It was a Friday morning. The sun was out and the rays were already penetrating the dumpster right outside my studio’s front door. I struggled to open the door due to the sheer amount of crap I had to carry to work each day. A bag full of clean linens, a bag full of food, a bag containing my laptop, and my dented up hydro flask. I open the door to see my office mate and friend, Angie at her desk. Her mouth begins to open (likely to greet me with a happy good morning) when I interrupt her with a loud, “What in the world is that smell?” I’ve skipped the good morning, there’s no time for pleasantries. The smell in the building is palpable, three times that of the dumpster in the alleyway. It’s grotesque. It smells like fish!
“Smell? What do you smell?” Angie asks with true concern.
“Fish. I smell fish. How can you not smell that?” She stands up and turns her nose on. How a person doesn’t naturally have their nose turned on is something I will never truly understand as I have been cursed (not blessed) with the nose of a bloodhound.
“Oh, you’re right! It does smell bad.”
I can’t believe that she let a single minute pass without smelling the horrifying smell I will never unsmell. I drop my things, hydro flask receiving one more dent for its collection. I head for the back of the building, my nose leading the way. I reach the door that leads to the building's upstairs apartments. The smell increasingly stronger with each step I take, scenes of dead bodies play in my mind as the smell intensifies. I unlock the door and pull it open. As quickly as I open the door, I slam it shut.
“What was it?” Angie asks.
“Fish,” I say. “Dead fish.”
“Yes. Fish.” I look at her and point to the door. “You have to look.”
“Why do I have to look?” she asks.
I look at her in disbelief, of course, she has to look. I had to look, I had to smell it, one must commiserate with me on this. “I can’t text our landlord and tell him there are dead fish on the stairs without someone else witnessing there are dead fish on the stairs.” At this moment being a business owner sucks a little less than being a landlord with the dead fish laying suspiciously on the stairwell, nowhere near water.
“Okay, that’s fair.” She pulls the door open and slams it shut. “Fish. Those are fish alright.”
And so I do the unthinkable. I text my landlord the strangest message yet. This one taking the lead over the text concerning the guy upstairs who overflowed his bathtub sending his floor/my ceiling onto my gym floor.
Me: This is going to sound impossible, but, there are dead fish tossed down the stairs in the
studio. It smells so bad here.
Mike: I’m so sorry. Someone will be there immediately.
It turns out the guy down the hall really didn’t appreciate his eviction notice, and I get to smell it for the rest of the day.
I have an unfortunate gift. I can smell everything. I categorize it with my sensitivity to sound and my ability to cry during all important conversations, especially with complete strangers. I’ve become misty-eyed at almost every job interview I’ve had. Just about all of my clients have seen me cry, and if my husband hasn’t seen me well up in the last 24 hours he probably wonders if I’ve been abducted by aliens. This is a gift and I would return if I could–though I'm not sure what is worse, escaping a bad smell or silencing the noises around you (your husband sitting next to you crunching on his carrots or the guy in the movie theater next to you opening bag after bag of candy. How much food does a person need to consume to make it through a 90-minute movie?) You can cover up bad smells with room fresheners and, believe it or not, general cleanliness. A lot can be accomplished by taking out the trash or putting on deodorant.
Yet, putting on deodorant isn’t something all people do. For a year we fought our 16-year-old to take a shower, change his clothes, or at the very least put on deodorant. The responses ranged from:
“I thought you loved me.”
“Why are you so mean?”
And my favorite, a simple “Wow” (emphasis on the first ‘w’)
Though we made progress and by 18 he seems to be mostly sufficient, there is still a significant issue with the odor that comes from his feet. Turns out that changing your socks falls into a different category than changing your clothes. With any hope, we’ll get there. Now it’s the pubescent girl’s turn. A recent hug from her followed with my advice: deodorant is not optional anymore. Maybe when she was 9 or 10 she could skip it, but womanhood is sneaking up on her, and with that comes fun new smells.
It turns out putting on deodorant is a life skill–one I hope to teach my kids. As astonishing as it sounds I’ve actually been faced with having to tell an employee that he smelt bad–customers were noticing. And more than once. These were grown adults!
The first case of employee BO was explained as a medical condition. Deodorant gave him a rash. It was a medical condition that made him unbearable to be in the same room with. Nothing makes me wish for my beloved COVID mask like close proximity to someone convinced his only option was to smell bad. After my husband had to drive to a job site with him in his truck I couldn’t ride in his truck for weeks without saying, “It still smells in here.”
There’s nothing worse than telling someone else they smell bad. Maybe it is a sign of true comfort in a relationship when you can work up the nerve to tell someone, “Hey, I love you, but your breath stinks,” or “Hey man, did you forget deodorant today?” But if that kind of relationship isn’t established chances are avoidance is the best cure.
My first massage co-worker and I shared an office for seven years. While together we learned that we were a match made in heaven. Our noses battled for the ‘smallest tolerance level.’ Who would smell the trash first, her or me? She would come out of her massage and tell me what I had for lunch based on the smell she caught as I ate in the other room. At first, I thought she was judging me for my boring chicken and broccoli with rice. But she was just bragging about her sensitivity. The general smell of food in the workplace is another dislike of mine. You walk into a professional setting (in my case, you walk into the gym) and you smell steamed broccoli–yuck.
During the short stint I had working at home, my massage clients would walk into my house and smell chili as they crawled onto my warm-coxy massage table. Why did this bother me? One client commented, “Mmm dinner smells good!” I followed it up with an apology. I was so self-conscious about what my clients smelt when they walked into my house that when we got cats and had to bring a litterbox into our home I greeted my clients not with a “hello” but instead by saying, “I'm sorry about the litter box smell!” I”m not sure if people were trying to be polite or trying to point out their incompetent noses when they replied, “I don’t smell it?” Needless to say, the litterbox situation had to change. The cats eventually got their own room with a cat door cut into the wall. Possibly as my husband cut a hole into the wall to contain the litter box smell I realized that my overzealous nose had a major impact on my life. It worked though, problem solved, cat smell contained.
Of all the smells that I can’t ignore, there is one I have a higher tolerance for. Gas. The accidental, I didn’t mean to pass gas, gas. It would seem that gas should bother me the most, but most people don’t actually want to have gas around other people. It’s an accident and it can’t be solved by taking a shower, changing your clothes, or putting deodorant on. One could argue that a healthier diet may fix it, and it may. But having gas is something that I haven’t ever gotten worked up about like BO. On the contrary, smelling up someone’s bathroom without the courtesy of spraying room spray over it is unacceptable. My brother-in-law will say (in a Sean Connery accent) that covering up poop smell with room spray creates a new smell, shitrus. But I think it’s polite.