Symphonies of Scent, or “You Get The Stink of L.A. In Your Bones”

When I let my cat Zak outside in the morning, the first thing he does is hop onto the fence and raise his head slightly and just smell the world. He’s revelling in the sampling of each and every aroma swirling around, sniffing and sniffing again, everything he can taste. I was thinking this morning how delighted and fulfilled he seemed, and how maybe I should do a little more of this myself. Take a moment and sample as many scents as possible in my realm. A few minutes of olfactory meditation.

The problem with so much of Los Angeles today, of course, is that too much of it is covered in asphalt and steel and plastic and concrete shopping malls and massive apartment buildings, and it doesn’t smell like very much of anything. Talk to Robert Towne about how Los Angeles used to smell in the 1940s, or read his screenplay of The Two Jakes for some great descriptions of the fragrances that were fairly commonplace. Or talk to anyone who remembers what it smelled like from time to time in the ’70s (despite the town being covered in horrible smog back then) or the early ’80s.

I remember walking down a ramp out of a DC-10 at LAX in the late spring of ’81, and leaning my head slightly back and taking a few sniffs and saying to myself, “This definitely doesn’t smell like New York.” You could taste the jet exhaust and melting tar and carbon dioxide, of course, but also the faint scent of dirt and sand and marshy grasses and the nearby Pacific Ocean, and the flowery fragrance of Jacaranda trees or something in that realm, and the faint smell of tacos or hot dogs or something like that.

You have to get out of your car to really smell this town. I’ve been savoring a lot more of it since I became a two-wheeled Yamaha guy, especially at night. You can taste it even better from your bicycle, which I ride almost every weekend.

Paris is probably the greatest aroma town I’ve ever sunk into. A feast wherever you go. The Seine at night, outdoor markets (especially in the pre-dawn hours), the aroma of sauces and pasta dishes coming from cafes, warm breads, scooter and bus exhaust, strong cigarettes, coffee, fruit stands, gelato shops, etc. Cannes is a heavenly aroma town during the annual May festival with the briney sea air, especially at night. And Tuscany and Rome and the Amalfi Coast. And how rotten it smelled in a town across the bay from Napoli that was run by the mafia. I could go on and on.

The “stink of L.A. in your bones” quote is from Charles Bukowski.

  • Anonymous By Force

    “Mr. Wells, please get down off of the fence before you hurt yourself.” – somebody tomorrow morning.

  • Phil Parma

    Nothing beats the scent of jasmine in night time LA.

  • pjm

    Very nice. Once again, bits like this (along with the crazed rants and movie worship) are why I check this site daily. The smell of jacarandas and blistering concrete. That’s our city!

  • D.Z.

    L.A.’s pretty fucking terrible, but the last time it was worth enduring was before they started tearing up the streets of Santa Monica Blvd. in the late 90s, early 2000s, for their ‘beautification’ project. *That’s* when normal commutes started becoming nightmarish, and it stopped being worth the hassle to go anywhere.

    • pjm

      It’s not bad at all as long as you stay east of La Brea

    • Kano’s_Razor

      “and it stopped being worth the hassle to go anywhere.”

      Said the guy who hasn’t worked a day in his life!

      • D.Z.

        Um, actually I have.

  • Eric

    Wasn’t this discussed in the Emma Thompson Mary Poppins flick?

    • Thom Phoolery

      No, it was Scents and Sensibility.

  • Jeff

    I would disagree somewhat. I just don’t think LA has a distinctive smell/feel because it’s areas are so different. Weho and Miracle Mile is nothingness but Laurel Canyon and the Hills are alive, Hollywood/Sunset Strip smell, Brentwood, Beverly Hills, Venice as well. That stretch all along Santa Monica blvd from Vine to the Ocean is dead though. I lived on Melrose and Fairfax for a stretch last year, completely shitty place to live, the most soulless place in LA outside of the West LA bit below Wilshire til Venice.

    • Geoff

      I prefer the smell of the Pacific Palisades to Brentwood myself.

      Seriously, of course THOSE places smell good! I also hear money grows on trees in some of those neighborhoods.

  • SlashMC

    Sorry, but unless you are passing a boulangerie, Paris smells like urine (total lack of public restrooms) and dog shit (no one ever picks it up and it’s everywhere). Beautiful city from the waist up though. And there’s a reason Europeans wear dark coats/clothes most of the time. Cities are dirty and covered in a layer of old world grime.

    • The “old-world grime” you speak of is bullshit. But occasional old-world aromas are, of course, abundant and welcome and wholly transporting.That’s a neurotic description of one of the most wonderfully aromatic cities in the civilized world. You seem to be suggesting that a nice, sterile indoor shopping mall is a far preferable thing. You sound like a reluctant or regretful tourist.