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Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Stench 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comLately I’ve been charged with pulling older books in the new fiction section. I really enjoy the task and find it deeply relaxing, almost meditative. I receive great tactile pleasure from running my fingers across books spines and shifting and rearranging the books from shelf to shelf. Unfortunately, the back of the section is an inviting place for the homeless to nap and for junkies to enjoy a nice heroin doze. Often they will shoot me a bleary stink eye if I drop a book or disturb them in their favorite haunt.

The air is thick with the smell of hair grease, fortified wine tinged sweat, unwashed body, clothes that haven’t been changed in months, perhaps years, wet wool, and that curious metallic odor of mental illness. It is a heady symphony of odors both acrid and cloying and it permeates your nostrils, your clothes, your hair and your memory. The odors overwhelm our HVAC system and I could make a case that the odor situation is becoming an OSHA issue.

One of our pages who works three different jobs told me that his girlfriend can always tell he's been at the library because his clothes reek. She makes him leave them outside the door, like I used to do when I would go to the bars and my clothes would reek of cigarette smoke. I remember how a friend who dated a nurse could always tell when his girlfriend did a round at the burn unit, because the odor of burned human flesh would permeate the fibers of her clothes. Or how a colleague told me that to this day he will still unconsciously hold his breath when his brother walks by, a conditioned response because of the stench his brother would throw off when he worked at a chicken processing plant one summer twenty years ago.

Private, free, no strings attached showers abound in this area, as do places to acquire free clothing. By no strings I mean that the people who use the showers face neither condescending nor humiliating requirements to use them. Sobriety is not a stipulation, there is no gospel preaching, no gauntlet of sanctimonious, smugly cheerful do-gooders (God spare me and all of humanity from this type) - none of the regular humiliations the homeless must endure and surely resent in order to receive charity. Why don’t they avail themselves of these showers? The only parallel I can draw is to animals that stop grooming themselves when they’re very sick or dying. Yet we allow these people to rot in their stench like not to do so is a violation of their inalienable rights. I guess that’s the society we live in.

Smells are life. I enjoy rich, pungent odors: Morbier cheese, the carcinogenic smell of gasoline when I fill up my car, the odor of books burning and decomposing from acid treated paper, the smell of mulch, horse sweat when I worked at the stables, but I often wish I could shut my nostrils like I do my eyes. That way I wouldn’t have had to endure at an old job a colleague who doused herself with some cheap, chemical perfume that clawed at my nostrils and choked my throat. I could never identify the brand, but I’m suspecting one of those awful ones named after a celebrity, like J-Lo. How depressing that anyone buys that shit.

Sometimes my sense of smell provides me with information I wish I didn’t know, knowledge that puts me in an ethical quandary. One time a yuppie soccer mom type surrounded by children approached the desk. Her breath was flammable with vodka fumes at 3:00 in the afternoon. I felt like saying to her, “It’s a myth that vodka is odorless, so whom do you think you’re fooling?” All I could wonder about the rest of the afternoon was if all of those kids were going to pile in a van piloted by this woman. What is my obligation to interfere?

One time a toddler crawled in my lap at one of the branches where I was substituting. His teeth were rotten and stained brown like a betel nut addict, and the memory of that sweet, putrid stench makes my mouth fill with water as I type this. I guess his parents were putting him to bed with a bottle of juice each night and the sugar had rotted his teeth. Was this child in agony from his rotting and abscessed teeth? If so, did he think that this suffering was just part of existence, a fact of life? How or is it even my place to explain to his parents, who didn’t speak any English, about free dental care? Do I unleash the blunt tool of social services on this family whose name I don’t even know and whom I might never see again at the library?

Strong odors at the library are an occupational hazard to which I should probably just resign myself. And on the bright side, at least if people reek, they won't be able to sneak up on me in the stacks.

Comments:
Thank you. That was lovely (in a slightly olfactory-assaulting way). I've been in a pensive mood myself today, and that was just what I needed.
 
i wonder how come animals dont retch when smelling the nastiest funk like dirty bungholio. it must be the same natural reflex that prevents us from vomiting when smelling our own funk
 
I have oftened pondered this myself. If my dogs' sense of smell is 1000 or so times stronger than mine, then why are they trying to smell or roll in something unspeakable on the sidewalk? Maybe when your sense of smell is that strong, those sort of things actually start smelling aromatic.
 
It's to conceal their own scent with the stronger scent of a dead prey item. I read that somewhere.

That picture of a nose - isn't that your Border terrier?
 
When Billy and Spoon roll in something awful they strut around, so pleased with themselves. We call it their "cloak of invisibility."
The photo is of a wolf's nose. I stole it from Google Images.
Spoon would also be quite full of herself if I could somehow tell her that someone mistook her nose for that of a wolf.
 
Foxy- At the ref desk, do you have a polite of telling patrons to back off because of their oftentimes rotten shit breath?
 
I live in New Orleans and the only defense over the horrid smells last fall was old-fashioned mentholatum. Pack your nose with it and even a freezer full of fish that's been left unplugged for over a month doesn't seem as bad.
 
It's a weird side effect of alcoholism's (and I imagine drug use) influence on the mind that makes getting wet (or the thought of it) seem painful or a sensation to be avoided. Same with brushing the teeth.

It's weird, but that's a possible explanation for the stinky bum phenomenon.

It's why the homeless (who are often dual diagnosed with mental disorders and substance abuse problems) often smell so bad.

Some actually do avoid social service centers for fear of abuse, violence, and/or rape, but those who have easy access will also stay away from the showers because of how their brains react to certain sensations under the influence. And when you're addicted, when you live 24-7 under the influence, then if the sensation of being naked and being wet seems uncomfortable or painful to you, you don't do it.

k.
 
Baconpress - thank you for your thoughtful post. I have great compassion for these people, especially the ones who are self medicating through alcohol and drugs. I don't know what kind of hell these people have been through to get in this situation. As far as mental illness, I almost can't imagine anything worse than having your brain turn on you. And certainly all homeless do not smell. Some keep themselves extremely well groomed, which has to be quite a feat if you're on the street.
Interestingly enough, though, 'meth mouth,' the horrible dental shape that meth addicts wind up in, is caused not be inattention to dental hygiene but by meth's effect of drying the mouth out. It's hell on teeth and gums.

I don't know what the answer is. But the city using the library as an expedient de facto day shelter is bad public policy, and makes me long for the days of mass institutionalization.
 
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