June 14, 2013

So I was walking to the bus stop and I smelled skunk. Smelling a skunk isn’t unusual if you’re on a long road trip, especially if you’re driving through rural or wooded stretches. The smell hits you, and even if you don’t see the roadkill you know it’s somewhere nearby. Where I catch the bus, though, is within sight of downtown. It’s almost the heart of the city, and is all concrete, brick, and glass. At the corner a row of silos rises from an unmarked white building. There are bars on either side of an empty car warehouse whose huge windows reflect a spectral version of me layered over broken tile columns and drop cloths and a wine bottle as I walk by. On one window someone has scrawled, “can I live??”

Across the street from the bars is a place that sells plumbing fixtures, which makes me wonder if lots of people come out after last call and throw up on the window display of toilets, or if I’m the only one who did that. It might be a habitat for rats, but surely not skunks. The closest park is miles away. There are a few trees planted in the sidewalks, leftovers from a brief surge of eco-urbanism in the Seventies. I think they’re oaks and maples. Maybe someone planted them with a mischievous or even anarchic intent, hoping they’d thrive and break the sidewalk, sending roots through the sewer system, disrupting traffic, and ultimately allowing nature to reclaim what has been paved over. Instead they’ve been stunted. They’re not growing, and it would be wrong to say they’re even surviving. They’re just dying an extremely slow death.

The smell of skunk made me stop next to one of those trees. I’m not sure why everyone thinks of the smell of skunk as so awful. I don’t think it’s pleasant, necessarily—I wouldn’t want it bottled as a cologne, but I’ve smelled worse things. And it gives me a strange, almost synesthetic experience. It’s one of those rare smells that seems to me to have color and texture. It’s tawny, and has a texture like parchment, which is why, even though I don’t want to smell it for long, I don’t hold my nose at it either. Maybe everyone just pretends it’s fouler than it really is because we all understand it’s supposed to be a deterrent. Smell is supposed to be the sense most closely tied to memory, like the way Proust would always remember where he’d left his keys when he smelled turmeric. The smell of skunk vividly brings up for me one night of summer camp. We slept in canvas tents propped up on wooden frames with wooden floors. One night at supper one kid started telling everyone there was a white rat under his tent. What was a white rat doing in the woods? I wondered if it was an escaped pet, since you don’t usually find rats, let alone albino ones, in the wilderness. Anyway a group of us crowded into his tent. He led the way with the rest of us crowding close behind him, hoping for a look at this white rat. “I can see it,” he whispered, and we all got in closer. Then he yelled, “IT’S A SKUNK!” And within half a second we were all ten feet outside the tent, standing around the middle of the campsite looking at his tent. The skunk came out too, from under the wood floor. It gave us all a look that clearly said, “What’s wrong with you people?” We were all paralyzed, watching it like a bomb that could go off at any second. Except it didn’t. The skunk had decided that being mistaken for a white rat was insult enough, and it wasn’t going to be the butt of any more jokes.

I wish this were a better, funnier story. I wish we’d all been sprayed and that I could tell you we all had to go to the bathhouse and let sadistic camp counselors pour tomato juice over our bodies so we looked like Sissy Spacek at the climax of “Carrie”, and that our clothes had to be burned. If your only experience with skunks is Pepe le Pew you may be surprised to learn that skunks don’t stink all the time. They have to be provoked to give up the stench, and this one had probably become acclimatized to people by living under a tent. It would have been unnecessarily cruel to the skunk to poke it or threaten it or do something crazy to make it spray us, but a part of me wishes we had. It would have made a better story, and briefly set us apart from the civilized world. So the smell of skunk brings up a complex cocktail of regret and relief, and relief again that, as I was walking down the sidewalk, I only smelled a skunk and didn’t see one, that I wouldn’t be in any danger of carrying the smell home. And this is where I’ll leave you, on the sidewalk, next to one of those stunted trees. My bus is here.

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