By Lenore Skenazy
Summer in New York is nothing if not pungent. So pungent that there are certain smells that conjure up a New York August the way the smell of crayons whisks you right back to first grade.
“I used to work in Flatbush and in the summer the fish store kept its door open,” recalls Megan Perlleshi, a mom of two who has since moved to Long Island. Every time she neared the shop she would literally sprint out into the street until she was past the miasma. The aroma? “Fish and garbage.”
It is a city summer combo others remarked upon, too.
For marketing consultant Amanda Hass, it is the smell of dying flowers that she associates with the Upper East Side in August.
“Most residents are gone to their summer places,” Hass says. So the bodega flowers wilt right along with the rest of us, giving off a sad scent. By contrast, Hass added, the open windows to hot laundry rooms give the air a fresh Clorox smell that makes up for the funereal flora.
Rain in the city summer also has a special smell.
“Warm rain on hot asphalt in Brooklyn is a memory I’ve carried with me my whole life,” says media strategist Liz Polay-Wettengel, who now lives in Massachusetts.
Business editor Patrick Rizzo, still here in Gotham, is specific in the type of rain that brings him back: the sudden sun shower.
And then there are all the foods smells on steroids the minute the mercury hits 90. Walk by a greengrocer and the peaches are positively seductive. They make you want to eat healthy.
There are also the smells that make you want to eat charred meat—lots of it, immediately, even if you are a vegan with a history of heart issues.
“Walking through the park on the West Side Highway in that huge multi-racial area of picnics, smelling delicious barbecue from all of the world…” That smell sends transit worker Mike Ecker into a tizzy.
The sticky sweet smell of candied nuts does it for Tatum Barrows, a high-school grad from Long Island working in the city for the summer. For Martin Kleinman, author of The Home Front, it’s “the wild scallions that grew along the fence to the V.A. Hospital in Kingsbridge.”
He’s right—neighborhoods have their own smells.
“The smell of anisette toast wafting from the Stella D’Oro Bakery as you whiz through Riverdale on the Major Deegan Expressway” remains a local scent memory for Stacey Gordon and legions of Bronx dwellers.
At the other end of the city, lifelong New Yorker and clown entrepreneur (yup!) Michael Fandal recalls growing up in Coney Island, seven seconds from the beach.
“Summers included ocean air, rich and invigorating, and the smell of morning cold beach sand beneath the Boardwalk.”
There were also Nathan’s hot dogs and fries, overflowing litter cans, and stylish women in their summer dresses, all wafting their particular perfumes, which mingled with the whiff of coffee whenever anyone opened the door of a Dunkin’ Donuts, and chlorine whenever you walked by a public pool.
Cut grass and freshly turned dirt send Michael Virgintino back to childhood in the Bronx, where he helped his dad tend their small yard and otherwise was constantly playing baseball on park fields.
Writer Nancy Mattia claims it is car exhaust that brings a smile. When she was growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Vito the Ice Cream Man would drive down her street on summer nights.
“Because I lived down the block, I would pass the back of his truck first with its engine running.” Hence the association associates exhaust fumes with joy.
And then there is the city scent that stands above — or really, below — them all. The one you smell without even descending the stairs. New Yorkers have likened it to “someone getting a perm in the sewer under a slaughterhouse,” “the armpit of Satan” “inside the stomach of a sick animal” and perhaps most aptly, “a warm metallic smell with hints of urine.”
Some day in some far off town you may catch a whiff of something similar and be instantly transported back to the New York City subway on a sizzling summer day.
May that memory be sweet.
Or at least tolerable.
Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and author and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.