimentality.
In the digital age, we can be reminded of someone’s voice or appearance at the press of a button. Physical proximity is not a barrier to seeing or hearing the far away.
Yet we still cannot smell them from a distance. It is true that recent research was conducted with the intent to allow iPhones to share odors (the oPhone). But for now, our noses are still inextricably dependent on time, and place. You must be there.
This way, smells are rare. And with their scarcity comes their power. A smell is an undeniable and beautiful indicator of presence.
So, listen to your nose. Cry with your nose. Smile with your nose. Think with your nose. It can be a time machine and a teleportation device. But more importantly, it’s the ultimate grounder, and it’s nobody else’s.