Saturday, November 18, 2006
Elyse Anders was a red-headed twenty-two year old who for the most part was level-headed, although she was an aspiring actress, meaning she was also slightly deranged. But Elyse was very logical. So incessantly logical in fact that she suffered from hypochondria, as well as from her boyfriend’s merciless teasing her about her hypochondria. She lived in Manhattan, a nice enough place to live, center of the world, and the essential place-to-be for a crazy actress; but in the year 2005, Manhattan was also a rotten place to live because everybody was either acting genuinely paranoid or feigning ironic paranoia. Of course Elyse was of the former set, and on this night she was lying in bed, held awake by the undeniable fact that she smelled syrup, and yet she had no idea why.
She ran her nose along her thin, freckled arms. Sniffed. Smelled syrup. But was the syrup smell really coming from her own body? That would be weird. She sat up, leaned over and smelled her legs. Her legs didn’t smell like syrup as much as her arms did, and then, even her arms, well, she couldn’t be sure. The window was slightly open. Maybe the smell was coming from outside. So Elyse went over to the window, pulled up the heavy glass, and sniffed vigorously of the lovely urban air. It smelled like crap, like exhaust and cancer, but not necessarily like syrup. She turned and smelled her walls. She smelled her dresser, her TV, her alarm clock, and then fell to her knees and smell the floor. Syrup! Sweet, golden, maple syrup. Everywhere!
For breakfast, Elyse had had a carrot muffin and a cup of coffee. No pancakes, no waffles. For lunch, one of those ridiculously priced Midtown paninis with roasted vegetables and pesto. Nothing sweet whatsoever. Not even any dark chocolate, which Elyse loved, and which tasted bitter. There would be no sleep with the overwhelming and mysterious aroma of a Sunday country breakfast, of syrup, pervading the room. Elyse panicked; she text-messaged her boyfriend.
“I smell like syrup and I can’t figure out why,” she wrote.
Andy Stone, the boyfriend, was sitting up in bed six blocks north of Elyse, happily reading a Ray Bradbury short story. The one in which a girl named Margot gets thrown into a closet by cruel kids on the only day in seven years that the sun came out on the planet Venus. The story made Andy want to move to Venus. Or Anchorage. Or Hong Kong. Any place but the East Village, where people were too ethnocentric, and also too paranoid.
“I hate when that happens,” Andy texted back.
“Seriously. Do you smell syrup?” Elyse texted back.
Andy laughed, and put down the Bradbury book, which was gigantic because it was a collection, and apparently, for Bradbury, writing was like chatting.
Andy brainstormed a minute, trying to come up with something funny.
“Actually, I smell sausage,” he texted. Andy didn’t realize that Elyse was being serious, until Elyse texted him back, saying,
“I’m being serious. And I’m worried.”
Andy, bewildered, irresponsible, texted back, “Does anthrax smell like syrup?”
Three exchanges was more or less the universal limit on text messaging, so Elyse, frustrated with Andy’s insouciance, called.
“Andy, I’m serious. Do you smell syrup? I’ve been smelling something syrupy all night.”
“No,” said Andy. “I don’t smell anything but the usual alleyway goodness.”
“My arms smell like pancakes,” said Elyse, who now laughed a little, having shared her anxiety with another, which was the patriotic thing to do these days. “Or like caramel. Or like that weird Bit-O-Honey candy. But mostly like syrup.”
“Seriously, who eats Bit-O-Honey’s anymore?” said Andy.
“Damn it, Andy. Why can’t you ever take anything seriously?”
“I take Ray Bradbury seriously,” Andy defended himself. “Sort of. Well, as seriously as one can take stories about Venus.”
Silence, about five seconds of it.
Then, a remorseful Andy said, “Look, babe, if you’re so concerned, why don’t you call 311? If you smell something, say something.”
“I think I will.”
“Call me back,” said Andy.
The woman on the 311 line patiently took down Elyse’s report: smell of syrup, maybe honey, beginning around eight in the evening, and persisting until now, midnight, officially Friday, October 28th, 2005. Elyse badgered her into disclosing whether other people had called in with the same complaint, but the 311 woman would not say. It was not 311 Hot Line policy to disclose the nature of other calls. Elyse shrieked, “But the smell of syrup is sweeping the city!”
“Yes, Ms. Anders, that may be true. We will look into it. Thank you for your call.”
That may be true. What did she mean?, Elyse thought, after the call, ceiling-staring. Elyse wondered: Was the smell city-wide? Were city officials worried about the smell? Did this pleasant smell have evil as its source? Or was it merely some sort of Halloween hi-jinks? Oh, to live in the age of terror, Elyse melodramatically bemoaned to herself.
Minutes later, somewhere between Manhattan and New Jersey, on the great Hudson River, Tucker Haze, stalwart member of the United States Coast Guard, defended the country from a mysterious odor. With a foot on the bow, Tucker took a call from headquarters.
“Tucker, this is Mav, we’re getting reports of a strange, syrupy smell sweeping the city? Do you smell anything out there?”
“Give me a second,” said Tucker.
He put the phone down and sniffed at the air. Nothing unusual. Dead fish, hint of algae. He sniffed again: no syrup in the nostril.
“No, sir. Nothing of the sort out here.”
“Okay. Get in communication with the tugboats and container ships. See if they smell anything out of the ordinary. Right away, Tuck.”
The communication ended, and Tucker turned his boat around and headed for the East River to hunt down the smell’s source. Despite the silly nature of the request — find out if anyone smells syrup! — Tucker was imbibed with a mighty sense of purpose, because everything Tucker did, he did purposefully. Because he was a member of the Coast Guard, and the borders were impossible to defend without a deep sense of purpose.
The wind blew through Tucker’s hair, and his nostrils were on high alert, which was red or something.
Elyse half-slept for an hour or two, dreaming of Bit-O-Honey’s. In her dream, it was Halloween and Elyse was seven years old again, and she was trying to trade her Bit-O-Honey’s with her sister for some real candy, like a mini Snickers, or a Mr. Goodbar. Something with peanuts in it.
Then she woke up, suddenly, rudely, and felt an enormous and irrational craving for ice cream. Elyse had not had ice cream for maybe two years, except for a few trips to Cold Spring Creamery, a place she hated, but a place that people always insisted on taking her. She found it demeaning and offensive that the management made their minimum wage employees sing inane pop songs rewritten with stupid Cold Stone Creamery lyrics. And the ice cream tasted like slap-dash crap. These negative Cold Stone experiences caused Elyse to develop an aversion to ice cream. But here she was, craving the stuff. It was that smell. The damn syrup smell was screwing with Elyse in curious ways.
The alarm clock blinked 4:13 in the morning. Elyse slipped into a pair of jeans and fuzzy slippers. Blindly, she made her way down the stairs of the apartment building. Two nighttime revelers, just in from the bars, passed by her on the stairs. She wanted to ask them if they smelled syrup. She wanted to not be alone in her affliction. But these two clearly only smelled vodka and each other’s rank lust.
Outside, nighttime Manhattan, low-grade electricity, potentiality. Creepiness, too. The events of the previous day dissipating, palpably, to make room for the coming happenings. Elyse walked to the corner 24-hour deli. Trucks owned the streets at these hours. The trash truck idled, as one trash man of a pair hustled out of the deli with two cups of black coffee. The New York Times truck, its side wide open, was filled with hundreds of pounds of news. Elyse wondered if the smell was in the papers; then she thought maybe she was going batty.
A half pint of Ben and Jerry’s later and Elyse was back in bed. She tried not to smell, which was harder to do than you might imagine.
Raymond W. Kelly, the New York City police commissioner, was sending out his feelers. Everybody from the Fire Department to state emergency response agencies in New York and New Jersey was contacted in regards to the mysterious smell. The press had caught on, too. They were demanding answers. What was that smell? Does the public have reason to fear the smell of syrup? Does anthrax smell like syrup? Do terrorists like pancakes?
Commissioner Kelly coolly told reporters, “It’s believed to be some sort of food substance, but we can’t substantiate that at this time.” They knew nothing, besides the fact that the smell’s source was in Lower Manhattan, which was a large section of the island, roughly one-third of it.
The reporters were rabid. “People are craving pie all over town.” “And ice cream.” “One woman reportedly put honey and cornflakes in her ice cream. Have you ever heard of such a thing, Commissioner Kelly?”
The Commissioner had no more time to answer questions. Tests of the air were just coming in. He hustled off to peruse the all-important reports. Soon enough the public would know whether there was anything of a hazardous nature in the pleasant smell.
By Saturday morning, the story would hit the presses. Front page of the Metro section.
Meanwhile, Elyse was befuddled, and isolated in her syrup obsession. On Friday morning, she arrived to the office a few minutes late. The Off-On-The-Right-Foot Meeting was already in session. Walking into the board room, Elyse realized that her sense of smell was super sensitive. She smelled Barry’s hazelnut coffee, Susan’s lemon Danish, Alfonze’s chocolate éclair.
When the floor was opened for questions — the topic was supposed to be How to Be Mindful of Work Over the Weekend — against her better judgement, Elyse asked the group of twenty-five graphic design professionals if any of them had smelled anything odd last night, anything like syrup.
They all laughed at her. Elyse had never felt so foolish or awful in all her life. But then, with all the goofing around, all the bad jokes — “No, but I did have a hot dream about Aunt Jamima!” — Elyse found her sense of humor about the thing. She joked along, “I was sniffing my arms all night!” She felt better, a little.
Then, Cindy, from Accounts Receivable, stopped Elyse on their way out of the meeting, and pulled her aside.
“Elyse, I smelled the syrup, too. I did. Maple syrup, yes?” said Cindy.
“It gave me a craving for ice cream,” said Elyse.
“I went out to the diner at three in the morning and had a slice of pumpkin pie,” said Cindy.
They stared at each other, with nothing more to say. There was a strong bond holding them there, a syrup smell solidarity. Then, they broke apart and went about their business. Because, in the face of terror, the best thing to do was to go about your business.
Downtown, Jacques Torres, the Soho chocolatier, was roughed up by a couple of NYPD tough guys. They barged into Torres’ Chocolate Haven, and questioned the former French citizen about his methods of chocolate production, as well as about his political loyalties.
“We spent the afternoon roasting almonds,” said Torres.
But the city’s bloodhounds were unconvinced; after all, they were working off a pretty reliable tip. And the guy was French, or his parents were, or something.
“Besides,” cried Torres, “Chocolate tastes bitter, not sweet!”
After a brief, but harrowing, interrogation, investigators turned the beloved chocolate store upside down, searching for any clues, or perhaps caramel flavored sweets. After nothing was found, the investigators left Torres to his normal Friday afternoon business, quite busy this time of year.
Saturday morning, Andy ran towards his girlfriend’s apartment with The Times in hand. He leaned into her buzzer with giddy energy. Upstairs, Elyse was cooking pancakes. Why not? Andy spread the Metro section out on the kitchen table. None other than the widely respected Anthony DePalma had written a story: Good Smell Vanishes, But It Leaves Air of Mystery.
Elyse read the whole article out loud, emphasizing the more ridiculous and fabulous parts. The smell had sparked “hundreds of bewildered calls to the city’s 311 emergency hot line.” Also, and most importantly, officials determined “that the smell had not been hazardous and that it had dissipated as quickly, and mysteriously, as it had appeared.” Feelings of vindication and hyperawareness flooded Elyse. Andy said, “You ought to be a police watch dog.”
“I’m just glad to see the smell in the papers. I thought I was going crazy,” said Elyse.
Yet, it was more complicated than that. So there had indeed been a city-wide smell scare; Elyse’s concerns were validated. But did that make her feel better? Did it make her feel safer? Wouldn’t things have actually been simpler had there not been a city wide smell, and if only she (and perhaps that crazy Cindy from work) had inexplicably smelled syrup for a few days? Wouldn’t her world be simpler if her smell-fear had not been validated, and had instead withered away like yet another unfounded paranoid illusion? But Elyse did feel better seeing the news in the paper; the news disarmed her. Why? Why was it that she felt better learning that the experience was shared? Why was she so disarmed seeing that the smell was in the freaking New York Times? Was everything okay so long as we well documented our fears and confusion, even without any meaningful disclosure? Elyse got to thinking: Wasn’t it likely that the roots of that damn smell were in fact nefarious? Because the sinister underbelly of the American empire is very real. And a pervasive city-wide syrup smell is just the kind of clue that a plugged-in citizen ought to use to connect the dots and therefore come to believe that something creepy is indeed going on. Something supremely sinister, mostly unseen, and usually unsmelt. But these were difficult thoughts for your ordinary hard-working citizen to accept and then arrange into an organized, logical and workable worldview.
So then the paranoid questions returned to their home just under the surface; the appearance of the newspaper article sufficiently suppressed their urgency. But the questions remained: Who unleashed that damn smell? And why? That’s what we the public deserve to know. But that is precisely what we very likely will never know. Because we only hear the empty echoes of politico-media doublespeak. Meanwhile, the underbelly churns, and we remain gravely and privately paranoid. And, most likely, rightly so.
“There’s no telling how the bad guys are going to get us,” said Andy, as Elyse served up two hefty flapjacks onto his plate.
“Last night, I thought I smelled popcorn, and I did, but that’s only because I was passing by the movie theater.”
Elyse, who with her new sense of communal belonging found the whole thing funny, laughed. Then she said, “It’s weird though, right? That I smelled it? So bizarre, huh?” She shook her head.
“I’ll admit, it’s creepy,” said Andy, heaving a forkful of pancake into his mouth. “But it’s funny too.”
They both agreed that it was comically bizarre — and genuinely creepy — and that syrup is a very tasty addition to any pancake breakfast.
The highest authority in the city, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was quoted in the papers on the syrup incident as saying, “Nature should be allowed to take care of its own.” Which, of course, made little sense and said nothing at all.
The story seemed over, but then for a few days, Elyse snooped around. Without mentioning anything to Andy because she didn't want him to think she was nuts, Elyse did some research. She asked questions around town and googled the hell out of the word syrup. But she came up with next to nothing. People had smelled syrup across the river in New Jersey. (One guy in Des Moines claimed to have smelled syrup on the same day, but Elyse figured he was nuts.) An EMT guy posted a note on the Gothamist website saying that he was trained to be wary of sweet smells because terrorists attached a pleasant smell to toxic substances to make you linger longer and breathe in more. The dirty bomb was a popular hypothesis. Another theory ran that a big container from China carrying methyl cyclopentenolone ruptured while trying to unload at a Jersey chemical factory. Or maybe it was benzoic acid.
In the end, the theories proliferated and degenerated into nonsense. Of course some people suggested aliens and end times. Yet, while these ideas were interesting, what most perplexed Elyse was simply why the truth was unknown, why the truth was out of sight. Because dammit somebody had to know what had happened, so logically, somebody wasn't telling. That's what disturbed Elyse. That's what still didn't make any sense.