Eau de New York

Will Gray here.  I wonder if one reason I don’t miss home is that I’ve yet to smell something that reminds me of New York. The sea here smells faintly like the Long Island Sound, where I grew up in Connecticut –- but nothing like anything in New York.

The nose knows. You really can’t get anything past it. Even with your eyes closed tight and ear buds pulsing, you can’t mistake the fact you’re in Manhattan if you smell smoked chestnuts, subway exhaust, and that slightly oily coat-your-throat lozenge of lubricant, rain, and grit: Manhattan’s signature scent. It’s not altogether unpleasant, especially mixed (it’s never altogether masked) by the upscale and liberally applied fragrances of people you brush by in the street, bump shoulders with in stores, or press against in subway cars.  I’m not even going to try to describe the distinct aromas cascading from uptown restaurants along Columbus Avenue.

In Grand Central Terminal you can get a real good snort of Manhattan. It’s also a great place to watch people in motion – walking, carrying, lifting, pushing, and puzzling over timetables. If you come into Manhattan for the first time here, expect to smell human perspiration of every variety. (I’ve actually sweat garlic after too many butter-soaked snails.) Human body odor is not generally part of the Manhattan signature fragrance. Even so, if you linger in the terminal, you might watch the different ways people sense themselves and respond to New York served to them in a brandy snifter.

There are the “insulars.” They are the men and women who glide through the vast terminal lobby without turning their heads to one side or the other; they float fleetly ahead — impeccably dressed and very confident of their purpose and destination.

There are the “bobble heads. They live nowhere remotely near the city and are most likely from the Midwest. They struggle with the scale and seeming efficiency of Grand Central. They gawk. Easily overwhelmed, many will park their suitcase in the middle of a coursing flow of pedestrian traffic –- and sit down.  They’ll continue to smile, even so.

Finally, the “people watchers,” like myself: students of human behavior and idiosyncrasy. We love the floorshow of Grand Central Station anytime, but especially weekdays around midday. There are so many shops and various eateries in corridors radiating from the large central lobby with its central information desk and huge, multi-faced clock.  Tick, tock.  Sit and let your nose do the listening, if you have time.

I’m not sure I’ve said goodbye to New York for good. Puerto Rico is where I’ve come, to soothe my head and heart. I consider the island my aromatherapy. I just haven’t figured out what it smells like yet.


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