The Unknowing Nose

With no ability to smell, an anosmiac has difficulty making scents of the world

December 14, 2003|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Staff

Go to amazon.com, call up a scratch-and-sniff book titled The Sweet Smell of Christmas and you'll find 55 out of 56 customer reviewers give it a five-star rating.

Not bad for a book that's short on plot but long on snootfuls of chemically contrived hot cocoa and candy canes. "There are certain things in childhood that change the way you view the world as an adult," gushes reviewer Allegra M. Meis. "The Sweet Smell of Christmas is one of those things."

To which I say ... Bah! Humsmell!

Several million Americans probably share that sentiment. Several million people like me who have no sense of smell. Several million noses that are no more functional than the hood ornament on an old DeSoto.

The medical term for the condition is "anosmia." Those afflicted are anosmiacs, though, no surprise, some of us prefer to be known simply as Nozzies.

We're a breed apart from the mass of humanity that's been blessed with properly wired, sugar-plum-shaped olfactory lobes; from the "Olfies" of the world.

Olfies rule. They enjoy a symphony of several thousand odors. They invented roll-on antiperspirant. They created the no-smoking section in restaurants. Oh, how they love to smell the ocean and new-mowed lawns.

For eleven months of the year Nozzies live at relative peace with their scent-deprived selves. Then Thanksgiving comes. Then Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year's hit town.

Fresh-baked cookies. Cinnamon sticks. Mistletoe. Bayberry candles. Wool mittens warming by the radiator. Just-cut Christmas trees that trigger a tumble of childhood memories.

The holiday season is one big scent fest -- and Nozzies don't have admission tickets. It's enough to make an anosmiac want to scour the city in search of something, anything, that can kick an underachieving nose into gear, if only for a nanosecond.

Just once, Santa, please come early and bring a special gift -- a single, solitary Smell of Christmas.

Some Olfie friends insist that Lexington Market is a must-smell. I pay a courtesy call, nosing around Auntie Anne's Pretzels, Harbor City Bake Shoppe, Polack John's Famous Polish Sausage and Berger's Bakery.

I breathe deep. Again and again.

I might as well be hyperventilating in the plumbing-supplies aisle at Home Depot.

Being a reasonable person, I'm willing to lower the sweet-smell bar. What's swamp gas to you, could be French perfume to me.

I make a beeline for the Baltimore Zoo.

Animal Programs Manager Amy Eveleth suggests a close encounter with the zoo's foulest inhabitant: Marty the prehensile-tail porcupine.

Marty's a mensch. He has a gentle disposition, a circus-clown pink nose and a coat of long, black-and-white quills that make him look like a cheerleader's pompom.

Prehensile-tail porcupines live in the rainforests of South America, where they spend their time mostly lounging in tall trees. They rarely come in contact with water, let alone bathe. Stench is one of Marty's defense mechanisms.

"I can smell him now," says Eveleth as she unlocks his walk-in cage. "You don't even have to be downwind."

She describes the bouquet as musky, but "in a bad way." Zoo spokesman Ben Gross likens it to spoiled meat with a hint of fraternity-house rankness.

I stick my face close enough to kiss Marty's clown nose.

Nothing. I could eat raw prehensile-tail porcupine for lunch without so much as popping a breath mint.

I notice a piece of cardboard dangling from the top of the cage. Turns out it's a makeshift air freshener, reminiscent of those teeny, pine-scented trees that Olfies like to hang in their cars. But pine doesn't do it for Marty. He prefers having his cardboard slathered with Right Guard deodorant.

"His sense of smell is actually his best sense," says Eveleth.

Can you taste? That's the first question posed to people who can't smell by people who can.

Nozzies who lose their sense of smell as a result of illness or head trauma frequently lose the ability to taste or, almost as wrenching, suddenly find all foods have the phantom flavor of, say, burnt toast.

Congenital anosmiacs such as myself generally fare better. Years ago I underwent a battery of tests at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. A nutritionist began by asking if I ever craved "nonfood items such as corn starch, plaster, dirt, clay or ice."

(Hmm. Tempting as it may be to start the day with a nice, piping-hot bowl of plaster, it's really not worth the hassle: You've got to eat so fast to keep your breakfast from hardening. )

At Monell I sniffed dozens of squeeze bottles filled with exotic odors. I drained paper cups brimming with sweet, sour and salty liquids. In the end a doctor pronounced my sense of taste relatively intact. However, he said my nose checked out "a couple of hundred times" less sensitive than normal -- which is like having ears that can only hear blood-curdling screams.

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