Eau de Charlottesville

For most of the year my commute to work is uneventful. I see a bookstore, a hamburger joint, lots of people, a coffee shop, some restaurants, and then my office.

Then summer comes. There’s a wet, dusty blast from Daedalus Bookshop as its owner sets up shop for the day. The choking trek past the three early morning smokers on Fourth Street. Coffee, cold fruit and salad bar in pleasant competition at the Blue Ridge Country Store. The dissonant combination of fresh plastic and yesterday’s filth on the public trash cans. The day’s first batch of burgers and fries cooking in peanut oil at Five Guys. Then the office, which doesn’t smell like much.

Summer is the smelliest time of year. The hot and wet of the summer is when flowers broadcast their scent as they reach for the sky, when people take cooking to their backyard grills, and when the waste from it all decomposes in overdrive—all painting a rich tapestry of smells.

When most of us think about the power of the schnoz, it’s life-or-death stuff. Do I smell fire? Is this meat spoiled? Is the milk turned? But the sense of smell goes beyond the practical. It’s one of the brain’s most poorly kept secrets that smell and memory are processed together; it all happens in the limbic system, the seat of emotion. That’s why, if you just moved back to Charlottesville, the smell of a fresh Spudnut on a hot summer morning can be enough to make you weep.

The actual mechanics of our smelling bears out this intimacy. We smell something when vaporized odor molecules, which are chemicals, from a nearby substance enter the nose. These chemicals make their way to the top of the nostril where they dissolve in the olfactory mucosa. An electrical signal is sent to the brain. More than any other sense, smell starts with a form of physical intercourse: taking in a piece of where you are.

It should be no surprise then that the smell of Charlottesville goes far to establish the unmistakable—and until now, unGoogleable—sense of being in Charlottesville.

Nosing through the city’s center: On and around 10th Street

The smell that anchors the morning experience near 10th and Preston is that of coffee roasting in the back of Shenandoah Joe’s Coffee Roasters. Unlike the gorgeous, complex smells hovering above piles of ground beans or a cup of joe, the smell of green coffee beans browning in the roaster is sort of like the scent of a human-scale gingerbread house burning down in your neighborhood every morning.

That’s where I started my walk through these neighborhoods early one recent morning. The SPCA Rummage Sale was not yet open, but its smell, cemented in my memory by repeat visits, lingered just inside the door: cats, their food and their dandruff. Then came the smell that lovers of used crap grow to love: the animal odor of large volumes of dusty, water-damaged goods stacked in close quarters, sour-smelling books and records, and shirts once owned by smokers.

Soil and mulch lay on palettes outside Martin Hardware, the inviting whiff of what gardens smell like before plants, sawdust cooked in butter and cinnamon. Integral Yoga was still closed, but the scent of Nag Champa and melons crept through the automatic doors. On Charlton Avenue around the corner, aroma from a pair of Topsy-Turvy hanging tomato planters briefly wafted to the sidewalk, very fresh, tart to the point of being nauseating. Tired lifeguards waited for Washington Park Pool to open, as the scent of pool chemicals waltzed across the smellscape. It was more or less clear what each of these odors were.

But strolling down 10th Street, smelling became a kind of super-vision that offered insight into all I couldn’t see. My nose said paint had recently been applied somewhere. It told me that the flowers on the stoop of a yellow house had been recently watered. Up the hill, it told me that someone was cooking a breakfast of eggs and bacon. It told me some kid had taken his dog for a walk and left the pummeling funk of his uncurbed pet for someone else to deal with.

At Main Street, I poked my head in the Hampton Inn. Chain hotels that serve continental breakfast—they all smell the same. Soggy bread, burnt coffee and a pile of too many bananas, all portending how bloated you will later feel.

A brief detour down Main brought me to the Amtrak station, where the smell of fresh pavement (melted hockey pucks served over dirt) aggressively wafted about in the early morning sun. I returned to 10th Street as it became Roosevelt Brown Boulevard and walked past the hospital parking lot to discover the odoriferous delights of the Korner Restaurant, lined with breakfast customers brought there by the rich, fetching scent of eggs on the griddle, plus various cuts of pig exploding with grease —a message much more powerful than the sight of the simple building.

Breakfast stench met that of spilled gasoline at the corner of Ninth and Cherry, in front of the Coastal Gas station. The inside of the Laundry Land laundromat, further down Cherry Avenue, smelled relentlessly faux-natural, as if the smell of Mount Pilatus in The Sound of Music had been bottled and spilled across the floor. I stuck my nose in the Salvation Army across the way, and, minus the animal smell, I could have been back at the SPCA Rummage Sale—or any other thrift store, for that matter.

The small bamboo forest across from Tonsler Park, at the corner of Ridge and Cherry avenues, is said to be a haven for feral cats. The foliage in between the mostly scent-free bamboo stalks smelled vaguely like fresh lettuce, or cannabis. Though my sense of smell had allowed me to see so much in the neighborhood, if there were cats, I couldn’t smell them.

Work hard, smell hard: UVA and the Corner

Not having smelled it before, it’s tough to tell how UVA’s recent growth—which has included a new education building, new band building, new cancer center and a new Lawn—has affected the University’s smellscape. But a walk through central Grounds, starting from JPA and moving towards the Corner, offers evidence of a boring palette: the vaguely antiseptic, almost anti-smell of new buildings.

That said, a walk through the University brings a lot of fragrant treats. There was, of course, the fresh-cut grass. The Magnolia tree that frames the Rotunda also issues a smell when it blooms, of lemon and brown sugar crepe that is worthy of the sight’s visual majesty. The nearby gardens smell of blooming sweet Columbine, Rose of Sharon and Wisteria. Boxwoods have elsewhere been described as the “fragrance of eternity,” which is apparently indistinguishable from the smell of cat urine.

South of Newcomb Hall, there is a big grate, where a fried chicken smell has long been a source of intrigue for residents of nearby Brown College. (Imagine a sauna powered by buffalo wings instead of coal.) The grate provides ventilation for the building’s kitchen. I asked a PR person at UVA whether that scent was part of the network of steam tunnels beneath the University. “The tunnels themselves don’t smell,” she said in an e-mail, making the tunnels an exception in an exceptionally smelly place.

If flowers and new buildings is the smell of higher education, the Corner smells like its detritus. The corner of 14th and Grady hosted a pile of vomit that looked like a pomegranate has been left in the microwave too long, its seeds exploded all over, and smelled that way too.

Back on University Avenue, a UTS bus blasted by, wafting the scent of grass, then fuel, as I walked to the Corner. Some small cities are arranged in a straight line, shocking you with their smallness as you pass through. The Corner might be such a place, if it weren’t for two arteries—14th Street and Elliewood Avenue—that, like the district’s armpits, accumulate a smorgasbord of stank. If it’s your stench, you may well love it. Visitors, not so much.

Past the UVA goods store Mincer’s (musk of plastic, printed labels) and Starbucks (dark-roasted coffee), the first few steps onto Elliewood Avenue are odorless as pure water. The smell of the Ragged Mountain Running Shop is nondescript from the outside, but a step inside brings back childhood: When I was a kid and I got a new pair of shoes, I would spend the first few days with my nose under the tongue, until they’d take on the smell of my feet and I’d lose interest. The smellscape inside the shop reads like an epic battle between those extremes—brand new shoes vs. shoeless athletes—and there the new shoe smell is winning.

Yet the foot smell is winning at Marco and Luca’s, where the reek of dumplings, like shrimp scampi served in a sweaty boot, is borderline unbearable if you’re not eating them. Next door, the Corner’s best sandwich shop, Take It Away, hosts the very fetching smell of freshly-baked bread.

Heartwood Books punches you with a wet, dusty, camphoric scent as I walk past its open door. Nearby, dumpsters in the Corner Parking Lot are where the stuff that produces the neighborhood’s smells accumulate to rot. The dumpsters face the tracks, which in turn guide railcars full of coal to the coal-fired plant just over the 14th Street Bridge. The burning coal itself you can’t really smell.

Tucked in an alley on Elliewood is The Copy Shop, where I worked in college. Worse than the menacing, chemical smell of Xerox toner and endless reams of paper is that of the salon next door. The women who visit to get perms would leave behind traces of burning hair—more horrible than you’d think, like a person who ate exclusively salted pretzels being struck by lightning.

Perhaps the smelliest restaurant on the Corner is the Subway on 14th Street, a short walk across the Corner Parking Lot. Across the nation, Subway sandwich shops emit a putrid stench that is supposed to smell like bread. This one is no exception.

“The smell is bread,” a company spokesman wrote me in an e-mail. The smell is “an unmistakable sign that we are nearby and that you will be having your sandwich made on bread that was baked fresh that day.” I decided on dumplings for lunch.

Into the fart of darkness: The east side of town

Walking down Market Street into Woolen Mills on a quest for smells is a little bit like Charles Marlow traveling down the unnamed river into the heart of darkness. It is a quest destined for an olfactory tango with what is perhaps Charlottesville’s most foul-smelling facility: the Moores Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

But you can’t smell it yet at the corner of Ninth and Market. Instead, mingling in the air inside the Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant is the unmistakable trio of smells that spell cheap Mexican food: corn tortillas, shredded Mexican cheeses and little lakes of refried beans. Walking past the Inova Building’s parking lot and all the way down the street to Carlton Place, the smell of freshly-cut grass reminded me of baseball.

A team of UVA scientists wrote a paper in 2008 suggesting that air pollution is destroying the scent of flowers, which could possibly explain a decline in bee populations, since they can’t follow scents to flowers (scientists have done a lot of guessing about colony collapse disorder). As a human walking past a flowerbed on a hot summer day on Market Street, I couldn’t tell. The odor of wildflowers popping their heads up from uncut lawns flashed by in a rush of brief episodes. Other smells intruded: an apple so rotten it smells sweet again, roses, musk, cleaning fluid.

Cigarette smoke wafted into my path on my way down Market, but I couldn’t see the smoker. Someone was having a barbeque, the smell conjuring all sorts of memories of high school graduation and suburban living—and then I see it’s coming from Jinx’s Pit’s Top, though it was closed. In an opening between houses, a log splitting machine had quartered a termite-infested tree for firewood (kitty litter, fire, sawdust).

At the corner of Carlton Road there was a pile of wood and plastic detritus labeled “Craft supplies courtesy of your friends at Gropen” that smelled like hamster cage lining in a new Ziploc bag. Beer Run smelled not like beer but more like Guadalajara—burnt cheese. Inside C’ville Market, candies in wax paper mixed with the sweet, wet odor of shrink-wrapped watermelon slices, and in the room where they keep cold produce, rotten lettuce ruined the smell of the rest of the fruit and veggies. Bottles and bottles of wine smelled like nothing but the wood shelves they were stacked on.

From there I turned left at Aqui es Mexico and dipped down Carlton Avenue towards the Hogwaller neighborhood. A motorcycle drove past, briefly masking the molten dirt smell of hot pavement with something that smelled more like a cigarette boat leaking oil. As I walked in this direction I picked up increasing whiffs of an enjoyable combination of hay and dung from what, I didn’t know, until I saw the Charlottesville Livestock Market. Somehow the smell of cows and their output is much more appealing and comforting than the scent of human beings and theirs. (It was coming. The horror…)

A woman wandered by, walking a miniature pinscher. Dogs’ olfactory bulbs are four times larger than those of people. The pinscher used its smell powers to take a whiff of a dead bird (old trash, decomposition) slain against a curb. I pressed on, down Franklin Avenue, past warehouses too far from the road to smell, and descending to Riverview Park.

There it was: one of the worst smells in Charlottesville. It was one of the days when the funk of sewer waste blanketed the easternmost portion of the city—the odor of the Moores Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, which shares its generous stench with the neighborhood.* It’s a vicious blend of sewage, decomposition and chemicals, a potent counterpoint to the homey smell of Hogwaller’s livestock market. I nosed inside the sun-warmed Porta-John at the entrance to Riverview Park to compare it to what’s outside: Gag. Sure enough, sister smells.

“One of the naturally occurring characteristics of the treatment of human organic wastes is the odor emanating from it,” reads the website for the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority. The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, which operates the facility, is planning an upgrade—cost estimates range from $27 million to $37 million—that could improve the plant’s capacity and improve the smell of the neighborhood by enclosing the stinky facility and employing scrubbers.

Yet some of the plans that would improve the smell would instead blight the neighborhood with an expanded pumping plant next to Riverview Park. In short, residents would exchange a nosesore for an eyesore.

But at least you can avoid an eyesore: Shut the blinds, look away, close your eyes. Close your nose? That’s a different story.

Smelling you later

There can be no authoritative “smell of Charlottesville”; as with much else, it smells like many things to many different smellers.

But the smell tour through Charlottesville, as it turned out, was sort of a tour through the processes of a day in the life of our city. Following your nose, you can discover where the coffee comes from, and where it’s just drunk. You can find out where something’s being built. (Some things literally smell like a rat, and others fishy.) You can smell whether something is asleep, or dead and actively decomposing.

For you, it may be the smell of cow patty, dumpster, cat pee or a dead animal on the street that pulls the little string in your head, and the little “Charlottesville” bulb lights up. But whatever it is, it’s the smell of home.

* Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story said that compost at the Moores Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant was partially responsible for the odor in Woolen Mills. In 2008, the RWSA’s sewage plant on Moore’s Creek stopped composting biosolids at the site and started shipping them off to a facility in Richmond, with hopes of lessening the foul odors in the air.

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