I met a terrible smell this morning.
I was walking to work, in Santa Monica on Santa Monica Boulevard. The usual nasal sensations are cool ocean breezes whose scentlessness tingle the nose. Sometimes there is the delightfully dizzying gasoline exhaust of a leaf blower. Occasionally you can find the bright green of trees through the heavy breathing of traffic.
Today those smells were there. They are all stimulating in their unique Los Angelesness—but this terrible smell was wholly new and unique in its overwhelming disgustingness.
I was walking East on Santa Monica Boulevard. I had just crossed South from 26th and was nearing the smelly McDonald’s that I always pass, fantasize about indulgence, but allow only its smell to take me away. I wonder what people order for breakfast there. Does anyone actually take their mock healthy breakfasty options like the Egg White Delight McMuffin or the Turkey Sausage & Egg Bowl. I don’t actually care to survey anyone but I do wonder what the answer is.
The usual McDonald’s smell is fried. At 7AM, at 9AM, at 3PM, at 6PM: something is frying. You can feel the oil on your face. Like the unhealthy flirting of the leaf blower’s gasoline sighs, McDonald’s is constantly exhaling french fries. There is probably some scientific study that proves smelling fries for a certain amount of time is equivalent to eating a handful. What a cruel assumed fact! You get nasal pleasure without the sensation of eating—and you do get the calories too. Fucked up.
That smell was absent this morning. I missed it. I didn’t dwell on the miss but focused on my sight: there was a giant gray truck parked in the drive-thru line. The truck appeared to be some sort of fatted metallic calf making a visit to her big beefy mama, feeding on pipes from inside the McDonald’s. I assume she was waste collection? McDonald’s is not a traveling trailer, through.
First it was vomit, specifically stomach acid. The smell burned red in my nose. It almost fizzed. I was that sink from a few years ago, after a bartender gave me too much whiskey and not enough ginger and I hadn’t eaten enough so the drink decided it was unable to continue its course down me. That smell was there for me in college when I was at a toilet, drunk, collapsed crying for my mother as my friends laughed and enjoyed watching all my drinks come out in reverse. It was there when I sixteen, crying in a freshly drawn bath that I had drawn to make my sick stomach better which I accidentally filled with night’s wine and chunks of psychosomatic grapes, which I had to stuff down the drain. That scent was from when I was four years old, laying on the floor sick, next to my also sick older brother. A documentary about Limburger cheese was on the television. The host wondered how a cheese could produce such a foul smell. They described the milky ammonia. The host gagged. Both my brother and I turned to the pails next to our pillows and vomited our respective dinners. Mine looked like chunks of curdled cheese in cranberry juice.
But there was also shit. It felt like it was on you. This was what went awry while cleaning a baby. This was when the stuff you combed off your dog’s tail when she fell ill at midnight and you had to give her a bath. This was the rest stop bathroom you visited while driving to Northern California. This was in the staircase of your dorm when the R.A. discovered a floor-mate made diarrhea under a flight. This was on a fingertip that had a brush with The Darkness after failing to hide under The Sheet Of Paper. This was Number Two.
The two merged together. There was no understanding where the oral excrement started and where the anal excrement started. The two became one. Someone couldn’t hold their mouth over where someone couldn’t hold their ass. The two smells stretched in and out of each other, exchanging flickering fingers that stirred the air. You didn’t want to smell this transaction but you had to. There was no escape.
I walked the block. I took a step and held a breath. I quickly inhaled, took a brief sip of air, saw the continued double waste, and maintained held breath accordingly. I walked past a car and stared: is it you? The door to the PlayPlace was open: is it you? The open trashcan with the paper bag atop of it: is it you? A car from the drive-thru exit inches forward: is it you? I stretch my neck back, to the gray calf truck: is it you?
There are no responses. No one is available to answer. I continue checking in with brief sips. I check for a man who may be following me, unshowered. I look for a collapsed Porta Potty. I look for a filthy litter of street kittens.
The walk continues. The McDonald’s has passed and a brick AAA is now to my immediate right. The smell has walked the block too. The plants and parking meters provide little reprieve. I wonder if I’ve been downwind of A Pile Of Something. I wonder if It was smeared along a hidden wall. Maybe someone was performing the act live and I was one of the first to catch the bouquet? I don’t look back. I assume it is the McDonald’s. I think about being old and unable to control my own facilities: is this a foreboding warning of our collective future?
I turn the corner and step into the heat of the sun. There still is no sight of the source—but the smell of the smell is bright. A red-brown plume is missing from the clear sky. I walk and I think and I consider the experience to be my fault. I search for a new smell. The trees come back into focus. A truck shakes itself awake, burping out a black cloud. The ocean breezes it all along, carrying the terrible smell away in its arms. I’m alone again in Santa Monica. The idea of the smell sticks to me.
I still don’t know where it came from. It wasn’t the city passing a stone. It was definitely the McDonald’s, maybe. It may have been the truck. It may have been the true nasal identity of the fries.
It was foul. It was a terrible smell.