If you can't stand the stink, get out of the courthouse (or toughen up)

April 24, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

A SMELL in a courtroom in a Baltimore courthouse grosses people out and makes news. I can imagine Mencken, up from the dead for the day, regarding this story with a sense of vindication - the descent of man continues, as he had predicted. We have become wimps and wimpettes. We are spoiled. We are soft. We can't stand the heat, we can't handle the smell!

In Mencken's day, Baltimore's fat and lazy rivers were filled with sewage and other waste. The city, Mencken said, "smelled like a billion polecats," but somehow life went on.

Here it is 2005, and we have suburban homeowners complaining about the smell of the farmer's manure. Downtown, we have judges and jurors complaining about a couple of dead mice.

Or maybe a few dead rats.

Or maybe nothing like that at all.

It might only be, as officials investigating the mysterious odor in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse suggested, the remnant odors of potato chip grease and soft drink spillage in carpeting near vending machines.

Or maybe it's something truly macabre and otherworldly, something out of Edgar Allan Poe, something like the slow decay of a grand institution. A judge given to cynical comment about our overloaded, overworked, understaffed criminal justice system dismissed the idea that dead rodents in walls could be the source of the stench. "It can't be rats," said the judge, who demanded anonymity in return for the quote. "They deserted this sinking ship a long time ago."

Ah, metaphor, there is thy sting!

But, as I was saying, we have become smell wimps. Brothers and sisters, you don't know stink until you've lived in the 19th century. Or in a town with a piggery (as I did). Or stepped on a pile of never-harvested hen eggs in a hayloft (been there, done that). Unless you grew up around Back River before modern stench-reducing technology caught up with sewage processing, then you don't really know stink. Unless you've lived in Curtis Bay, where there's a plant that renders animal carcasses into "usable byproducts," then you've never lived the malodorous life.

Life today is relatively free of bad smells. We live in houses and apartments with windows that almost never open. We drive air-conditioned cars, work in air-conditioned offices, sleep in air-conditioned rooms. We spend billions on underarm deodorant, room deodorizers and cleaning disinfectant. We wash in tropical-scented soap and shampoo. We spritz ourselves with colognes and perfumes. We dress in clothing that has been "scented" and "softened."

We are so scented.

We are so softened.

No wonder a couple of dead mice - if that's really what it was - can cause a stink and an uproar at a courthouse.

My God, people, open the windows! Air out The Clarence! 'Tis spring!

Here's what else you do: Go somewhere - physically or in your memory - where the smells delight. I think you'll find that, all things considered, good olfactory experiences outnumber the bad.

You could go to Fells Point and inhale the aromas of freshly baked bread any hour of any day.

By late morning in Little Italy, you can pretty much count on 20 chefs sauteing garlic in olive oil simultaneously.

We miss the cinnamony smell of the McCormick spice factory. It moved from downtown to Baltimore County years ago. But you can still get a good hit of the stuff if you drive through Hunt Valley on the right day, especially a damp day, at the right time.

We have the enticing aroma of Boog's barbecue at Camden Yards, and, next to showgirl perfume, Big Al's Pit Beef is probably the most pleasant fragrance on Pulaski Highway. You need to step into a Jewish deli on Lombard Street, if only for a quick whiff. You should inhale the cheesesteak assembly line at Captain Harvey's in Dundalk, and the roasted peanuts outside Lexington Market.

"Don't forget the smell of breakfast cooking by a campsite," says Turkey Joe Trabert, old friend and raconteur known to pop a tent and a can of beer now and then. "And there's the smell of your own bed after a long trip, a freshly scrubbed floor or freshly cut lawn, that stuff the barber used to put on your hair when you were a kid, and Thursday nights during the winter - the smell of Mrs. Trabert's sour beef cooking."

I like the smell of herbs and blossoms carried by the cool air down the Big Gunpowder Falls through hemlock trees near Masemore Road in Baltimore County. I savor the smells of Pimlico - horse barns and horse sweat, liniment and leather, cigar smoke, hot dogs and over-cologned guys in Hawaiian shirts.

People of the Mitchell Courthouse - you could seek out the sweet air at Domino Sugar, or the crab-spice clouds at West Pratt and Monroe, or coffee at the Daily Grind. That'll fix your aching noses.

Or you could just toughen up. All things being relative, these are pleasant-smelling times. Mencken doesn't live here anymore, and we've cut the polecat factor significantly, too.

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