What Does a Doorknob Smell Like?: A Smelling Tour of New York

07/13/2012 9:50 AM |

Some things no one wanted to smell
  • Some things no one wanted to smell

A very patient Chinese shopgirl is staring at me. I can tell she wants to say something, but since she’s not really sure what the hell me and the small Brazilian woman next to me are doing, she stays quiet. My companion, artist Josely Carvalho, picks up a bowl of dried cod flakes and pushes them up toward my nostrils. She says, hopefully, “Really smell it. They dry these out themselves. What does that make you think of?”

The link between memory and smell is the focus of “7 through The Nose,” a “smell walk” of New York City. And not just any neighborhood. After meeting up in Midtown, our small group (each tour holds 10) was whisked all the way out to Flushing. One of the women in our group, in a white linen top and artsy turquoise necklace, kept muttering “How exciting!” on our overcrowded (and decidedly unexcited) 7 train.

Carvalho’s tour is a part of her “Diary of Smells” project, as well as part of the third season of city walks from Todd Shalom’s Elastic City collective. Shalom came up with the idea for artist-led tours while suffering from altitude sickness on a trip to Cusco, Peru. He applies a lot of theatrical jargon to his work, holding “rehearsals” for his artist/guides, and referring to our unplanned route as “improvisation.” The company presents a series of round-the-world walking tours led by artists. Previous walks have taken place in Paris, Sao Paolo, and Reykjavik.

The pungent Flushing is certainly appropriate for a smell walk. Carvalho led the group around, occasionally stopping to sniff doorknobs, food carts, telephones, and mailboxes, which smell like wet pennies. (Not recommended.) As we left, Carvalho ran around a food cart with skinny kabobs packed onto the grill. (The scent of Flushing’s food offerings proved too tempting for some of the group; we lost some to the aroma of the dumpling house. Fortuitous remaining members treated ourselves to an expansive Malaysian group-dinner afterward.)

We stopped into a pet store and discovered that fish tanks don’t really have a scent. Then, while sniffing the cage of a precocious cockatiel, I stopped to tell everyone about my budgie from when I was 10: his name was Coolio, and he used to bob his head to rap music and hide in the lamp hanging above our staircase. My monologue was the sort of thing Carvalho wanted to provoke; the tour was meant to make us explore our old memories, evoked through olfaction. “This is a meditation on the awareness of place and smell!” she said, bending to inhale a grocer’s trough of peaches. Sniffing a bonsai in a florist’s shop brought up memories of moving apartments in the middle of the summer. It’s not that any of the smells are particularly new; I mean, we all know what peaches smell like. It’s more about the memory of the last time you had a peach, the time, the day, whether it was ripe, who else was there.

Throughout the tour we were prodded to write down smells that we liked, to recount “smell memories” for the tour’s unofficial videographer, and to gather one particular scent into a smell flask provided for us in a gift bag at the beginning of the tour. Ever the procrastinator, I waited till we were at dinner and ripped out a few strips from the back page of my summer reading and funneled them down the bottle’s neck. Jean-Paul Sarte’s Nausea smells like existentialism and my hand lotion. Another woman passed around her bottle after dinner to be breathed in, and labeled it “The scent of 8 people’s breath after Malaysian food.”

“I don’t think anyone is going to enjoy that one very much,” she said.

The last scheduled session of “7 Through the Nose,” a must-attend for those who’ve never experienced the unique fragrance of Flushing, is Saturday. If you miss the walks, you can also check out Carvalho’s website for pictures and stories from her smell walk and other “Smell Diaries” stories.