Thursday, September 20, 2007

Holding my nose

So I haven’t cooked for myself in over a month. Thank you, graduate school.

The lack of activity in my kitchen, however, has not stopped my olfactory neurons from dancing around in my head. More scent has returned in the last two months than in the last two years combined.

And, frankly, it’s driving me insane.

It feels at times like my nose is going haywire. I’m hit by a smell—often new, sometimes indefinable—and I can’t concentrate. There are moments when I can hardly think beyond the thick, malodorous stench of a simple can of cat food.


A whiff of cologne on the street near my apartment stopped me in my tracks.

I opened a stiff old book at the library and its mildewed pungency sent shivers down my spine.

I sat near the water off of Hunts Point in the south Bronx, and found myself breathing through my mouth because the air smelled so briny that I felt sick.

The only thing I retained from a recent lecture on the ethics of journalism is the shower-fresh deodorant of the man next to me.

And just last night I stared at the stick of butter in my hand—still cold and in its wrapper—not believing that anything could so reek of salt and sweet cream.


My sense of smell is by no means fully back. Many things continue to exist purely in the textural and visual. But the world is certainly coloring itself in a different, thicker way.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that this is wholly due to my mood.

It’s been clear to me since the beginning of this whole loss-of-smell thing that the re-growth of my damaged olfactory neuron was strongly related to my memory and experience. The smells that returned first had everything to do with moments of happiness. The bad have stayed away or just slowly eked their way back into my consciousness.

And, right now, I’m happier. School is challenging. My apartment has large windows and a cat that only yowls when extremely grumpy. Fall is seeping back into the world and the newspaper’s pages crinkle just so.

If it means that sometimes I have to breathe only out of my mouth—like this afternoon, when I sat on a sunny bench in Union Square trying to read but couldn’t process anything besides the spicy scent of the pasta a woman was eating nearby—I’m OK with that. It’s rather exciting, actually.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

All That

I stood at the corner of Fulton and Broadway early yesterday morning. It was dark and drizzly; my black sandals were speckled with mud from an unsuspecting puddle. Water dripped off the stone porch of St. Paul’s Chapel behind me.

I was there to cover a memorial service for the sixth anniversary of 9/11. St. Paul’s Chapel—just a block from Ground Zero and an hour before the ringing of church bells echoed in memory of the first plane crash—was a solemn space. A sense of quiet reflection pervaded the crowds walking past me on the street.

I waited on the sidewalk for a friend from graduate school, taking a moment to collect myself before I began this reporting assignment, and ate an apple. It was one that I bought from the Brooklyn farmer’s market last weekend, crisp and cool with a gnarly stem.

And as I ate—watching the neon-vested crossing guard wave at a little boy across the street, the women with shiny hair and tipsy black heels and the men in business suits on blackberries walk by—I remembered a line from a piece that Joan Didion wrote when, at age thirty, she decided to leave New York for L.A. She speaks about her early days in the city, just a few years after college, when she was late to meet someone but bought a peach on Lexington Avenue and stopped to eat it on the corner.

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.

That essay—Goodbye to All That—lodged itself in my mind a long time ago. Joan Didion, as I have written before, is a favorite.

But right then—in front of the chapel that gave shelter to dust-covered passersby as they ran from the collapsing towers six years ago—that image of a young woman eating a peach, struck by the knowledge that there is a cost to life in New York City, resonated sharply.

Perhaps it was because, now one month into an intense graduate program of journalism, I am having more trouble than usual getting Didion out of my head. Perhaps it was because the effects of grief surrounded me, putting everything in broader focus. Or, perhaps, it was simply because I was there, on the street, eating an apple.

But, I stood there for a few minutes, waiting to begin reporting, and nothing tasted more apple than that apple, and nothing felt more New York than that damp New York sidewalk.