The Pungent Punches of New York City Smells
….a pugilist with an authentic desire to win cannot be knocked out if he sees the punch coming, for then he suffers no lack of communication. The blow may hurt but cannot wipe him out. In contrast, a five-punch combination in which every blow lands is certain to stampede any opponent into unconsciousness. No matter how light the blows, a jackpot has been struck. The sudden overloading of the victim’s message center is bound to produce the inrush of confusion known as a coma.
— Normal Mailer in “The Fight” (1975)
New York City has a smell all its own.
Not a bad smell.
A smell — smell.
More like a smell of pungent punches.
Walking New York, day or night, anytime of year, wreaking from the clogged pores of pockmarked pavements and rising from the wrinkles and crevasses of sidewalks desperately in need of a good scrubbing down, is to accept on open invitation to an unbridled assault on one’s own human senses to which we become utterly defenseless, if not incapacitated. While we may in fact brace ourselves from this invading onslaught by covering our eyes and trying to gaze away from things galling us, and while we intentionally block out the steady annoyances of perpetual sounds displeasing to the human ear with iPods and iPhones, we cannot stop nor even slow down this infusion of curious smells all around. We must breath, after all.
Mask these smells — yes. We can do that. Eradicate them, no. Never.
Smells engulf us in ways other stimuli do not and can not. Whiff in too much at once, and the City’s weird mix of smells become a coma-inducing rat-a-tat of punches delivered without warning so rapidly that our olfactory system is quite simply unable to assimilate the thick and zesty gumbo of odors. This isn’t a wall of smells, really. More like a mallet. Several mallets. Dizziness cannot be too far off.
What’s it smell like? Imagine the smells of soupy filth leaking out from beneath torn garbage bags — of roasted almonds tastefully tempting the palate from street corner vendors — of exhaust fumes barreling out of city buses and delivery trucks — of burning wok oils — everything assaults. Take few steps and odors transform to something else. Something strange, yet oddly familiar. The smells of rising pizza dough — of perfumes of pretty and privileged people, maybe Boucheron, Vera Wang perhaps — of blue smoke funneling out of the tops of orange generators on construction sites — of a crusty blanket now abandoned laying on a city sidewalk which once gave warmth and provided some measure of comfort to someone now gone — it all overwhelms.
New York City’s smells really are both assaulting and overwhelming. This is especially true to those of us who do not reside here, we who are looked upon by these permanent resident armies of smells and a house band of sights and sounds, and a fire hydrant of tastes and sensations, as though we’re invaders stumbling into the wasps’ nest to be attacked, captured and then tossed into the giant cauldron, and then converted to the faith of New York behavior and thought.
Eventually, it happens. A sort of conversion comes. At least if you stay here long enough. An occasion is eventually reached when one no longer feels these punches, nor is impacted by them. It’s all a sort of inoculation by experience. Even if temporarily, one transitions into a New Yorker with bona fides when those strange smells that were once annoying begin to go unnoticed. They transform into part of the daily and nightly scenery. And soon, one can’t even begin imagine the City without them, as pungent as those punches once were.
When you think about it, some smells are not meant to avoided, nor should they be eradicated. And the stranger they are, the more curious we become. Dare I say even — some of these odd smells are to be enjoyed, and embraced. If and when that does happen, that’s when the round’s finally over. The punches were furiously thrown your way and you took each one, and still continue standing. And then — you can’t wait for the next round to begin.