The New Yorker
April 22, 2011
On April Fools Day, the New York Times writer Cate Doty asked readers, “What does New York smell like to you?” The question was posed in response to legislation introduced by Matthew Titone, a state legislator, that would designate “pine” as New York’s official scent—and no, it wasn’t an April Fools’ joke. At a press conference that day, Titone explained that “the pine tree, like New Yorkers who are known for their can-do attitude, takes root where it can. Surviving and thriving.” Doty then put it to the readers: Do you support Mr. Titone’s choice, or do you have your own ideas of what the state’s official scent should be?
The responses tended toward disbelief: “Is this all Mr. Titone has to think about? Go to Baxter State Park’s Mount Katahdin, near Millinocket, Maine if you want to smell pine,” one reader wrote. Another recommended that Titone “try living in Astoria near Ditmars Boulevard during the summer and you’d think the official scent of New York was sewage.” Chris G. invited readers to his Brooklyn apartment “any day between October 1 and May 30, where the smell will be of brewing beer.” And still others hearkened back to the good ol’ days—Park Slope in the nineties, when the air would have been filled with the effervescence of roasting coffee beans. “Certain very old buildings way downtown on those really narrow streets near Delmonico’s emit a mystical moldy essence that is essentially OLD New York.”
Of course, Titone was not talking only about the city but the entire state. He cited the pine barrens of Long Island, the Adirondacks, and taxi air fresheners. Still: when I read about his proposition I couldn’t help but wonder—pine?
It occurred to me that the smell situation in New York is similar to one described by the scientist Luca Turin in Chandler Burr’s book “The Emperor of Scent.” Turin explains how smells set the French apart:
Frenchmen will do things Anglo men won’t, and France is a country of smells. There’s something called pourriture noble. Noble rot. It’s a fungus. It grows on grapes, draws the water out, concentrates the juice wonderfully, adds its own fungal flavor, and then you make wines like the sweet Sauternes. Paradise. From rotten grapes.
Though those of us who live in the city are not known for our wines, we have our own sort of “noble rot.” There is something about the air in Brooklyn on trash day, something about the underground walk in the Union Square Subway Station, some cringe we all feel way up in our nasal cavities multiple times a week, that can make us hold our breath or squint our eyes. But like true New Yorkers, we will not turn up our noses at the stench. We will endure.
For all these reasons, I don’t think pine is going to happen. As Reneekelah, of New Haven, Connecticut, wrote, “Sorry, Matthew Titone, but pine trees don’t take root where they can. They need very particular conditions.”
And while I could go with Martha Hagood’s proposal of the smell of “Greenpoint’s Polish bakeries,” I think my vote stays with Mary from Monroe—let’s make New York “the aroma of hiding cobras.”
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