Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Perfume Memories: CHANEL N°5


CHANEL N°5 —three words that weave a fragrant aura around the world, inspiring all who inhale the carefully arranged bouquet of this timeless, best-selling classic. The finest art in the world is ageless, resonating with dreams and desires that etch themselves into waking life. The perfume of olfactive memory is no different. It paints the canvas of our shared humanity, highlighting fundamental experiences that impact present and future encounters.

When the curtains of memory are permitted to part in my own life, an elegant figure of a woman emerges from the past. Her name is Mrs. Glassman, an elderly widow whose closest companions were the sillage of N°5 and her Chihuahuas, Nosey and Chico. The year is 1974. Mrs. Glassman was a worldly widow who continued to reside in the Fordham Road section of the Bronx after the loss of her husband and mother. Highly intelligent and quick-witted, her matronly carriage radiated natural elegance and strength. She kept her salt and pepper hair up with a few bobby pins and a single barrette, which accented a countenance blessed with perfect bone structure.

Mrs. Glassman’s cheeks were always impeccably rouged and well-suited to the bright red lipstick she rarely went without. Her presence attracted respect and curiosity in adults—and fear in children who were loud or ill-behaved as she made no bones about redressing peace and quiet in the face of rudeness. Though cordial and very curious about the lives of her neighbors, she was not one to invite guests into her home. She lived a contented life of solitude in a three bedroom apartment she once shared with her family and was known to spent a good deal of time reading newspapers and books.

As a child, I identified the neighbors in my building with the distinct odor of their living spaces. Each apartment had a unique scent, much like a person. The individual aromas were an inimitable melding of floor coverings, wall treatments, wooden furniture, upholstery, pets, commonly used cooking spices and faint traces of soap, shampoo and powder. The olfactive impression of Mrs. Glassman’s apartment, which I had only experienced at her front door, resembled an old library mingled with the hissing steam of a tired radiator and a distinctive touch of perfume. In my child’s mind, her solitary and ultra feminine way of life seemed stern, yet intriguing.

On a Thursday evening, I was working on a homework assignment and needed a particular edition of previous Sunday’s paper. My mother suggested that I visit Mrs. Glassman and though I was amused by the prospect of encountering her petite dogs, I was a bit uneasy. Mrs. Glassman never opened her apartment door completely and in all of the Creature Feature and Chiller movies I watched against my parents’ wishes, that could only mean one thing—evil lurked somewhere behind that door. My child’s mind never considered the fact that privacy might have been an issue. With due consideration and an adrenaline rush supplied by Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, I decided to add some spice to my mission. Not only would I get the newspaper I needed for the “A” I planned on getting in current events—I would get inside Mrs. Glassman’s apartment so I could decipher its smell and unearth the mystery which lurked behind the apartment door.

It was 6:30 and my skipping feet echoed along the hallway that led to Mrs. Glassman’s fourth floor apartment. I rang the doorbell once, knowing full well that anything more than that would incite a chaotic chorus of barks from Chico, Nosey and an old poodle named Pepi who lived next door. Mrs. Glassman’s door opened with a creaky yawn. She was wearing an evening robe and surveyed me over her spectacles. I carefully explained which edition of The New York Times I needed and how I was hoping to get an “A” in class. She smiled and invited me inside.

The door opened into a dining area lit by a single a table lamp. The adjacent living room, like the rest of the apartment, was fully carpeted and well furnished. The living room was more of a study, with dark wooden furniture and a preponderance of brown and burgundy hues. In a corner by a leather chair and ottoman were four neatly stacked newspaper and magazine piles, each about a foot and a half tall. The smell of book jackets and fatigued newsprint mingled with a faint though distinct perfume that shadowed Mrs. Glassman’s every move.

To the right of the dining table was a silver tray that held a square hairbrush with white bristles and a bottle of fine fragrance. Dim lighting made it a challenge to read the perfume label, so I quietly walked towards the silver tray to get a better look while Mrs. Glassman was rifling through her newspapers. The black letters grew clear against a white backdrop and formed these words—CHANEL N°5. I wanted to open the bottle, but knew it would not be polite to do so without asking. I could smell the resinous concentrate lingering at the bottle’s neck, which made the temptation all the more greater. The smell was distinctly feminine and floral, with a powdery touch of boudoir. Before I could request permission to sniff, Mrs. Glassman asked if I would like to sit down and have a warm drink. There were no bogeymen in the dimly lit apartment and she had a box of Nabisco Social Tea Biscuits, so I accepted.

Nosey and Chico were sleeping in the leather chair by the paper piles, but as soon as drinks and biscuits were served, Nosey, who was quite old and slightly arthritic (like his owner), woke up and ambled towards the foot of the dining table. Mrs. Glassman picked him up and placed him in her lap. “Do you brush your hair every night?” I asked. “Yes, I do and I use a special brush, the one on the tray over there,” she replied. I was getting closer to the object of my curiosity and my motive must have broken through its thinly veiled disguise. “My mother wears perfume too, but it doesn’t look like the one you have.” I said. “Bring it over here and I’ll show it to you, but be very careful. It’s from Paris.”

The only time I’d ever been to Paris was on a layover between flights. The policemen at the airport looked like toy soldiers in Oliver and Hardy's Babes in Toyland and I was completely convinced (at the age of seven) that there was a wind-up key hidden inside each of their jackets. I explained this to Mrs. Glassman who chuckled and woke up Chico with her laughter. He made a tiny howling sound and gave a sad-eyed look. The bottle of CHANEL N°5 was now on the dining room table and as Chico turned on his Chihuahua charm, I was aching to open the perfume bottle.

Nosey woke up and left Mrs. Glassman’s lap, giving Chico his turn at affection. Then, the strangest thing occurred. As Mrs. Glassman spoke endearing words to Chico, he would respond in what sounded like a cross between a howl and a moan. Suddenly, Mrs. Glassman started singing to him in a croaky, melodic voice. Chico howled along with her and I laughed so hard a bit of tea I had sipped escaped through my nose. “He can sing,” she told me, proudly grinning. I was convinced, but I was also mesmerized by the scent of CHANEL N°5 which was sitting near my elbow and wafting into my nostrils.

The miniature grandfather clock in the living room struck seven. Mrs. Glassman handed me the newspaper I needed for class. I thanked her as politely as I knew how and stared at the perfume bottle. I never had a chance to open it and experience the scent in Mrs. Glassman’s presence, but somehow it did not matter. The perfume of CHANEL N°5 surrounded our conversation and Chico’s side-splitting performance. Decades later it is hard not to recall the details of this encounter whenever CHANEL N°5 is in the air. As a fragrance professional, my associations with perfumes are very conscious, sometimes bringing up memories I would easily sacrifice to amnesia. When working on a project that requires extensive research and careful writing, I sometimes reach for a bottle of N°5, much in the way Hemingway would a fine whisky, and resurrect the memories of an elegant woman and her curious study...