That 1980s Bowling Alley Smell
What happens to the scents of our past?
A weird thing people don’t tell you about getting older is certain smells just go away. I’m not talking about a dulling of our senses, I mean the literal scents that occupy very specific memories or moments in time. I assume it’s probably for the best, especially since many of the scents I’m chasing likely aren’t available for me to sniff because they’d probably kill my body over time. I learned that a few years ago when I was in the middle of an ice rink in Connecticut. It felt familiar, that manufactured 23-degree weather on the ice. I grew up playing hockey, so the way the cold comes up off the ice as you’re literally standing in the middle of a very large refrigerator is frozen in my mind. But it was the smell that was off. It had been well over a decade since I’d last suited up and hit pucks, but as I stood in the neutral zone trying to get reacquainted with the feeling of all that equipment and the 40 extra pounds of personal weight I’d put on over adulthood balancing on two thin metal blades, there was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on that seemed different.
It was the smell. I swore it smelled different. I’d skated on a hundred rinks all over the country and in Canada, and the one thing I could usually count on was they all smelled the same no matter if I was in Barrington, Illinois or somewhere outside of Montreal. Was I making this up? Had age dulled or possibly strengthened my sense of smell? I skated up over towards one of the benches, where a dad my age, dressed in a black warm-up suit and a Hartford Whalers hat stood on skates, stick in hands, yelling at his kid who wasn’t shaping up to be the hockey prodigy I think he’d hoped for. I stood there for a second, made some small-talk that he didn’t seem that interested in, and then I asked the question I had on my mind. The guy was maybe five or ten years older, so surely he’d be able to tell me if I was right or crazy whether or not the ice rink smelled different than the ones we grew up in. And boy, if there’s one way to get a disappointed dad to stop scowling at his 10-year-old who is in the corner of the rink showing his friend how he can burp the “Star-Spangled Banner” instead of failing to hold onto the puck while zooming around orange cones, it’s getting him to start talking about smells.
“They don’t use the same chemicals anymore,” he told me before saying he didn’t have actual proof, but it’s something he noticed a long time ago. Then he claimed it had less to do with not exposing kids to carcinogens and more to do with speeding up the game. He went conspiracy-mind about it, and that’s where I lost him. I wanted to say that I didn’t think there was some cabal of guys with French Canadian accents sitting in an ice-fishing hut on a Great Lake trying to figure out how they could make the game more exciting by messing with the ice, but then the dad started skating away, yelling at his kid who was lying on the ice on his back, making snow angels with no snow.
I couldn’t find much information on how the treatment of hockey rink ice has changed over the years. There are plenty of interesting articles on the art of ice maintenance, but I honestly wouldn’t doubt if there have been subtle changes to the stuff the Zamboni is spraying or whatever is coming up through the cooling system over the years, and that’s likely for the best. The only reason I say that with certainty is because I smelled it once, then again at another rink, and another after that. So either my memory is betraying me, or there have been changes to the way hockey rinks smell over the years.
A few months ago, I mentioned I’d been reading Billy Wilder’s articles from his time as a newspaper reporter in Germany between the wars. There was one piece that really stuck out to me, “Why Don’t Matches Smell That Way Anymore.” I’m sorry to repurpose this once again, and I swear I’ve read more than one book this year, but I keep thinking about how in the 1920s, he noticed that striking matches didn’t smell the way they once did because, “They use new materials. During the war they ran out of man materials, which were replaced by different, cheaper ones. Now people are staying with them. That is progress. A world has disappeared and will never, ever come back.” I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that article because it really sums up how I feel about so many things nearly a century after Widler wrote it. Mostly how we’re conditioned over time to accept lower-quality and higher prices; but lately I’ve been thinking about how the smells we once knew really do drift away into the ether and never return.
I went back to the Wilder quote and started thinking about my ice rink experiences after an old friend sent me a picture. It was of a bowling alley we both used to hang out at when we were young, maybe 7 or 8. My mom ran the bar at this bowling alley and his dad was the manager. I’d been trying forever to find pictures of the place that was torn down years ago, and was starting to think that maybe my friend and I had some shared fantasy of this place like maybe it never existed and we made it up together. But then, one day, out of the blue, he messaged me and asked me if I remembered how the bowling alley smelled. It was like he was running a test.
“Old-Style beer, cigarettes, and wax,” I messaged him back.
“Can’t get that particular scent combo anymore, can you?”
“Nope,” he responded.
It wasn’t a particularly good smell, and, like me and that hockey dad thinking maybe there were fewer chemicals in the rink’s ice, it’s probably for the best that I haven’t walked into anywhere in I don’t know how long and it smelled like those things. You can’t smoke indoors basically anywhere, every modern bowling alley I’ve gone into smells oddly sterile these days, and even the beer I mentioned, Old-Style, Chicagoland gut rot, doesn’t use the same recipe it did when I was a kid. It’s the big things, and the subtle ones, the little notes that you don’t even think about in the moment, but that do get up in the air and create a certain scent that is of a certain time and place.
Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to figure out how to capture scents that appeal to me. My friend David Moltz, the perfumer and founder of D.S. & Durga really got me thinking about this over a few conversations we’ve had over the years. Once, it was about how there was a particular scent we both loved, of leather seats in an old Mercedes mixed with cold and diesel gasoline. Another was what it was like to go to a basketball game in the 1990s when we were kids. We were hanging out in his office once, and he opened up this little notebook he carries with him. David is a mad genius and I don’t know many people who I can have a conversation with where we just go from one topic to another, then another, and another within five minutes. He’s got that curious brain syndrome I’ve got, a fellow ‘80s baby who I’d imagine probably drove adults crazy trying to see, touch, hear, and especially smell, everything. He wanted to tell me about something he’d jotted down, but I noticed all these leaves and twigs and flowers falling out of the notebook.
“I always grab plants and things from places that I go that then become scents,” he told me before rattling off a few examples: “Our Salt Marsh Rose candle. The whole Hylnds line I did about Scotland. Debaser is a childhood memory of listening to the pixies with cool older kids in camp in the summer.”
Taking a page out of his (note)book, I started doing the same thing. Obviously, I can’t capture the smell of an old bowling alley or find out if there’s a hockey rink that smells just like the ones I started skating on before players from the Soviet Union were even allowed to play in the NHL, but I can’t help but wonder if that’s a good thing or not. I like that I can walk into a place and not worry I’m sucking in certain poisons into my lungs but also know that sooner or later, we’ll get some report that whatever we’ve been breathing in is bad for us in some way. Then those smells will go away, and there will be new ones in our noses. As for the old scents? I don’t know where they go, but what I wouldn’t give to get a whiff of that old bowling alley just one more time.