The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Springtime Aromas in Baltimore


A long time ago, I attended a college screening of the John Waters' film Polyester. Waters is an auteur of high camp, a teller of trashy tales and black comedy. His films celebrate Baltimore as a caricature of itself: lewd, loud, and, by turns, melodramatic, maudlin, comedic, and horrific.

Waters is a Baltimore fixture, hanging out at the City Cafe with his pencil thin mustache, just as he appeared in the trailer to Polyester, explaining the no-smoking policy of the theater while inhaling copious amounts of his own cigarette smoke:

Many of his films are deemed classics, or at least cult classics, and frequently pushed boundaries in innovative ways. For example, Waters' muse for many of his films was Divine, a drag queen and old friend of JW's who starred in many of his movies, Polyester among them. Polyester also pioneered the use of Odorama: theater patrons were given scratch-n-sniff cards with numbered areas, and when those numbers appeared on the screen, one simply scratched at the corresponding area on the Odorama card. John Waters being John Waters, those odors were a mix of the blandly pleasant and the noxious (the scents were 1. Roses, 2. Flatulence, 3. Model Airplane Glue, 4. Pizza, 5. Gasoline, 6. Skunk, 7. Natural Gas, 8. New Car Smell, 9. Dirty Shoes, and 10. Air Freshener). Polyester was meant to have more widespread appeal than his early works, like Mondo Trasho, and Waters succeeded; Polyester, for example, currently holds a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 89%. Pretty fresh, yo.

Less fresh, sometimes, are the odors of a city as it wakes up from its Winter slumber. Rather than the good, let's start with the bad and the ugly. I was driving home from the hospital one day and the traffic was a bit rough, so I got off the highway and headed home on the surface streets, windows down, since it was spring, and we were not yet in full swelter. As I was passing Druid Hill Park (home of the Maryland Zoo, the Rawlings Botanic Garden, a public pool, tennis courts, ball fields, and a pretty perfect disc golf course), I caught a whiff of some Hip Hop Chicken and Fish.

I am a sucker for some well-prepared fried fish - it's the Danielle Steele of City Food, a guilty pleasure. So I pulled in. The first smell is the Bad, but really only in the Bad-for-you sense. The rich batter in the hot oil, those delicious trans fats. Hoo boy. Hip Hop is a melting pot kind of place. The company is based in Chicago, mostly managed by Arabic speakers, staffed by Hispanic men, and serves mostly African Americans from working poor neighborhoods in Park Heights, midtown, and out toward more middle class neighborhoods like Randallstown. It's a working class version of Hmart (more on Hmart later...). And it called to me.

The secret to that fabulous smell? Fresh oil. You want to go a fish and chip shop that does a high volume business so that the oil gets used up and replaced. At this most American version of the English chippy, though, you can also get macaroni and cheese, rice pudding, collards, and sweet potato pies. That's some down-home yummy right there. And that smell tickled my olfactory bulb from a half-mile away, it seemed, right until I got out of the car. Then the ugly kicked in.

Smell is vitally important, and has been for millennia. Before refrigeration, for example, being able to distinguish fresh from rotten food was a vital, and largely olfactory, task. Distinguishing the freshness of scat could guide hunters toward recently traveled game trails. Gender and age affect olfactory acuity. I remember walking along the side of the road in Scotland toward a winery, expecting delicious smells, only to be assaulted by the deeply disturbing smell of rotten roadkill. Because I was walking, I had ample time to experience the olfactory gradient as I got closer.

In medicine we use our sense of smell, though perhaps not quite as much as we used to. I do not think neurologists as a matter of course carry coffee grounds in film canisters as they used to. For one thing, film canisters are of little use and so quite uncommon, and for another, MRI scans have replaced careful assessment of the first cranial nerve. Still, melena smells like melena, and alcohol like alcohol. So it's good we have functioning noses. The smell of Hip Hop's ripening garbage is best left to the imagination, though, and let's just say that the warming Spring weather catalyzed lots of chemical reactions in the dumpster, if my sniffer was any judge.

The final smell, the Good Smell, the smell that started me off down this road, is the smell of Lonicera sp., the honeysuckle, which grows abundantly in Maryland and blooms April to September. Walking the dog after dark, when it's cooler and when I'm not distracted by the sights of the neighborhood, I'm open to the sudden waft of light but distinct, floral but not cloying scent. Olfaction and memory are tightly bound, and I remember in those moments walking down to the park and pulling apart the honeysuckle flowers to suck the drop of honey liquor at their bases. Innocent times and a beautiful smell.

Baltimore is a complicated place, but it is home, a place to bind senses to memories, good, bad, and otherwise.

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