In the Soho Bloomingdale’s the other day, a young woman teetering on heels stopped me. “Marc Jacobs, Blush,” she said, proffering a perfume bottle, her finger poised on the nozzle, her face desperate and woebegone. You poor thing, I thought to myself. She earnestly, gratefully, spritzed my pulse points, and I nodded at her sympathetically, feeling good about my act of charity. Usually, those perfume-spritzer ladies are the worst things about shopping at department stores. The makeup section is a veritable obstacle course of cake-faced robot women assaulting you with sprays and smells; it’s exhausting just trying to get to the elevator. But I empathize with those women. It wasn’t too long ago that I’d taken to the bottle myself.
Ten days after I arrived in New York-an ambitious, clueless, newly repatriated 25-year-old who’d spent the last several months in Seville-I took a job as one of those perfuminators, in part to quell my expanding credit-card debt, mostly to score free samples and a store discount. The voyage from Spain to Bloomingdale’s had been a blur; there was a boyfriend, an airport and a Greyhound conductor crying “All aboard, NEW YORK!” at a bus depot in Maryland. I had gotten on, rented an apartment in Brooklyn and shown up for work balancing on a pair of Nine West slingbacks in my “good pants” with my ‘fro blown out. My clothes still retained their line-dried stiffness from an Andalusian concrete roof.
My new boss charged at me in her size-zero army green pantsuit, her precision-cut, auburn layers heaving with each step, hand outstretched as if to greet mine. Instead, she said, “You’ve got to get in there,” and pressed a sleek 1.7-ounce bottle of Chanel No. 5 into my palm. It was slightly pink, mostly clear. “Spray 95 percent” were her instructions, but I wasn’t sure if she meant “of the people” or “of the bottle.” She turned on her six-inch Jimmy Choo’s and clacked away. I later learned that her name was April.
“Would you care to try Chanel No. 5?” I called out to strangers, my lips cracking under a plaster of MAC “Media” red and “Chestnut” lip liner. What in God’s name am I doing? I wondered as I smiled, charmed, flirted with, insisted to and begged every single body that walked through those doors: “Sample, just a spritz, my Chanel No. 5.”
Most people had the compassion to acknowledge me with a tight grin-and then quickly look the other way. I was a mannequin, though one with a pulse and a plea. “Please try,” I whimpered after them. They were not to be deterred. The sensitive ones treated me like they would a homeless person with no arms or legs. Indeterminate eye contact was followed by “Poor girl-I’ll have to get a spritz on my way out.” But they never did. They never came back.
The ones who did stop thought they were down with the perfume girl for humanizing me; they reminded me of an ex-boyfriend who used to bum smokes from war vets at protest rallies and then rap with them about globalization. But those people always ended up talking about themselves. They didn’t give a damn about me or my No. 5. They sprayed it, liberally, and then complained about their marriages. “He used to buy me Chanel No. 5; now I can’t even get him to pop a Viagra, let alone sniff me.” Or they would tell me about their late Aunt Flora, who married “very well” but “didn’t leave a dime to anyone.” The old bag had loved Chanel No. 5.
At some point, April clattered over again, this time wielding a 6.8-ounce bottle of No. 5 Perfumed Body Lotion. “I need you to be aggressive,” she urged before clicking over to the fragrance counter to shower herself in Lolita Lempicka. The lotion was in a plastic bottle, more durable and not nearly as attractive. I knew what this meant: engage. I needed to massage 95 percent of its contents into the hands of complete strangers, or massage 95 percent of the strangers that passed me by.
My most entertaining customers were not the compassionate or the selfish, but the self-obsessed, the perpetually indignant type-A personalities with cell phones fused to their heads. After I’d meekly approached one such specimen adorned in tortoiseshell glasses, she tossed her orange pashmina over her shoulder as if to admonish me and then stomped off in the opposite direction. It was almost as if I’d said, “Will you accept Jesus Christ as your ultimate savior and protector?” instead of “Chanel No. 5, a classic for all women.” Or perhaps she just really hated Chanel.
Those were the longest hours of my life. My pores begged for exfoliation. They were brimming over with modern florals and balanced notes. I started to worry that I would always smell like Chanel No. 5. I started to worry that I would never find a proper job. I started to worry that I’d made a huge mistake coming to New York. I immediately regretted the lease I’d signed. I couldn’t believe I’d left Spain-Spain!-for this.
“Oh, my grandmother used to wear this,” said a petite, graying woman in a brown sweater. “Can you please spray some on a napkin for me? She just died.” She looked like her name should have been Meryl. I pictured her sitting by her grandmother’s bed on the seventh floor of a rent-controlled apartment building, smoothing scented body lotion into her hand as yellow cabs crowded the streets below and sirens howled through the windows. I liked her, so I sprayed carefully. “I always think of her when I smell this scent,” Meryl said.
Of course, I could relate. Smells do that to you. They’re instant nostalgia; they launch you unwillingly into flashbacks. Large doses of Obsession reminded me of skipping class in high school; stale Issey Miyake smelled like my pothead boyfriend in college; Thierry Mugler’s Angel has always made me nauseous and depressed, thanks to a philandering ex. I smell Alfred Sung for Women and think of my mother; I smell Coppertone and yearn for the Mediterranean, desperately.
Chanel No. 5 will forever remind me of a life in crisis.
By the end of shift, I knew I would not be asked back, despite April’s compliments. “I just want to say that it was a real pleasure working with such a competent, kind young woman like yourself.” Days later, I still hadn’t heard from her; weeks later, I still hadn’t received my check. I surmised that “kind young woman” meant “that lipstick looks horrible on you”; and “like yourself” meant “and get over it already… this is New York.”