In a Smelly Summer, Our Team of Noses Sniffs Up the City

The second day of August brought a blue sky and a fine breeze to the southern edge of Central Park, and with it the pedestrians came. Some admired freshly penned likenesses by street artists. Others sat in the plaza and listened to the fountain. Along Central Park South, from the Plaza Hotel to the New York Athletic Club, flags caught and snapped. And across the boulevard, several waiting carriage horses stood swishing their tails. A tall, silver-haired man passed the pack, and drew a sharp breath. “Whoo,” David Apel said. “Old horse urine.” Mr. Apel would know. He’s a perfumer.

With the hottest July on record, this summer season has smelled as brightly as a summer garden–and as awful as the stairwell to a G-train platform. A stretch of 90-degree days not only made the pigeons sit down in the middle of the sidewalk, but swelled every molecule–fragrant and malodorous–to capacity.

As almost any New Yorker knows, smells are an intrinsic part of the city dweller’s autobiography, and indeed part of the city’s own story. Of the five senses, smell has the longest emotional memory. It is also the most high-impact. It works as quickly as grain alcohol at 35,000 feet. And each neighborhood has its own special scent, though denizens might not always be able to decode those.

Toward that end, The Observer ventured out into the sun-scorched streets with the enlisted help of five experts: David Apel, a perfumer at Fragrance Resources, a firm whose clients include Christian Dior and Ralph Lauren; Avery Gilbert, a sensory psychologist with a master’s degree in evolutionary biology and a doctorate in psychology; Christopher Brosius and Christopher Gable, perfumer and president, respectively, of Demeter Fragrances, a firm that produces more than 140 single-note scents; and Victoria Alin, an independent consultant with eight years of experience in the fine fragrance industry. In a spirit that was one part science and two parts Baedeker, they located the city’s sweet spots–mainly around upper Central Park–and its smellier ones–generally downtown, East River side.

Victoria Alin put it this way: “From an olfactory point of view, New York is this canvas, and on the canvas you have curry, and then subway with urine, and then flowers at the corner deli, and then cappuccino in the cafes.”

At the end of July, Avery Gilbert took a seat at a coffee shop on Union Square and began to explain the basics of Olfactory Physiology 101. He was having eggs, sausage, toast and espresso.

“Odors are just volatile molecules light enough to evaporate. So you breathe them up in your nose. You actually only smell with a particular part of the nasal passages. Behind the eyes, up there, there’s a little patch on either side, about the size of a dime or a nickel, that’s got the sensory cells. And they have these little cilia, little spaghetti-like strands that hang in there, a little mucus layer there. And the odor molecules come in through that liquid area and then connect with receptors on the surface of those cells, and they grab the molecules. It’s a lock-and-key kind of thing.”

Mr. Gilbert sipped his espresso. “When a sufficient number of molecules bind to receptors on the cell, that cell sends a signal. These signals are transmitted along the olfactory nerves to a structure called the olfactory bulb, a relay station, which then sends the information further into the brain. That’s the gross anatomy.”

Then came the interesting part. “There’s a few destinations in the brain: the cortex, for awareness; the amygdala, for emotional judgment–as soon as the information gets up there, the amygdala’s going, ‘Like it, hate it, O.K., really hate it,’ before you’re really thinking about it but throwing your head back and going, Eeew; and the hippocampus, which is critical for memory formation. That’s the place where people point to the dramatic connection between memory and smells.

“Other than that, the anatomy’s kind of unknown,” he said.

Has the olfactory systems been neglected in the course of sensory medicine? “Oh, yeah,” said Mr. Gilbert, whose firm, Synesthetics, researches multisensory experience. “It’s the orphan of the senses.”

As Mr. Gable put it, “There are a lot of words for how things taste, and what they look like, sound like. But there are very few words for how things smell. The human brain recognizes only 130 scent molecules–that’s the vocabulary from which you have to build a scent.”

“There’s something about shrimp shells and tails in the sunshine,” said literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, who lives on the Upper West Side across the street from an Ollie’s noodle shop at 84th Street and Broadway. “And they try very hard to get it away, but I notice. I used to walk my basset over there–Norman is now dead–and I usually wear black pants, like, black silk pants. And I noticed that they were getting white on the bottom, and I couldn’t imagine what–had I been in white paint? And it seems that in the middle of the night they come out, and they hose down the sidewalk to kill the smell with Clorox and soap, and I was bleaching my pants. I mean, what could I do? I would give up the pants to have the smell go away.”

For Alex Lee, the 35-year-old executive chef of Daniel, the New York City Greenmarket, “is definitely a good-smelling place. Especially now with all the stoned fruits–local cherries and gooseberries, apricots–and very fragrant, almost perfume-y smelling melons.” He went on. “I don’t know if I would pick out a specific one, but there’s a whole host of bakeries. Certain places that you walk by and the exhaust fan is hanging out and you’re smelling something really good, and it makes you really hungry.”

“On the 42nd Street shuttle platform, there’s this strange smell, putrid, concentrated–like rotten eggs in a hot closet,” said Saveur magazine editor Colman Andrews. “And then once you get into a car, you get this very complex set of aromas and it gets interesting. You can almost tell what people have been eating. There are people who’ve doused themselves with Polo, or lavender talcum powder, and then there’s an undertone of dried vomit–somebody’s gotten sick earlier in the corner of the subway car–and then there’s somebody unwrapping a Whopper. This is really worse in summer because cold weather dampens the volatility of aromas of all kinds.”

David Rakoff, a freelance New York writer, recalled a recent subway experience. “I was on the 57th Street platform standing beside a pillar, and I smelled something. It was this noxious, absolutely infernal smell, like I actually thought I was smelling someone dead. But what was so strange was, like, the North Ontario lakes of my youth where you could swim two strokes and be on top of some incredibly chilly current, and then swim two feet and be away from the cold water–I moved two feet forward up the platform and for some reason the smell dissipated. The one good thing about the weather and the bad smells is that since the air does not move, sometimes you need move only two feet away not to smell it. The air’s not moving anywhere and these [odors] just sit there like Jell-O molds.”

“At 59th Street near the Plaza near Central Park, you have this smell of horse urine. And that’s prime real estate, and it reeks,” said late-night talk-show host Robin Byrd. “You avoid it with a passion.”

In scientific language, horse urine is para cresyl iso valerate. David Apel uncapped a bottle of the stuff. “The problem is not the horses,” he said. “Horses smell great. It’s that they stay in that exact place and urinate, and the sun bakes it. If they were on soil, that would be wonderful.”

Mr. Apel was darting about a small gray-hued room seven stories up from the Paris Theater, looking for a raw material called costus. He grabbed a faceted green glass bottle from a shelf and unstoppered it to dip a long white finger of blotting paper. “This is clean sweat,” he said, “what we think of as a clean scalp without the shampoo.” It smelled unlike anything, even unlike a baby. “And this is dirty,” said Mr. Apel, offering another strip. It smelled like cumin.

He continued to take down bottles. In all, there were some 800 of various sizes on shelves, in drawers and in a refrigerated case. This was Fragrance Resources’ lab, where perfumers create scents and compose precise formulas. No quantifying happens here–there’s no, say, decibel scale for smells–but there is plenty of description. And association.

Often smells evoke … nothing. Anosmia.

“Someone is anosmic to something if he or she can’t smell it,” said Mr. Apel. “In New York City, people are anosmic to pavement–that smoky, incensey hydrocarbon thing–and also to exhaust fumes. Except when a bus passes. I don’t think they’re anosmic to garbage, probably because it’s a primal thing–’Get away, Don’t eat, Don’t touch.’ That goes for fecal odors too. Tar isn’t threatening. People aren’t wired for tar.”

He reached for another bottle.

“This is borderline garbage,” he said, holding a wetted tip aloft. It smelled of decaying cantaloupe.

Mr. Apel dipped again–into pine and mandarin oil, frankincense and myrrh. He pulled down something called honeybee and then nonadienal, which smelled like cucumber peel. Butyl butyryl lactate smelled like sour milk, and humus like wet earth: “It has that after-the-rain kind of earthiness to it,” said Mr. Apel.

In the right circumstance, the smell might be calming. “The idea behind aromatherapy is this power of suggestion to get you to back up,” said Mr. Apel. “Put a little lavender oil in your bath and smell it. You’re setting your mind up for it. What calms you down is getting yourself psyched for it.”

But sometimes the calming effect comes from the comfort of recognition. Here are some smells of this Manhattan summer.

Wall Street

Mr. Apel was standing outside the doors of 11 Wall Street, home to the New York Stock Exchange. It was 4:30 P.M. Traders whooshed through the doors. “Stale tobacco and cigars, and heavy-duty cologne,” said Mr. Apel. “You don’t smell money, you smell the trappings of money.”

He continued down Wall Street, past No. 40, the former Manhattan Company Building. Large gold letters spelled out Trump. “It smells like sausages,” said Mr. Apel.

He continued walking, calling out names of popular scents: Eternity, Hugo, Aramis. He gestured toward a woman. “There’s Chanel No. 5.”

Downtown, East Side

“We have a lot of vomit and urine smells on Ludlow and Orchard streets because of the bars,” said Community Board 3 member Marcia Lemmon. “Some restaurants have these backyard gardens which they’ll use for trash storage on days when trash isn’t picked up, and, of course, in the summer, it just ferments.” But Ms. Lemmon doesn’t consider her district–which runs from 14th Street to the Brooklyn Bridge and from the East River to Fourth Avenue–a smelly one. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d give us a 6 in terms of odors,” she said. “It all depends, though, because sometimes around Tompkins Square Park, depending on how washed or unwashed the bodies are, it could get up to a 10 or even a 10.5.”


On the final Friday in July, the mercury holding in the 90’s, Christopher Brosius stopped to survey the goods at the Fat Choy Food Market Inc., at 218 Canal Street, between Baxter and Mulberry streets. There was Canada lobster, blue crab, geoduck clams, soft-shell crab, Alaska stone crab, bluefish, swordfish, tuna, all immersed in water or sweating it out on beds of ice.

Mr. Brosius squatted at a tray of eels. “This water has a real oceanic tidal pool smell to it,” he said. “It has a heavy aspect of smaller channels.” In other words, pretty fresh water. He stood again and regarded the moist sidewalk.

“The water, since it’s coming from melting ice that the fish is sitting on, has a double impact because it’s going down on the hot sidewalk, heating up, releasing all the molecules and the fishy stuff and making the sidewalk smell a bit ranker than just the fresh fish would.” He adjusted his oversize black lenses.

“I give it a 5 here, ’cause it’s not making me throw up, but it’s not making me love it.” What if someone stood directly in front for a while? “It could make them sick to their stomach, on the right day, particularly one without any breakfast.”

Upper East Side

Ms. Alin and a reporter paused in front of a Starbucks at 87th Street and Lexington Avenue. “There’s a mix of coffee and bad subway smell,” said Ms. Alin, looking toward the subway grate. Entering the shop, Ms. Alin shook her head. “Eeew! This is some kind of cleansing agent to get rid of bacteria. This is horrible.” Classical music trilled overhead. “There’s a piney smell. There’s no coffee here. I’m sorry, I’m a Starbucks loyalist, but I put this smell at an 11.”

The ladies’ room was better. “This is sweet, vanilla, fruity. Cheap air fragrance–a 3.”

A quick taxicab ride brought Ms. Alin to 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue. “Here, this is a 2,” she said, alighting on the curb. “Fresh, green.” She looked up. “Although, the trees are in shock.” An oak tree showed some brown leaves.

She made her way into the park, toward Bethesda Fountain. There was nothing too strange, despite trash bags floating in a filmy lake. Ms. Alin proceeded to the underpass. “Ugh!” she said by a stone bench. “This is a 10.”

Upper West Side

Mr. Apel and a reporter ducked into Fairway on 75th Street and Broadway to test the air. “Cinnamon buns,” he said. According to at least one study (not done by Mr. Apel), cinnamon toast causes men’s sap to rise. (For women, the aphrodisiac was licorice candy, such as Good n’ Plenty.) “It makes you hungry,” said Mr. Apel. He sidled past some produce toward the high-piled cheese section. “I feel like I’m in a wine cellar, this earthly richness,” he said. Soon, he was breathing basil at a rack of fresh herbs. Fairway got a 2.

Outside, there were piles of strawberries, plums, melons, mangoes. “I don’t smell a garbage odor, or anything predominant,” said Mr. Apel. He eyed a small puddle in the street, then stopped suddenly. “Uph–here I do. Wet newspaper.” Before him corn was piled high. “Wet newspaper,” he said, and kept walking toward 74th Street. “Wet newspaper.” Around the corner stood several bundles of damp cardboard boxes.


“In New York,” said Mr. Gilbert, “you have your typical tableaux. You have the incense guys, with their fold-up tables. You get your charcoal-nut guys.” Walking up University Place, just past 13th Street, he stopped short at a pool of stagnant water in the gutter, just south of a bus stop. “Ugh,” he said. “Ugh. Yeah. Foul. Cheesy. Bad cheesy.” He started to walk again. “I think that’s a rancid pool of water. That was really vomitous, you know?”

Just past Balducci’s on Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street, Mr. Gilbert and a reporter fell in step behind a young woman. She wore platform sandals, a tight denim skirt with a slit in back, and hair in Princess Leia buns. Mr. Gilbert did his detective work: “Oriental, kind of, citrus,” he said. “She’s wearing no underwear.”

With William Berlind, Sam Charap, Andrew Goldman, Gabriel Snyder and Christopher Tennant. In a Smelly Summer, Our Team of Noses Sniffs Up the City