smells like flowers*

part of the series fallow time: dispatches from a field suspended

as a cultural anthropologist and photographer, i am observant, perhaps overly attuned to the visual. but anthropologist anna tsing argues that “we trust our eyes too much” (2015: 277). “smell,” she contends, “draws us into the entangled threads of memory and possibility” (2015: 45).**

lenora always smells good. she sounds good too. others have described her as having a “deep velvety voice,” and i have to agree. at seventy-three, she is one of our local black elders, and her roots in rochester reach far and wide. i was introduced to her by chance, by a friend, one morning over a breakfast of shrimp and grits at the arnett cafe, and we became fast friends.***

on a chilly january evening in 2020, after i returned from my winter break, i took lenora to dinner at a caribbean restaurant not far from her apartment complex to catch up. i wanted to hear about her holidays and discuss an upcoming community event that i was planning and in which she was participating. i picked her up at her apartment around 5:40pm and we spent about three hours at dinner, conversing over steaming and fragrant platters of tofu curry, macaroni and cheese with broccoli, steamed cabbage, curried lentils, rice and peas, and cups of hot ginger tea.

at one point, a friend of lenora’s stopped by the restaurant to deliver something to her. as he was leaving, she asked him about a mutual friend who sells oils. she wanted to purchase some, but only if they were 100% natural and not synthetic. later in our visit, i asked lenora about this, since i had recently been exploring the world of essential oils, and she invited me up to her apartment after dinner to see her collection and maybe take something home. during the drive, she confided that although her apartment was small, she trusted that as a friend, i wouldn’t judge her. a large elevator, smelling faintly of cigarettes, carried us without complaint to the ninth floor and we walked down a long hall. on lenora’s door was posted a hand-lettered sign with instructions to ring the doorbell or leave packages with the neighbor across the hall to prevent them being stolen. this came in handy when i returned two months later to help with groceries before the worst of the pandemic, indicating that i was indeed at the correct unit, as i had forgotten the number.

lenora’s apartment smelled good, albeit unfamiliar. lenora had set up her bed in the living room so that she could use the bedroom for storage. she led me inside and began rifling through boxes. taking advantage of my height and long limbs, she asked me to retrieve a slender white box from a high shelf. inside was an kit that included tiny bottles of essential oils: tea tree, lavender, peppermint, frankincense, and some blends. an opened bottle, lenora explained, was an indication of prior use, so those bottles had to remain. she gifted me a sealed bottle labeled “refuge calming blend,” a mix of lavender, ylang ylang, and something woodsy i can’t recall.

as i was uncapping and inhaling each tiny vessel in turn, lenora was digging through a cardboard box that contained yet smaller boxes and the tinkling of glass upon glass, from which she withdrew a series of small and irregularly-shaped bottles of variously shining and viscous fluids, each of which contained a world.

there was rose oil in a slim glass vial with a black screw top.
she thrust a bottle of tuberose toward me to smell. (rose and tuberose are not the same thing, i learned).
there was nag champa from india in a green bottle.
and fragrant sweetgrass in a blue depression glass bottle with sloped shoulders and a narrow neck.
things i had never smelled before and do not have words to describe.
lenora passed me some amber-colored lotus oil from egypt in a clear glass bottle with a golden stopper. when i removed the stopper to take a whiff, a smear of oil clung to my fingertips, and i swiftly pressed them behind my ears so as not to waste a drop.
she sent me home with a larger frosted glass bottle of sweet smelling milky kolonya lotion from turkey that was over a decade old.

all the while there was the faint breath of incense.

a stout-figured statuette of a black woman, about a foot tall, held the door open–la madama, “guardian of the home,” i later learned. i watched as lenora annointed the figure with “la madama,” her special eponymous oil. the fragrance immediately brought to mind a scent half-remembered, slightly fruity, maybe cherries? lenora told me later that this was blessed holy oil from a botanica on joseph avenue. she had purchased it more than twenty years ago.

alone, on the drive home afterward, i absent-mindedly pressed my fingertips to my nose.
we had shared a hug as i was leaving and my scarf still smelled like lenora the next day.

earlier that night at the restaurant, lenora had reached into her bag and presented me with a folded slip of paper. “can you do anything about this?” she asked. i smoothed the slip of paper to discover that it was a university parking ticket from october 2019. at my invitation, lenora had attended the university of rochester department of anthropology’s annual lewis henry morgan lecture. the 2019 lecturer, laurence ralph from princeton university, spoke about his newest book project, black cargo, an ethnographic examination of collective black experience shaped by shared vulnerability to police violence. i had helped organized the lecture, and i remember the sense of pride i felt when i saw lenora appear at the top of the auditorium steps that evening as the lecture was beginning.

lenora is a person living with a disability. that night, she had parked her car, with its disabled driver placard visible, in the closest parking lot to the lecture venue–the parking lot of wallis hall, which houses the university’s highest ranking administrative offices, including those of the president and provost. there are no visitor parking spaces in this small lot. and restrictions are enforced 24 hours (the lecture took place at 7pm, when most parking lots on camps are nearly empty). there is a long legacy of neighboring black residents being excluded and policed by the forces of the university, so the fact that an elderly neighbor venturing onto campus at night in search of enrichment would be met with a steep fine for being in the wrong place at the wrong time was not at all surprising to me.

the ticket was $100. lenora would not be able to pay it. i wasn’t sure my status as a faculty member would carry any weight at all in terms of advocacy, yet i offered to call the parking office on her behalf. when i called the office some days later, while sitting at my dining room table, i pulled the ticket out of my bag to reference its citation number. while on the phone, i kept detecting a faint floral fragrance. even though we were well beyond the ten-day time frame for filing an appeal, i was told to file one online anyway. after hanging up, i pressed the ticket slip to my face and it smelled like flowers and hairspray. it smelled like lenora. it smelled like lenora’s home.

it took a little while to get lenora on the phone so we could fill out the online appeal form together. i needed her explanation and additional information, such as her mailing address. together we drafted and submitted the following in her voice, working through various revisions and truncations to stay within the maximum length allowance:

i attended the annual morgan lecture at the anthropology department, which took place at hutchison hall. i am unfamiliar with the layout of the campus and the parking lots and i am disabled. the closest parking i could find was in the wallis lot. it was 7pm. i don’t remember seeing any handicapped spaces in that lot, so i parked in the closest space next to the street, with my handicapped placard showing. given these facts, i ask that you please remove this citation from my record.

lenora told me, laughing, that she had not received a parking ticket since 1975. the appeal instructions stated plainly that a lack of awareness for the regulations was not a sufficient reason for an appeal (and neither was lack of ability to pay the fine, nor lack of other places to park), so i crossed my fingers and hoped our rationale would be looked upon favorably. my understanding was that as long as she didn’t rack up multiple tickets, her car wouldn’t be booted, so while we waited for a decision, i advised her to be careful not to get another one.

within a couple of days, i got an email from lenora. she forwarded a notice from the parking office saying that her ticket had been reduced to a warning! at the good news, i picked up the ticket, which was still sitting, folded and a bit rumpled, in my workspace. i pressed the smooth paper to my face and inhaled. it still smelled ever so faintly of flowers.****

* i must admit that this is one of my most treasured episodes from my fieldwork thus far. i am anxious that ‘publishing’ it here may prevent me from ‘using’ it later in a scholarly journal article, as most journals prohibit the inclusion of things that have been published elsewhere. however, i insist upon sharing it here, freely, right this second, and refuse to save ‘my best’ for hiding away behind paywalls and in other inaccessible formats. rather than privatizing and professionalizing our scholarly work, anna tsing urges us to imagine “intellectual life as a peasant woodland, a source of many useful products emerging in unintentional design” (2015: 286). this small corner of the internet is one mode of “transgressing against the commodification of scholarship,” (287), though i am well aware that i can only afford to write in this way because i have already done a sufficient amount of writing ‘the other way.’ and it is not lost on me that a website, though not peer-reviewed or linked to an ‘impact factor,’ can also function as an instrument of professionalization, though it may not ‘count’ in the same way as a book or journal article. it is challenging to create outside of these neoliberal regimes.

** i cannot not resist including more wisdom from tsing: “smell is elusive. its effects surprise us. we don’t know how to put much about smell into words, even when our reactions are strong and certain…but smell, unlike air, is a sign of the presence of another to which we are already responding” (2015: 46). and “to live well with others, we need to use all our senses” (2015: 278-9).

*** i shared this piece of writing with lenora before publishing it, and she offered a number of generous edits, many of which i have incorporated into this iteration.

**** there is much to unpack here with regard to sensory ethnography (or scentsory ethnography?) and the relationship between scent and understandings of space, which are layered onto an underlying story about the relationship between race, friendship, policing, inclusion/exclusion, and public/private space. however, i can’t help but feel the perfumed lightness of the story would be weighed down and overpowered by an extended ‘academic’ analysis. one place to start may be sensory embodied reflexivity, described by dara culhane: “sensory ethnography, focused on where, when, and how people—in all their flesh and feelings—meet and experience the forces of, say, colonialism and racialization in their everyday lives, demands not only attention to such political positioning, but also that we, as ethnographers, come to know ourselves and others as multisensory, embodied beings engaged in co-creating knowledge” (2017: 61).