On Olfactory Memory

What is it about Over-the-Rhine that makes it feel so strongly like home? Is it the architecture? The urban density? The walkability? It’s certainly not the German heritage, the racial tension, or the impending gentrification. No, the connection is much more insidious than any of that.

To trace the connection, I have to go back to the first time I returned home from college. I took the Short Line to Port Authority, rushed from the bus terminal to the subway station and, suddenly and overwhelmingly, knew I was home. How? It took me a while [a few years, in fact] to realize that the sickeningly-sweet stench of stale urine indicated that I was where I needed to be.

Isn’t it funny how olfactory memory works? This smell, which is actually close to unbearable, is with me when I turn from Central Parkway onto Race. It gets stronger as I approach 13th St. It smells like the stairwell in the building in which I grew up. It’s not good, or pleasant, or desirable, but something about it is right. It represents what I understand to be a problem, but what I feel is comfort.

Piss is right up there with onions cooking and 4711, smells that are so powerful to me that they transcend reason, and the connections they form can’t conform to things I rationally understand. These smells are good because they remind me of situations in which I have found comfort, not circumstances that were necessarily comforting.

And yet… Despite my understanding of causality, of urban issues, of social problems, when I turn the corner and catch a whiff, I know I’m home, not because it’s good, but because it’s me. It doesn’t really make sense because emotional attachments don’t really make sense.

I don’t know what my ideal city would look like. I understand urban life largely as a “pushing against” — that quality is crucial, and many things I’ve written about city life start from that assumption. Is feeling insignificant rationally better? Maybe not. But, that is the experience I know and, with all my emotional conviction, I hold it dear.

Thanks to CityKin’s post The Elephants in the Room for reminding me of some of these issues. One day, I might write something about the music I like versus the music I know, which might capture some other nuances.

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11 thoughts on “On Olfactory Memory

  1. The closest thing to piss in the suburbs, that I can think of, is the smell of freshly applied lawn care chemicals. At least piss is organic.

    It is kind of reassuring that the emotional attachment to that which is familiar even if “wrong” is stronger than reason.

  2. It’s definitely stronger than reason, and I think that my comfort with alienation and insignificance are also wrapped up in my understanding of the city. None of these qualities are generally regarded as positive, but I guess you love what you know.

    Is any Westerner capable of organic piss anymore? Maybe Dan from Park+Vine; I think the rest of us may as well be pissing lawn fertilizer.

  3. Yes, the urine bouquet. I grew up in Jersey, with it’s late 60’s, early 70’s petrochemical smells. When we cut school to hang out in Manhattan, the urine smell seemed exotic to our pre-pubescent schnozzes.

    To the urine smell add garlic and oregano from pizza carry-outs, sweet and sour sauce on a low burner in the Chinese carry-out, bus exhaust, ozone from the Lackawanna m.u.’s throwing the occasional sparks while rolling with their pantographs
    in contact with the overhead wire, and the smell of leaded gasoline and spent motor oil at gas stations that actually did car repairs.

    Home can be a time as well as a place. Nobody wants to go back
    to leaded gasoline, for example. How can the smell of something toxic be a comfort? Piss we can live with.

  4. David, are you sure you’re not really Steven Jesse Bernstein? Listen.

    Anyway, you’re absolutely right that home is a time and not just a place. I’m fascinated by this intersection between time and place, and where exactly this olfactory sentimental attachment resides, because it’s certainly not within reason, and probably not in the place per se. Even that moment in time, in a way, is tainted by whatever lack of knowledge, or misperceptions, one may have had then. It’s probably not anything to which one would really want to return, and yet it still has a hold on the psyche.

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