Oooh! That Smell?

It’s not every day that the home page for the New York City Department of Emergency Management leads with an orange-alert-shaded box labeled, “Update on Gas Odor.” But today’s no ordinary day in Manhattantown, smell-wise: There’s apparently a gas-like scent wafting across the island from the Battery to Midtown, closing buildings and subway stations and making a few people sick. They can even smell it in Jersey, which knows from smells. But OEM says we can all breathe (if you really want to) a sigh of relief. “There is no indication the gas odor in Manhattan poses any danger. Air sensors indicate no heightened levels of natural gas,” the agency says. “The City continues to investigate the source of the odor.”

Still, “The smell is there,” as Mayor Bloomberg declared at a morning news conference. There’s no arguing with that sentiment—ever. As the Times reported, “Mysterious odors come and go in the New York City area, sometimes never identified.” And other times, the whiffs are all-too identifiable, like the muscular odor of trash in the summertime, the pungent scent of roach droppings under a refrigerator, or the acrid belt-in-the-face upon opening the door to a public restroom. There are 8 million smells in the naked city (maybe 30 million if you count pets, trucks, and locker rooms.) But today New York is united against a common stink.

Cities are often derided by exurb types as “big and smelly.” Anyone who’s ever taken a drive through farm country at the height of manure season has to wonder if the grass is really any greener, or better scented, there. The fact is, people everywhere smell, and in “civilized” parts we’re all desperate to do something about it. Think of how many aisles of the drug store are devoted to treating stink, from the dental hygiene panorama to the row of roll-ons, toilet deodorizers to disinfectant sprays, Gas-X to fabric softener. People smell even worse (well, some of us) when they’re dead—one group of forensic scientists has established a whole database of the variety of odors that a corpse can produce.

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