Alyssa in a rotated Clouds in Cygnus, © Bob Caton, Al Howard, Eric Zbinden, and Rogelio Bernal Andreo
In a dusty corner of my drafts folder, I have a few eager paragraphs responding to Alyssa Harad's "The Perfume Diet," published in the June 2011 issue of O magazine. I never managed to make my response presentable, but in November of that year, Alyssa contacted me to say she was enjoying Nosy Girl. I was so flattered! Hers was one of the very first encouraging e-mails (from someone not obligated in any way to offer one) about this here endeavor, and she has since been a great supporter of the nosy blog. I was thrilled to learn that Alyssa was working on a much bigger project related to the essay: Coming to My Senses, her smart & beautiful memoir, is available now (and it would make a great holiday gift!). Additional Alyssa to tide you over until you get your copy: this super-insightful interview (conducted by Elisa), and Alyssa's blog (I especially loved this post).
What do you smell like?
I suspect most of us would be as disconcerted to find out what we smell like to others as we are when we first hear our voices on tape. That said, I probably spend a lot more time sniffing myself than most people do, because I collect and write about perfume and I love to follow along as it unfolds on my skin. On any given day I might smell like an orange grove in full bloom, a New York dowager in diamonds and furs or the inside of a Japanese temple. When I'm not wearing perfume, and perhaps even when I am, I'm guessing I have the rumpled, slightly musty, libraryish smell of someone covered in cat and dog fur who drinks tea all day at home, alone, in front of the computer, surrounded by old books. In the evenings, and on weekend afternoons, I smell of whatever I'm cooking.
A perfumer I know named Neil Morris--a big friendly bear of a man--once thoroughly snuffled the skin between my inner wrist and the crook of my elbow, up and back and up and back again,and declared that my base scent was milky, sweet and slightly woody. He wanted me to try a perfume of his called "Scrumptious," because he thought it would meld with my skin. Though I have no doubt he was right, I was smitten by another perfume from his line, one called "Midnight Shadows," a dark, smoky number with just a touch of burnt caramel. Make of this what you will.
What do you like to smell?
As long as I have an escape route, I'm up for a quick whiff of nearly anything, though I do get overwhelmed by too much scent in an enclosed space. I can't go into Abercrombie & Fitch, for example. (That may not be the only reason).
For some reason, whenever I get this question I think of scents that conjure up beloved places. I went on a trip to Seattle and the San Juan islands this summer, my first visit in many years, and it made me remember how much I love the scent of old pine forests--not just the sharp, turpentine scent of the needles, but the combined scent of living and decaying trees and damp humus underfoot. I love everything about the smell of a ferry landing, too--the creosote and old wood smell of the dock and the diesel engine of the ferry mixing with the briny salt and seaweed of the harbor. I've written about the dry summer dust, blonde grass and sagebrush scent of the foothills that surround my hometown of Boise, Idaho, and the first time I drove down the coast of California I went crazy for the mixed scents of the ocean and the eucalyptus trees--eventually I just pulled over and piled a bunch of old branches into my rental car. But I think, even more than all those wild, outdoor smells, I love the smell of a crowded city street in New York in the fall--that crazy mixture of car exhaust, road tar, bourbon, concrete, sweat, dying leaves, damp wool, garlic, roasted nuts, hairspray, metal, coffee, cigarettes and a thousand other things appearing and disappearing in rapid succession like bits of overheard conversation. My perfume makes more sense on a New York city street than it does anywhere else.