They say smell is the sense with the strongest ties to memory, and there’s nowhere I’ve been with more distinct smells than New York. People associate the city smells with the bad ones, a long line of smoke from one of the people ahead of you, trailing tobacco and marijuana, and the occasional pipe smoke too; the garbage that piles up in the summer has an acrid yellow tinge to the smells and the memory, a toxic haze to the long, hot days we dream about all winter long. There’s the unmistakeable smell of unwashed flesh that permeates an empty subway car and so many corners of the city, the smell you learn to run from, the memory tinged with compassion and pity for how many people have to watch others run from them because they don’t have a $1,500 a month closet to shower in. I have so many memories of this city in my approaching-six years here and I would be lying if many of them weren’t tinged with one of the smells above or the myriad other terrible ones I’ve encountered. It says a lot about a memory, when the best you can associate it with is a bad smell.
Sometimes when I look back on bad weeks, I remember a terrible smell from somewhere in that time, and then I wonder if it’s a smell from that time at all, or if the sensory overload we experience daily here just demands a smell attach itself to every memory made. I don’t even think they’re all my bad memories or bad smells really. Like the week a few months back where everyone else I knew was having a miserable go at life and all I could do was offer my near-limitless optimism; looking back on that week I can remember the ashy, cool smell of black snow leftover on the sidewalk, but it barely snowed this year after the big storm in January, and I don’t think the week I’m remembering was snowy at all. But the memory of everyone around me getting dealt blow after blow, and me fighting to find a little sunshine for them, that memory to me feels and smells like that: cool, ashy, dirty, leftover and waiting to melt away. And the week after that one, where my life started exploding, that week is connected with the smell of forgotten raw turkey burgers left on top of the fridge instead of inside it, a pleasant surprise to come home to after two days of work and one night in Queens; I don’t remember when I did that but I do remember almost crying when I came home to that smell after a long week, and then just before a tear fell I started to laugh hysterically, because in reality…. it was a pretty hilarious and stupid thing to do.
Yesterday I was walking to the subway the long way after work, taking a few extra minutes to go to Penn Station instead of 14th Street. It’s been a really odd week again, the high of watching a full studio of friends in savasana tinged with the grief of two people I love experiencing unexpected and unimaginable losses. The past few days have also made something really, really apparent: I miss my best friend. People keep telling me it’ll get easier adjusting to life without M and N around the corner, and I suppose in some ways it has. But it will never be easier having my best friend in a different country. It’s just a new normal that I have to adjust to, and this new normal lately is tinged with that acrid yellow, that ashy cold gray like winter and the faint burning of someone else’s smoke, the smells of bad memories in NYC. Walking through midtown to Penn Station yesterday I felt sad somehow, dejected. Things are changing in ways I couldn’t plan for and sometimes I wonder if everything will be okay.
And then I passed one of those roasted nut vendors, the famous ones dotting the city with that intoxicating aroma of roasted sugar and cashews, and as I lifted my nose to inhale I found myself staring at the top of the Empire State Building. Little memories started popping back into my mind, the citrus and mint essential oil from the first vinyasa class I ever taught on my own, the charred, smoky smell from a perfect burger on a first date in December, and the way the city smells alive, constantly changing, constantly moving. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice, staying in this expensive, smelly, loud, exhausting city, especially when my best friend is gone. But part of me knows I would never really leave it all behind. The good and bad memories, the good and bad smells. This is my New York, and I love every piece of it, starting with every distinct smell.