What’s That Smell?




          My wife often says that I have a spidey sense when it comes to smell. I really can smell the tiniest of things, which is often not a good talent to have. I’d rather have better vision than the ability to smell a single worm after it rains. Honestly, there aren’t a lot of smells I really like, and most of them are those that occur in nature.

          Many years ago, I came up with the ill-conceived, yet oddly brilliant idea of Mandles. These would have been scented candles for men in fragrances like bacon, wood smoke, peanut butter, freshly mown lawn, new tires, lumber and motor oil. I came up with this when my wife brought home a scented candle that smelled like Queen Victoria. “They should make fragrances that men like,” I thought.

          This idea would have failed miserably because let’s face it—men don’t buy scented candles for themselves and even if they got one as a gift, they’d never light it. It’s not something we do. As it turns out, Yankee Candle had a line of candles called Man Candles. Here’s the actual sales pitch from their website:

          “Escape to the man cave with this masculine blend of spices, woods, and musk.”

          OK, on two levels, I’m shocked that this didn’t bankrupt a successful company. First off, I’ve already spoken out against man caves or anything named man cave or those that align themselves with man caves and secondly, if you do have one of these fancy rooms and you invite some guys over for football, chips, and beer, who is going to light a scented candle? “Hey, Bill—is that a Man Town candle? It’s very masculine. And where’d you get those jeans? Maybe we should go get our hair cut together. You’d look cool with bangs.” I just don’t see that happening.

          Mrs. G. does like candles though, so we’ve settled on scents that don’t make me feel as if I’m at a bridal shower. Pine, pine tree, more pine tree, and something called Bergamot orange. That’s about the extent of my scented candle range.

          We also have a few of these things called reed diffusers in the house, which consist of a scented oil of some kind, a container to hold the oil and a bunch of thin sticks that go in the container that holds the oil. The sticks wick up the oil and it makes the room smell nice. I don’t mind these with the codicil that they smell like pine, pine tree, more pine tree, and something called Bergamot orange. We had one for a while that smelled like clothes that had been dried outside, which was OK but if I wanted that scent, I’d just open a window and save $29.95.  I’m still waiting for a reed diffuser that smells like a Thanksgiving turkey.

          As a rule, a synthetic smell can take a normally good smell and distort it into something unrecognizable and unless someone tells you what it is, you’d have no idea. It’s just a few degrees off, like Brad Pitt’s brother. Popcorn scent comes to mind. The smell of popcorn popping is almost intoxicating it’s so good, but a candle that smells like popcorn smells like a fan belt burning.

          I’m not a big enthusiast of perfume either, or cologne and certainly not toilet water. Who thought naming something that is supposed to be a sensory enhancement “toilet water?” Calling it eau de toilette is not much of an upgrade. Many women like to douse themselves in this stuff, then go to movie theaters and surround me like scented bookends. By the time I’m done with the movie, I’ve absorbed these combined scents and feel like I should be wearing a powdered wig, justacorps, and stockings over my breeches. “I’ve misplaced my fan. Has anyone seen my fan? And my velveteen beauty mark?”

          I know women think men like women to smell like this, but honestly, we don’t. At least I usually don’t. My wife does have a nice perfume called La vie est belle (French for, “life is beautiful”) that I don’t mind because she uses it sparingly. She’ll puff a little in the air, back up about five feet and then leap through the cloud as if she just burst the tape at a 5K. Whatever lands on her, that’s it.

          So I guess I’m not completely oblivious as to why women like to smell like something other than themselves, but I’ll never understand why men wear cologne. I would love to give this survey to women:

          What would you like your man to smell like?

  1. Like himself, only clean and fresh. Like soap.
  2. Like an eighteenth-century French nobleman.
  3. Like Axe, the cologne for people without nostrils.
  4. Anything but fart, so could you please open the car window before I die?

          We were in a casual restaurant and had a table near the bar. There were a man and woman standing next to us who must have challenged each other to a Super Soaker cologne duel before they left the house. A nuclear mushroom cloud of actual vapors was visible over their heads. It was awful. My chicken tasted like that little cake that goes in the back of a toilet to keep the bowl sparkly. Couldn’t they smell themselves before they left the house? Is there any plastic left in their car that hasn’t melted into a shapeless glob?

          I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention something of which we are all familiar, and which most of us find equal parts disgusting and funny. We all do it, we have all done it at an inappropriate time and we’ve all laughed at our accomplishment. Especially men. Doctors call it flatulence but when they are in a room with other doctors and not trying to sound professional with patients, they drop the flatulence act entirely and let loose with butt trumpets, busting a grumpy, flute toots, cutting the cheese and boxer thunder. Most of us just call it farting.

          Our own farts are hysterically funny, but if somebody else lets one fly, they may as well have done it while slowly shuffling sideways out of the middle of a very long church pew. “Sorry about that, and that, and that one too, oh man, oops, that was a good one so take a bite out of that gouda, almost done, no I’m not, excuse me, sorry, there’s a little basso profondo for the choir, time to light some incense, hello Mr. Bullfrog, who let the dogs out—toot, toot, toot toot.”

          Having said that, here’s what happened to me.

          Our utility company, let’s call them RG&E because that’s their name, sent out a little piece of paper with the bill that explained that they add a scent to natural gas so that, in the event of a gas leak, one can smell it. Normally, natural gas has no odor.

          A long time ago, natural gas scientists got together and determined that natural gas should smell like rotten eggs and as we all know, rotten eggs smell a lot like a fart. The gas company cannot say, “If you smell a fart, run out of the house and call 9-11 from your neighbor’s house,” because there would be people running out of their houses all day long, especially during Superbowl parties. So they say rotten eggs.

RG&E          This piece of paper that RG&E sent had a scratch and sniff portion that, when scratched, was supposed to smell like a gas leak. Smartypants that I am, I did not scratch it because I know what a fart smells like.

          In the same batch of mail, we got a bunch of blank checks from our credit card company, ostensibly to show us how easy it is for somebody to steal these out of the trash and run up our bill. I have no other explanation as to why anyone would send blank checks in the mail other than to benefit clever thieves.

          I took these blank checks and the surplus of paperwork from RG&E—including the “what gas smells like” piece of paper, went into our home office, and shoved it all into the shredder.

          Well, let me tell you, they should have called that natural gas sheet thing a shred and sniff because the shredding activated the fart strip to the point where one would think I just hosted the world’s largest chili eating contest in my office. If there had been an open flame from a man cave candle within fifty feet of the shredder, it would have flared up like a runaway oil geyser.

          “What the … RICK!” Mrs. G said as she walked by the room. Now I’ll be honest— I have blamed it on the dog, and I have blamed it on the egg salad sandwich I made for lunch, and I have even taken the blame myself but I have never blamed it on the shredder. That was a first.

          The hang time on this thing was incredible. I was beginning to reconsider my position on reed diffusers, Glade plug-ins, Man Candles and whatever other scented devices I could find. In the end, I just tossed the shredder a respectful thumbs up, then a slow clap as I backed out of the room and closed the door. “Nice one, buddy,” I said. “But next time, light a match.”




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Dear Diary …


           I started writing this on September fifteenth, three months to the day from December fifteenth, which will be my sixty-third trip around the sun. As I’m sure many people over the age of sixty will tell you, the days go by quickly now. I can do the math too. Jaws came out in 1975, forty-two years ago, and I remember sitting in the theater probably not caring a whit about where I’d be in 2017, but yeah — sixty-three plus forty-two equals 2059 and that’s some bad hat, Harry.

           It also dawned on me this morning that my father passed away at sixty-three, so if the stars align and fate allows, I will surpass that mark unless some twit in a Hyundai zigs out of his lane while checking his Snapchat, but I’m an optimist, as my mother always was. My glass is half full.

          I’m checking in with my various doctors, as every good senior citizen is supposed to do, and my numbers are all where they are supposed to be for somebody twenty-five years old. There are some issues, but I made a promise to myself during an especially dark morning a year or so ago that if things got even microscopically better, I’d never complain about what I’ve lost; rather I’d be grateful for what I have and a promise is a promise. Things got better.

           I hiked around Durand Eastman Park for two hours this past week, going up and down hills steeper than common sense and sneakers should allow, and felt great afterward. Accomplished, even. I passed an equally time-worn man, who, in the middle of nowhere, set up a chair, Pandora, and two fishing poles alongside the water. I quietly said “hi” as I passed, not wanting to break his moment, and he replied with a hearty, “Good morning, brother.” I don’t even call my own brother “brother,” so this caught me off-guard for a good mile as the echo followed me through the forest.

            Truth be told, I’m enjoying photography more than writing right now, but as I sit here, words flowing, windows open, with a cup of Peruvian and my dog, Milo, nearby, this feels pretty good too. Mrs. G. is still asleep in the other room, but once she wakes up, I’ll hit “save” and join her out on the back porch.

            When I fill out forms, sometimes I put “author” in the occupation box, and sometimes I put “photographer.” I’ve been paid for both, so I suppose either would be correct. If I want to mix things up, I’ll fill in the box with “raconteur.” Nobody reads these forms anyway. I never write “retired” because that, to me anyway, implies that I do nothing which couldn’t be further from the truth. On my sixty-third birthday, I’ll go online and file for Social Security, so I suppose it’ll be official then.

           It’s been an interesting year, and I don’t mind sharing some of it publicly, but in this new age of everybody’s breakfast turning into an Instagram meme, I’m keeping some moments private. Life needs mystery.


Posted in essays

Labor Days



            There’s an orchard not too far from my front door that also does a nice job with flowers. Since it was going to be my wife’s birthday the next day, I decided to drive out there to get a bunch because, you know, one can’t go wrong with flowers.

            When I walked in, I didn’t see any flower arrangements on display, so I asked if they had any somewhere else. The woman told me that they could put something together, which sounded fine. “I’ll wander around outside and stop back in about fifteen minutes,” I said.

            I walked around behind a mammoth old barn and was taking pictures of a vintage Dodge work truck, when a woman, maybe a decade or so younger than I, walked briskly out to the flower field and started cutting flowers. She said hi and I said hi back, and I told her that I thought those were for me. They were.

            “What would you like?” she asked.

            “I have no idea. You decide,” I said.IMG_0786

            So she did, and we walked back together to a weather-beaten wooden table where she fussed with the arrangement. I think the style is called rural chic—a simple, yet deceptively elaborate bouquet of flowers arranged in a pickle jar, or whatever else is handy that will hold water.

            “So, what do you do?” she asked as she was adjusting the height on a zinnia.

            “What do I do? That’s a good question. I know what I did,” I said. “I was a home builder for almost thirty years.”

            And so we talked about that and farming for half of an hour, eventually wrapping her octogenarian mother into the conversation as she walked by. After I paid for the flowers and balanced the water and flower filled vessel on the armrest of the truck, I drove home thinking about our conversation.

            What did I do?

            I spent the majority of my adult life in the construction business, and not a day went by when I didn’t say to myself, “Man, someday I’m going to write a book about this.” Well, that hasn’t happened, largely because I wouldn’t know where to begin. The best parts of my job were much the same as any other occupation, where the sum of the experiences makes up the career. Still, the orchardist’s inquiring words of, “what do you do” rang in my ears. I thought of Batman when he said, “It’s not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me.” True enough, Mr. Batman, so here goes:

            The construction business is nothing more than time and people management held together with a diverse range of skills. I needed to know what everyone else knew, and somehow coordinate hundreds of people and components on time and under budget so that when I was done, there would be a house where there once was none. That would be a very dull book, but those were the nuts and bolts of the job and I was very good at it. I learned the business from the ground up from my father-in-law and tweaked what I learned with my own personality. It was stimulating work, made even more remarkable by the people I encountered along the way. I met some very nice people, some very weird people and some people who I would rather, but won’t ever, forget, and since nobody wants to read about how to cut a bird’s mouth in a rafter, let’s talk about some of the folks I met along the way.

            We had a young family buy one of our spec houses, which had never been occupied. A few weekends after they moved in, they called to let me know the toilets were backing up—all of them, which was a first. We tried plunging them and snaking them, but neither method worked. That being Memorial Day weekend, I couldn’t leave them home for three days without working toilets, so I called in an emergency crew and we dug a hole in the front yard to get to the sewer cleanout. My fear was that kids had packed the pipe full of dirt before it was cut down, capped and buried. Bored kids living in a developing neighborhood were my archenemies.

    sewer        We opened the cap on the vertical part of the pipe (the cleanout) and ran a thin, flexible camera line out to the street. Clear as a whistle. Because of the wye fitting, we had to go into the basement to do the same thing with the other end of the pipe, and when we did, we saw that the obstruction was between the house and the cleanout point.

            I still thought it was a clump of dirt or sod because what else could it be? There was no way to clear it out without blowing whatever was causing the clog towards the street, which could have caused problems for everyone, so we dug a hole twelve feet deep smack in the middle of their front yard and cut off the wye so we could address the problem.

            Back in the basement, we fed a high-powered water hose attached to a bladder from the inside until we hit the clog, backed it up a bit, and then let ‘er rip. I was outside straddling the edges of the hole, and the plumber stayed inside. When it finally blew open, out came at least a half-dozen baby diapers along with everything else that had been flushed down the toilets over the past couple of weeks. The diapers had swollen in the sewer line and everything more or less worked until the pipes were filled to capacity, leaving nowhere for anything to go. The homeowner, holding a baby, looked at the mess and said, “those aren’t ours.”

            After everything was buttoned up and working, I went home, took a Silkwood shower, and if memory serves, burned my clothes.

            Outside of that issue, plumbing calls were usually minor. I got one from a customer whose garbage disposal quit, so I stopped over on my way home. Disposal problems were always easy, so I pushed the reset button and it started running, but it sounded as if the disposal was full of nails before it promptly quit again. I looked inside and saw what appeared to be ice cubes, and since you couldn’t pay me enough to stick my hand into a garbage disposal (even a dead one), I detached the unit from under the sink and dumped out chips of thick glass. “Oh, my kids knocked over a vase that was on the window ledge, and it broke in the sink. They ground it up in the disposal, and that’s when it quit,” she told me as if this were perfectly normal behavior. I cleaned out the disposal and advised her not to grind glass ever again. Or celery.

            There was the first-time homeowner who called me because a few of their lights weren’t working. I stopped over, looked at the situation, and then went out to the truck and got some supplies. When I got back, I showed him how to change a light bulb.change_a_light_bulb

            Then there was this guy who complained about everything, and on the morning after the afternoon we had poured the concrete for the garage floor, he called to tell me that there were footprints all over the surface and that he wanted a new floor. I met him at the house, where he was standing there with his three kids. Each of them was wearing sneakers with concrete on them. I didn’t give him a new floor, but the concrete was still green enough to fix, which I did.

            It was a strange sort of job, and we always tried to go above and beyond.

            I think my favorite character was the old woman who hoarded everything. She was a voracious reader, and within a few months of moving into an empty house, there were newspapers, books, and magazines from floor to ceiling. One had to walk from room to room in a maze-like pattern. Both of her bathtubs were filled from bottom to top with linens. She washed herself from the kitchen sink.

            She was a nice old lady, a widow with no kids and no relatives at all that I could discern, and I ended up doing odd jobs for her—I built a deck, put in a clothesline and changed a sump pump when it went bad. I probably never charged her enough if at all, and I think she knew it. She would flip me a twenty once in a while after some sort of oddball service call. She had no one else to take care of these things.

             She would clip newspaper articles relating to my daughter when she made the dean’s list and flag me down in front of her house to give them to me. For all of her eccentricities or maybe because of them, I liked her, and we had many interesting conversations. She came to my house one day and was wandering around the yard looking for me. My wife didn’t like that and I can’t say as I blame her. I had to ask her not to do that again.

            She died in her house a few years after we built it.

            The list goes on. There was the man who brought donuts and coffee every morning for the four months it took us to build his house, always knowing how many guys were on the job. People baked cookies and cakes for us, and in the summer they brought ice cold drinks. Couples would sneak into their newly framed houses and have candlelit dinners on the plywood floor of their future dining room. Many couples showed up with cameras and family members, and I would talk shop with fathers and uncles whose entire knowledge of construction came from watching This Old House on PBS.

            I loved every minute of it.

            I wish I could quantify each of the people I met and thank them for some great memories, as I can honestly say that the overwhelming majority of them were kind and grateful for what we did. I was a counselor for some, maybe a teacher for a few, but for several months, I was the one they called almost every day, and when the house was finished and the job was over, we parted ways. I tried not to lose sight of who I was to them. I was a contractor, hired to do a job, but in the end, I did miss some of them.

            My task was to insulate people from the sharp edges of building a house, no matter how difficult the job or how complex the problems. Any one client was never my only client, as we would build several houses at the same time, but the goal was always to make everyone feel as if they were the only person with whom I was working. Of the hundreds of homes we built, we were never late with one.

            The job and the hours sometimes took a toll on my family life, but I worked with my wife for all those years and she understood what was involved. I think my daughter did too, although I missed a few practices, games and weekend events. I’m sorry, honey. The hardest part of working with family was that the nature of the job made it difficult to leave work at work, so there were far too many casual dinners and holiday conversations that brought the job home. If I could change anything, it would be that.

            So on this Labor Day, I’m going to get a little reflective on all of it. I do miss the job, even the bad days, the sore muscles, the broken bones, the stitches and the bad coffee, not to mention dealing with capricious tradespeople, unreliable suppliers, bad weather, onerous state regulations, neurotic clients and neighborhood kids who would swipe whatever they could and build the most elaborate forts possible. If I could somehow go back and do it all again, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

              With that said, here’s to all of the working grunts out there. Those of us who did our job and did it well and honorably, and with any luck at all, made a small difference.




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