The Signature Olfactory Experience Of New York

Photo Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

A few years ago when I served on the board of the co-op building where I live in Brooklyn Heights — a fact suggesting a degree of squareness so profound it should discredit my authority to go on — my next-door neighbor came to me with recurring complaints that her apartment, at various points, but mostly in the evenings, reeked of pot (that, children, is what we of the Atari generation call it) so intensely that it seemed as if someone had come in and lit up right on her sofa. That her oldest daughter began to worry that she was getting a contact high while she was doing her homework made me despair for a generation and suggested that perhaps a certain unwarranted hysteria had taken hold. Then one night, at a moment of extreme fragrancy, my neighbor texted and asked me to come over and take a sniff for myself, and it seemed as if I had walked into a commune in the Redwoods sometime between the Tet offensive and the presidency of Gerald Ford.

The situation was especially curious, because no one in my household smoked anything; there was no apartment on the other side and the one directly below was undergoing a renovation and remained empty. My neighbor wondered whether the couple above her on the top floor, friends, were the ones indulging. But they were Holocaust survivors in their 90s. Who was going to tell them to switch to sherry?

As it happened, the smell was coming from the apartment two floors down, in the line. Middle-aged lawyers were doing the inhaling, and we asked them if they could devise a way, perhaps through better filtering or ventilation, to mitigate the problem. In retrospect this was naïve because so much of the pot commonly smoked today is pungent enough to resist efforts to conceal it. Even when this couple volunteered to stop smoking in their apartment, taking the habit outside instead, the mere fact of the pot lying around the house caused the smell to migrate upward in the building. Eventually they committed to keeping their pot tightly wrapped in the freezer to contain the odor. On several occasions I noticed that after one of them had smoked outside and returned, the elevator in the building retained the fierce smell for a while after.

This was only to be expected. A friend in a brownstone nearby told me that the smell of pot smoke often traveled into her house through the walls, from the building next door. This might also seem inconceivable until you start reading online reviews of various popular strains, one of which is called Wonder Woman and is described as having “a mostly skunky smell with notes of fruit and jet fuel.”

The vital work of decriminalizing marijuana has left pot smoke the signature olfactory experience of New York, which is better than rotting garbage on 85 degree days and infinitely preferable, quite obviously, to the tragedy of locking up young black men for a pleasure that white people have long enjoyed with impunity. There was a brief period roughly between 2011 and 2014, after cigarettes were banned in the city’s public parks and plazas and before the strictures around pot smoking began to loosen, when you could amble around the city and pretty much only encounter the smell of smoke when and if you had the misfortune of walking past a fire. But now it is possible to smell pot smoke nearly all the time, on the street, in every neighborhood, no matter the hour of the day. It is unusual to walk five or six blocks anywhere in New York, without getting a blast — a blast that often smells like skunk alone, untainted by scents from the orchard or a tarmac outside a Delta terminal.

This prevalence is bound to magnify. The state’s health commissioner recently recommended legalizing the drug, and mayor Bill de Blasio quickly followed with an announcement that the city would now forego arresting most people for smoking pot and hand out tickets instead. Many other states have already legalized recreational marijuana use, and Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging Andrew M. Cuomo in the Democratic primary for governor, has made the issue a key element of her platform, framing it as an essential means of beginning to redress the dreadful racial inequities in the criminal justice system.

It may be that the movement to legalize marijuana eventually morphs into a movement to encourage people to smoke less of it. The grounds might be “stench nuisance,’’ a term applied to a cause taken up by reformers in the mid-19th century who created olfactory maps of New York City that identified health threats that were then, ultimately, targeted. Already some research in rats has shown that exposure to secondhand smoke generated from marijuana affects the arteries in ways similar to tobacco smoke. At some point, it is easy to imagine that mothers of 3-year olds will rise up against the perceived tyranny of skunk weed over the stroller.

It is equally conceivable that neighborhood groups in stodgy places will demand that people limit their sidewalk smoking to liquid pot and odorless vape pens, or if they cannot afford them, the “doob tubes” popular among high school students. These devices, a website devoted to stoner enthusiasms tells us, “make the smell of weed turn into the smell of fresh laundry.” They are fabricated by stuffing “a toilet paper or paper towel roll with dryer sheets or fabric lightly soaked in Febreze.” Smoke is exhaled into it. It is when the city begins to smell like Febreze that we will have reached peak, immiserating sanitization.