One Thousand Scents

Thursday, May 14, 2009

New York Stories, Part One

We got back from our first-ever trip to New York a couple of days ago, and here, in approximate chronological order, were our joint impressions:

This is essentially Toronto, only bigger.
I'm not dazzled enough to consider coming back.
There is a lot to do here, though.
I can see coming back to do some of the things we missed.
There are way too many people and it's way too noisy.
When can we come back? This fall?

We might, too, this fall. Probably not. But maybe. Definitely sometime.


The uniform for New Yorkers, at least those on the island of Manhattan, isn't black clothing: it's an iPod or an iPhone and a cigarette. (At least ninety per cent of all the MP3 players I saw in use, and at least half the phones, were Apple branded.) If Bond No. 9 really wants to bottle the smell of New York, they ought to consider making a scent composed entirely of stale cigarette smoke. Jim always used to joke that Monctonians smoke like it's a cure for cancer, but New Yorkers smoke like they have stock in the tobacco company. It's horrible and ubiquitous. Thank god they can't smoke in restaurants.


In 1999, I got a new job in a new line of work in a new city, and one of the first things I did with my new disposable income was to place an order with Aedes de Venustas, a New York store famous for its atmosphere and its range of niche scents. They had a couple of things I wanted--Ambre Precieux by Maitre Parfumier et Gantier and Dzing! by L'Artisan Parfumeur--which I had smelled from samples and needed to own. Aedes wasn't doing Internet ordering at the time, so I called them and spoke with an extremely nice and helpful person (one of the owners) who took my order as well as a long list of samples I wanted. I was thrilled to receive the package exactly as I had ordered it: it was my first experience with niche fragrance and it couldn't have gone more smoothly.

Fast forward ten years. I'm in New York for the first time in my life, and naturally one of the things I wanted to do was to visit Aedes de Venustas, so we took the subway to Christopher Street, I sent Jim off to a nearby bookstore, and I headed into the Temple of Beauty, an exotic little store crammed with antique hutches and display cases full of perfumes and candles.

I suppose I shouldn't have gone first thing in the morning. The man behind the counter--if I'm not mistaken, the very person I talked to on the phone ten years ago--said I could ask if I had any questions, so it isn't as if I were completely ignored, nor hovered over. But there were a number of deliveries he had to attend to, the phone started ringing, and I didn't feel as if I could ask him any questions because he pretty obviously didn't have time. I took two slow circuits of the store and became increasingly dispirited as I did. There were no prices to be seen anywhere, not on the packages nor on price lists. And there wasn't any easy way of distinguishing one thing from another without some help: there were, for example, at least thirty different Montale fragrances, and I would like to have tried some, but I wasn't about to spray them all to figure out which ones might have been right for me.

I'm not blaming the store or the owners. I could have asked for help, I could have sprayed and sprayed and sprayed until I found things I wanted. But I didn't feel as if I could. Many other people, no doubt, have had a different experience of the place, but I found it too much. And I know what I'm doing: I came prepared. I recognized the brands, of course, and I had a short list of things I wanted to try (a couple of which I couldn't even find), yet I left empty-handed. How much more overwhelming would it be for someone who was new to the game? Without a tour guide, they'd be lost.

So that was crushing disappointment number one.


In retrospect, going to Macy's on the Saturday before Mother's Day was probably not the best idea I ever had, but it didn't occur to me beforehand that it was the Saturday before Mother's Day and so would probably be fairly busy, and besides, was the only day on our schedule that worked, so off we went. And it was horrible, worse even than Harrods—an undifferentiated mass of people like a slaughterhouse floor full of cattle. And nobody needs to point out that I was one of the cattle; as the saying goes, “You're not in the traffic jam, you are the traffic jam.”

So Jim, with his dislike for scents, went off to the men's clothing department, and I poked around the fragrance department, and what a sorry thing it was. Maybe I missed something: it's entirely possible that there was another, different, better fragrance department somewhere else in Macy's, and the one I found was the boring mass-market one, but I didn't want to wander around to try and find it, because then Jim would never be able to find me. All I know is that the perfumery I saw was not much bigger than my apartment; was not any better stocked than, say, the one at The Bay in Dartmouth or any decent-sized department store: and worse, was not a department in any meaningful sense but was instead a collection of tiny independent duchies, each staffed and overstaffed with people aggressively thrusting perfumed squares of cardboard at me in a desperate attempt to make a sale, people so vociferously determined to make me buy that in comparison the merchants at a Moroccan souk are an order of Cistercian monks. I really am a polite person, but after the first dozen or so courteous demurrals, usually phrased as, “I'm just looking, thanks,” I graduated to an irritated “Just looking”, and finally, though not without shame, to “NO.”

Mind you, I did make a purchase fairly early on. I quickly found the Thierry Mugler counter, and just as quickly found Pure Malt, the new men's scent. I smelled it for thirty seconds or so on a blotter—couldn't put it on my skin, of course, because Jim would object, to say the least—and had it paid for and bagged not two minutes later. And then I discovered another drawback of the Macy's system of individual fiefdoms: I naturally asked for some samples of new things, as I always do, and the sales clerk couldn't give me anything but Mugler samples because of course those were all he had, and he couldn't go to other counters and get samples from them. Any decent store is going to allow the salesperson to move from counter to counter and snag a sample here, another there: not Macy's. And worse: a little later, I smelled the new Prada orange-blossom scent, Infusion de Fleur d'Oranger, and asked the salesman if there might be a sample. I wasn't just some cheap bastard: I had a Macy's bag, I had made a purchase, I was a customer. But no. He pointed to a little pile of cellophane-wrapped bundles and said he just had enough samples to make up into goodie bags--which, he didn't have to say, were only going to go to people who bought something Prada from him.

So that was crushing disappointment number two. At least it wasn't a complete disappointment, since I got something I wanted. But I was expecting much, much more.

Luckily, I found it later that same day....


  • I love the way you wrote of your impressions of new york. The Chicagoan in me chuckled at the "It's just like Toronto, only bigger." Sounds like you had a love-hate experience with the city, which seems to be the case with places like that. I look forward to the next installment!

    By Blogger Isabelle, at 2:32 PM  

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