Friday, December 28, 2018

Dollars and Scents

One of the oddest Christmas gifts 'Santa' brought me as a girl was this 'Make Your Own Perfume' kit. Inside the box were small corked tubes and vials of various scented liquids; you'd mix them like a chemist into little colored bottles and personalize your concoction with a little included sticker-label which you could 'sign' and color in as you chose.  It had a short shelf-life, this 'toy'... within a few days all of the liquids had been poured so many times through the little funnel apparatus, back and forth, that every formula smelled pretty much the same-- like when you stuck your nose in your Aunt Mary's parlor potpourri bowl.

Besides, none of the little containers and vials had a milliliter of the appeal of those exotic and glamorous perfumes on your mother's vanity.  Forbidden to your little hands since you poured a few of them out one rainy afternoon, they lounged on the mirrored tabletop like glass-clad sex kittens.  Some had their own little velvet coats and stoles.  One I remember was shaped like a spiral shell and didn't even stand on its own.  My mother dressed-up for an evening out was something else-- elegant and sparkling... but most of all the smell of her, when she kissed us goodnight-- was elevating and always faintly Arpège.  In her long black gown with the rhinestone straps, it was distinctly Chanel No. 5.  Days later I could bury my nose in her dress-coat and there it would be... the vision of jewelry and coiffed hair-- limousines and corsages under glass...

The rest of the time, her hands smelled vaguely of onions and cigarettes.  But her kitchen-- despite the morning coffee and her re-heated doughnuts--- always hid the sweet ghost of cookies-- banana bread, cream icings and cheesecakes-- apple pies and brownies.  She was an intuitive and serious baker.  With her ancient kitchen-aid mixer and her pre-war oven, she understood the seductive language of butter and fresh vanilla, baker's chocolate and meringues.  As she fades into my past, her complex scent remains.

She took motherhood seriously and while I was something of a tomboy, she began to train us; my sister had lessons in Shalimar... sweet and spicy and in-your-face but it worked for her cheerleadery image.  For me it was after-bath Jean-Naté--  lotion and powder, both of which mostly evaporated by morning...  but they are part of my teenage identity.

In my 20's in the city, I hung out with one of the Halston models who doused me with their perfume and kept me well-stocked.  It was perfect--  like a signature.  Into middle age, when I gave up perfumes and make-up... I kept a supply of the bath powder which lasted for years.   And as for men, I hated the 60's Canoe and Old Spice... but all my best memories of uncompromised sex are tinted with Patchouli.  A few years ago I tried to buy a box of Halston talc (discontinued)...  so the same apparent box arrived-- wrapped.. but inside, was a strange clone of the original.  Like digital music--- it just lacked something.

On the streets of the city-- in restaurants, dressing rooms, churches, museums-- everyone seems to have a scent now.  Every pop-star and reality housewife has their own concoction, and the counters of department stores are cluttered with brands and logos that suggest exotic places and situations-- but so few of them live up to the legend.  A few decades ago there was briefly this 'Opium' that seemed intriguing-- but now--- everyone smells fruity and glazed--- like they are covering something worse.

I bought a bottle of Tide the other day-- 'original scent' it is labeled; it is anything but.   I have tried 'unscented', bleach alternative-- spring fresh... clothes-fresh... they are all synthetic and hideous.  Ditto dishwashing liquids and even cosmetics.  The advanced laboratory possibilities of smell-chemistry make anything possible.  There are thousands of flavors of lipstick, toothpaste, seltzer, beer, gatorade... but they all seem to tumble precipitously further and further from the real thing.  Like the olfactory version of elevator music, it feels manipulative-- more artifice than authentic.

The number of people who have fake trees at Christmas astounds me.  The smell of Christmas is so uber-important in my home.  No matter how poor we have been, the tree is mandatory.  A friend was teasing me last week and asked-- is that the kind that smells like grapefruit?  Grapefruit?  So have trees been bred to conform to cultural expectations and the kind of distorted norm that now dominates perfume recipes? Or had he lost the ability to distinguish?  It's no wonder, in this city of exhaust and fumes, traffic congestion, competitive street vendors, incense burners and essential oil-salesmen... a thousand varieties of air-fresheners and atmospheric 'masks'-- the  domestic epidemic of scented candles... that people have lost the 'scent'.  We hire dogs to sniff out bomb and bedbugs... and we who think we are such sophisticated wine and food connoisseurs-- many of us are clueless and nose-scammed.

I read this week that Woolrich is going out of business.  How I remember the wooly smell of those double-knit sweaters we wore like loggers beneath our jackets on the ski-slopes... where the snow smelled more arctic-- and the vague smoke of burning logs welcomed us back home to a real fire and cocoa made from baker's chocolate and bottled milk I can no longer reproduce.  Even the smell of money has changed.... clean sheets, natural hair, car interiors, books, corn flakes--- everything seems altered.  My mother's drawer of old cashmere-- even the labels looked handmade.  She kept them in tissue paper... the vague, soft scent of wool and Lanvin when you opened that drawer.... my children do not have these memories; nor will their children.

In Williams-Sonoma they were selling a candle called 'Winter Forest'... it simulates the piney smell of a fir... for people with fake trees and electric fireplaces.  But I still remember the vintage city smell of winter--- it was clean and bluish and starry.  I pass certain bakeries and think of my Mom--- the butter and fresh vanilla-- the rich traditional ingredients you can't really alter... but her perfume--- none of today's fragrances have the magic of the ones in her little collection.  I am well aware the memory of her scent and the scent of these memories will evaporate with me... The world moves on, new sweaters are produced by machines with yarns made of many kinds of materials.   My mother used to sit by the real fire and knit, with dyslexic left-handed mastery... things I would give a hundred Christmas trees now to find in an old box and bury my nose in the scent of what has been lost.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

What U Need

What u need Mama, a homeless man asked me this morning, effectively reversing roles? Very little, I didn't reply, thinking of the holidays and the 'neediest cases' the newspapers used to publish daily in the weeks before Christmas... the downhill, the slippery cold slope that ends with a wall-slam on January 1.

I've recently been working a temporary job-- just to bridge the financial gap in my life... it's limited and will end with the year, but it's given me a dose of  the 9-5 commuting 'cram', the stress of train-delays and overcrowding passenger nastiness, and a sense of my own reality-- people occasionally offer me their seat, because I am often the oldest occupant of the downtown 6 morning jam.  But it's the Saturday morning trip that brings the entertainment-- like a traveling sideshow.  The cars are just full enough for audience and the tourist density is highest... here come the indie rappers, Mexican huarache bands, crooners and sax players-- break dancers and acrobats... one after another, they enter, announce, perform and pass the hat between stations. They have it down to a 90-second kind of thing... like an on-air radio commercial; timing is everything.

Then there are the underground evangelists-- the spreaders of gospel or frustrated actors who need to soliloquize publicly-- to declaim, orate.  Most of them, sadly, are either mediocre or misled.  The boy who is 23 and giving us his urban poetry-slam-- well, he is neither edgy nor clever nor really angry but a clichéd living instagram-meme.  I don't want his little scraps for $1.  I want him to stop.

Mostly there are the beggars-- the city untouchables-- the homeless shelter-evaders, the un-censused, non-counted, failed hustlers and drug casualties.  Last Saturday we had 'Phil'.  He was young-- not as young as he claimed-- the first scam-- he worked the 'just trying to get my knapsack and schoolbooks' angle... and he was dirty.  Caked with old black soilage everywhere-- as though he'd been sleeping on the tracks for weeks.  Acne-scarred and needle-pocked... greasy haired and clothed in soot-dyed jeans and a coat of filth.  And he was thin-- his clothes hung... his knuckles stood out when he offered his hand, because he didn't even have a cup for coins.  When I was small my Mom used to sing us this little limerick about 'Garbage Phil'... it was funny and she would hold her nose and squinch her face up.  But here he was-- an Irish boy from Staten Island... me, with my sad, uber-empathetic, old-mothery eyes looking... knowing I walk the streets without even a coin some days... just my SNAP card... telling us we were good fuckin people-- not like the ones from his borough who were a bunch of scumbags... but no one stuck their hand in a pocket except to extract a phone... me-- I had 7 cents from money I pick up on the street-- and I shamefaced put this into Phil's blackened hand on my way onto the Union Square platform, and Phil forgave me... you're a decent fuckin woman, he said... and I prayed for his angel... for the one that put a wad of $550 in a money clip on the street beneath my feet as I crossed with my baby boy one hungry winter night, years back.

The Saturday before, we had Kyle.  Kyle got on and began his bitter speech... he had a dog... a wife... no dogs in shelters...  and then we were at his stop... his timing was definitely amateur and he had no minute to make the rounds so he cursed us all, through his prematurely toothless mouth, from his face caked in the same soot as Phil's... in those extra seconds it always takes as they maneuver the moveable platform into place... interminable, punishing seconds of Kyle's acid wrath, the simmering malice of untended need like an emotional ulcer... and there is no hand into which to place any pathetic offering... there is only the flush of shame, standing there beside him, inhaling his untended canine scent.

This is his 'stop'... what is the meaning of that, for the homeless-- that this is where HRA has its linoleum-floored headquarters, yes... where you sit in the stale air-blown on plastic seats in a room facing forward with no music or reading material besides barking signs-- where uniformed guards stand by and ignore... where women in cubicles take their time pushing papers around, sharing holiday candy, giggling, talking on phones... while Kyle sits and waits...?

I have never seen so many homeless as around Union Square-- like a cult, like a community-- they sprout everywhere with their signs and blankets.  On the corner of 4th Ave... underneath the Food Emporium there is a cluster-- wrapped in layers like Arctic explorers, with their sleeping-cardboard and tents of old coats.... a young man from my train, I have noticed... daily... puts a bill into the pouch of a woman there... as though he knows her, as though there is some relationship.  I love this man--- he does it so nonchalantly... I wait for him, mornings--- because it gives me some joy.  Thank you, I want to say to him-- not to the Salvation Army saints ringing bells, but to him-- I imagine his arm like a chimney and then there is coffee and doughnuts inside the supermarket cafe for these people who are more or less as welcome there as in the HRA lobby.

On the platform heading toward the L train is The Little Drummer boy.  A young man without arms... with small hands attached to his shoulders who sits and plays-- shirtless, with a strange plump egg-body and tiny legs.  He keeps time... not too loud... and you want to cover him-- it is not pretty, his torso from the back as you come upstairs.  It is freezing even in the station... but there is no sweater that would let his little hands do their acrobatic flipping with the sticks... he plays on like a wind-up toy, with about the same lack of grace.  No crowd gathers... it is difficult to watch, this side-show... I want to ask the sidewalk saints to be sure and share their bucket with him... I want to cover him with a blanket... a vest, I am thinking... a down vest... for Christmas.. but I can't figure out how not to insult him.  And so, I add him to my list of the Neediest.

At my job there is a circulating memo for supplies: Things We Need, it is called. On the list is an order for hand soap which they use here; ordering, I have learned that one small pump-outfitted bottle costs $78.  That is maybe my food budget for the month.  The new hedge-fund family below me who combined and renovated 4 apartments needs many, many deliveries of new furnishings.  The daily pile of boxes would make several tent-homes for the homeless of Union Square...

As for me, I need nothing.  Not even lunch today... a tin of cookies arrived here, a gift of some bank or supplier for this place-- and they are not quite up to the gourmet taste of people who use $78 hand soap.  So I will eat them... and leave some for the drummer boy who might be insulted by my coin contributions but maybe will condescend to take a holiday food-break.  The timekeeper-- he of all people is aware that the year is running down, like an old battery... and what we need, all of us, is that which evades us all equally.