Long before I became a writer, before I learned French and Spanish with vague thoughts of being a simultaneous translator, before the year I turned twelve and thought architecture could be fun, I wanted to be a nose — that lucky person who played with scents all day long, inhaling luscious emanations from flowers and spices to create something no one else had ever smelled. Well, we all know that I ultimately traded words for dabbling with orchids and jasmine. But that intoxicated passion for scents has never evaporated.
A couple of weeks ago I entered the orgasmatron of all scent palaces — an out-of-the-way scent shop called CB I Hate Perfume. My daughter took me there — one stop on pilgrimage of her favorite Williamsburg, as in Brooklyn, haunts.
Christopher Brosius wanted to be an artist or a scientist when he was a child. As he says in his bio, he has become a bit of both. Brosius has this incredible shop in Williamsburg where fumeheads like me can go and sniff to our hearts’ delight. But his scents are not what you think of when you think of perfume. CB has done something better. He has recreated the scents of memory and poured them into two inch high clear glass bottles: winter’s first snow, bubble gum, campfires. Anything you can think of, and much you haven’t, has been distilled into mere milliliters of liquid ready to reawaken memories you don’t even know you’ve lost.
“Close your eyes,” Emma said to me, “and sniff this.” She wafted a bottle beneath my nostrils and instantly I tasted orange. But not breakfast orange bursting with juice and sunshine. No, what filled my nose was something slightly manufactured, a bit chalky. And why did I have a childhood image of myself in bed in my pajamas?
“Orange Julius?” I guessed.
“Close,” Emma said. “Baby asprin.” Ah, that accounted for the PJ’s.
Again and again we uncorked these little bottles wondering what rabbit-hole of memory we would fall into. We played the game for nearly two hours, teasing shadowy images from our minds, trying to articulate a wordless frame or two of inner vision. It was astonishing to experience the scent of thunderstorms captured in a bottle labled “Cloudburst.” Some resonated much more than others. Baseball Mitt did nothing for me, but Ink sure did. Imagine what teeny doors a potion named Doll Head unlocked.
“Try this,” Emma said, proffering up yet another.
Instantly surrounded by the scent of pine sap and playing in pine straw, I guessed Pine Trees. Close, and a bit more tragic. It was named Saw Mill. I was in the general neighborhood of nearly every one Emma opened and once again wondered if I’d missed my calling. A word of warning to those of you old enough to remember Paregoric: do not open the bottle labeled Licorice. Instant nausea will overtake you; you will see your mother before you holding out a teaspoon of that vile preparation purported to calm your upset stomach.
I love that Emma’s favorite is Crayon, because it instantly conjures for me the image of her as a small child, drawing, drawing, drawing. The one I settled on is called Soaked Earth. It is loamy, rich with rain and the image of myself happily playing in the dirt, planting flowers. I shared it with a friend and he instantly saw his mother at the kitchen sink.
“Beets?” he asked. Makes perfect sense, I said. Fresh beets are always covered in dirt.
For those of you here in Michigan, some of the CB scents are sold at a shop in the Rail District in Birmingham. But for the real fumeheads out there — you gotta go to the source. Have a blast.
Sounds dee-vine! I have always been the sort of person who loves to sniff a good memory, and I adore fragrance!
I shuddered at the mention of Paregoric, so strong the association.
Debra, can you tell me offline the name of the store in Birmingham?
Another awesome post –
Who knew there was such a place? When I was a little girl (no antibiotics, no antihistamines) I had a lot of upper respiratory stay-home-from-school incidents. The elusive odor that I know would bring home cozy memories of staying in bed and Grandma Molly coming over with cut-out and coloring books would be of tincture of something that was put in a vaporizer to clear my poor stuffed nose.