September 3rd, 2012

Reconditioned Air: Smell and Memory, Part I

I'm probably the last person who should be writing about the link between memory and our sense of smell. As anyone who knows me well will attest, my allergies and the medications I take for them have rendered me insensitive to a vast array of odors. Someone will walk into a room and declare, "That smells terrible! How can you just sit there?" But despite having been right near the source of the offense, I will be baffled by the query.

Having said that, my sense of smell has improved a good deal in recent years. Ever since I finally consented to steroid treatments for my asthma and allergies -- treatments which, it must be noted, I do take protracted breaks from whenever possible -- I have been experiencing moments of olfactory clarity now and then. Suddenly, the keen perception of an odor will distract me from whatever I'm doing and compel me to a deeper mindfulness. Even when the smell is unpleasant, this heightened awareness is a welcome change from my how I used to experience the world,

I'm starting to wonder, though, whether my past was really as aroma-deprived as I believed. Not only am I noticing smells a lot more than before, I'm finding that memories of my pre-steroid days have a way of flooding into consciousness to accompany those smells. Recently, for example, I had an intense, smell-triggered recollection that inspired me to pursue this topic further. I was cleaning up in the front bathroom of my parents' apartment after helping my mom off the toilet and wheeling her into the dining room when I was suddenly transported back to my teenage years in the Washington D.C. area.

The strange part is that even though the combination of lingering smells in the bathroom was not particularly pleasant, it made me recall one from a place with which I have highly positive associations: the Smithsonian Institution. More specifically, as I soon realized, it reminded me of being inside the Museum of Natural History. Not the National Gallery, the Air and Space Museum or any of the other buildings on the Mall. Those smell differently. Indeed, the more I thought about it, the more it become clear that many of them have a unique aroma that I identify with them or, to be more accurate, an aroma which I have used to identify them.

Because I spent my those years living in a suburban Maryland house without air conditioning, where the midnight temperature was regularly in the 90s with a relative humidity that often seemed to be approaching that figure as well, I spent as much of the summer as possible in the District. I'd get up early, despite my night owl proclivities, to accompany my father on his drive to work. I would then sit with him for a while in his office while he read the newspaper as he waited for the workday to begin, reading the articles he would periodically pass my way. Then, when public buildings started to open, I would head out on my peripatetic adventures, all of which were planned to provide extended sojourns in buildings with excellent air conditioning.

Since this was the era of the personal computer's ascendancy, I would frequently stop by the showrooms near my father's building at 16th and M Street NW. For a time, I would spend long hours laboriously entering programs into the Texas Instruments machine with a novel color graphics display at ComputerLand so that I could show off its brilliance and, I hoped, my own. Then, when Apple introduced the Macintosh to great fanfare, I shifted my allegiance to the store that would let me have extended sessions exploring its exciting features. I do remember being troubled by the way the latter were idiot-proofed and inaccessible to the sort of coding I was capable of. But the graphical user interface was too compelling to pass up.

These and other computer emporia were characterized by the same bland neutrality that characterized the consulting firms, non-profits and financial institutions in that part of Washington D.C., the "K Street Corridor" that was attracting so much attention in the Reagan Era, when lobbyists were practically celebrities. And yet for all of their deliberate blandness, these places had a smell that I can now recall quite distinctly, one defined by the conflict between hot electrical technology and air conditioning turned way down, a kind of olfactory storm front that made the air prickle, for an aspiring tech-head like possible, with the air of possibility.

When I was really in need of cool-down, though, I made my way to the Smithsonian. Something about the need to ward off decay and the high ceilings of those museums made them monuments to the potential of artificial temperature control. The Air and Space Museum was the best of all. Sometimes I would walk inside and just sit on a bench to breathe in the absence of heat and humidity. But all the buildings on the Mall were attractive to me for their air conditioning. At the National Gallery's West Wing, the marble reinforced the sense of cool. And at the Natural History Museum, the groups of school-age children and rather dated displays conspired to soften the air, making it feel warm without actually being warm.

In retrospect, I suppose the Natural History Museum, being older than the rest of the main Smithsonian exhibition areas, retained the aroma of preservation methods that left stronger, less pleasant smells than the ones deployed in recent decades. And the older ductwork no doubt contributed to this effect, which was never overpowering. My guess is that what I was smelling in the bathroom was similar enough to those traces that it conjured the memory of going there on hot days. I also suspect that the incongruity of the involuntary association, that conjoining of a present to be endured with a past fondly recalled, made the sensation particularly strong and, yes, memorable.