The Washington Post: The Smell of Democracy

By
March 10, 2010

Washington D.C. is finally defrosting. Spring is here, and the capitol is starting to come alive. The city is ripe, not just with sights and sounds, but with smells. So during spring break, I’ve decided to create my own special tour of the city, not of historical landmarks or cultural centers, but of the distinct smells of D.C.

For the first stop on my tour, I try to stay one step ahead of the school buses full of loud eighth-graders parked in front of the Capitol, and duck just past them into the National Botanic Garden.

I’m not expecting the intense smell that smacks me in the face as I enter. The first room, displaying orchids-of-the-world, smells so intensely sweet I feel like I am choking on a sharp flood of warm, harsh sugar-air that makes each breath syrupy and scratchy.

Walking through, I notice the long stems of the orchids, placed in hundreds of pots throughout the enclosed three-story garden, tip slightly, weighed down by the top of each blossom. Each flower opens into shocking shades of yellow, grape and magenta, their petals hanging like mouths swollen open with a small, delicate gasp of amusement.

“This stink is making me hungry,” says a teenager in a sideways gray baseball cap to an elderly woman in a red cardigan with a large, gold floral brooch.  She ignores his comment and keeps reading loudly to anyone close enough to hear.

Walking through the sliding doors to the other side of the orchid room, I enter the “jungle.” The room is still and sticky, and the air smells of wet dirt, like when driving Interstate 5 in central California immediately after a warm, summer rain. It smells like road trips and sunburns.

The garden of medicinal plants smells like my grandma’s medicine cabinet or of someone covered in Icy Hot eating oranges.

After about an hour, I realize I am allergic to enclosed nature settings. My eyes feel bleary and my brain pushes harder against my eyebrows. I decide to walk five minutes down the street to the National Gallery of Art to give it a smell, knowing that if anything it would be pollen-free.

The National Gallery, with its high marble columns, has a clean and airy, but slightly dusty smell, like what an antique store would smell like if you removed everything in it and just stood in its vacant center. It’s a faint but serious smell. The east wing is where most of the modern art is, and, inside, the smell changes to match the architecture. This building is newer and, aside from the bright splotches of art carefully placed about, it feels cold and smells sterile; that is, until, a group of European, college-aged students with massive backpacks pass by. Dressed in corduroy and polyester, the smell of patchouli and body odor invades, making me miss the Saturday farmer’s market in Berkeley.

Leaving the gallery, I find a bench in the sun along the National Mall. I close my eyes and I can hear the merry-go-round and the quick crunch of joggers passing in hurried huffs. The air smells like hot dogs, sun block and the Pacific Ocean. I know I am on the Atlantic coast, but it has the distinct salt-to-fish-ratio-smell of the California coast.

As I walk back towards the Chinatown Metro I notice the street vendors parked along the curbs, leaving scent trails of hot cinnamon and popcorn throughout the city.

Chinatown itself smells like fried donuts and, for some reason, old leather mixed with an occasional, noxious release of gassy steam from gray street grates.

I continue my walk, but between the weight of my coat and the smell of steam grates, it is hard not to feel like my skin is drenched in smell, like a thin layer of everything has settled into my pores and in the strands of my hair.

I decide to head a little further out and take the Metro’s Red Line towards Shady Grove, exiting at DuPont Circle, which has two of my favorite smells in the world: coffee and new books. It’s the part of the city I feel most at home in, with people strolling slowly, browsing books, lunching and sipping. Today it also smells like freshly-cut grass, though I can’t tell you where the nearest lawn is. And, of course, like everywhere, there is the occasional rush of bus fumes that randomly assault you while you are standing at street corners.

As I walk back down Connecticut Ave from DuPont Circle towards the National Zoo, surrounded by strollers and moms carrying to-go coffee cups and canvas grocery bags as purses, I suddenly feel like I am at Disneyland.  Instead of Tomorrowland or Frontierland, I’m in Suburban-Soccer-Momland, which is a sort of mixture of Chance perfume by Chanel, baby poop, chlorine and churros. Perhaps from the zoo? But yes, chlorine and churros. Definitely smells like a summer afternoon at Disneyland.

Walking back, the wind occasionally blows a quick hint of magnolias, gardenias or some other flower that ends in “ias.”

Nearing Cleveland Park, my feet pulsing in pain from walking too many blocks in bad shoes, I smell it. I can find the Metro by smell anywhere. It is one of the most distinct smells I have ever smelled. It smells like sweaty change you have been holding in your hand for too long, metallic and damp. You can smell a slight hint of burning rubber and plastic. It’s also the smell of coming home.

As I board the underground train, I mentally prepare for the shower I will take, washing away all the unique smells of spring in Washington D.C. with the generic coconut-smelling shampoo that you can buy at a drug store in Anytown, USA.


The Washington Post: The Smell of Democracy was published on March 10, 2010 in Column, Opinions

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