The Nose Knows

Friday evening, I dashed through bone-chilling rain to catch the bus to the eastside, cursing my lack of an umbrella and the inadequate supply of awnings to keep my head dry. Portland crows about its brilliance for urban planning and design, but lacks the civility to mandate awnings on downtown buildings? Mr. Mayor, an awning tax, if you please!

I was in a rush to commence a cocktail engagement badly needed after an overfull week and a drear day. My destination was the Victory Bar on SE Division and 37th. Are you now, or have you ever been a radical? If so, you’ll note that the Victory Bar is located in the spot once occupied by Laughing Horse Bookstore, the collective where you filled out your Chomsky collection. The leftist outpost has been transformed into a cozy, neighborhood bar with tasty nibbles and potations. ¡Viva la revolucion!

While a hot toddy would have been a warm comfort, I chose the Victory Martini, served in a chilled glass that brimmed with a lovely gin and a touch of cucumber-infused vermouth. It was the perfect complement for a plate of fried hush puppies with homemade ketchup. My tablemates went for the baked spaetzle – an upgraded mac ‘n cheese, with gruyere replacing the classic cheese food.

The Victory was just what the doctor ordered and the happy hour pricing was a nice bonus for these economic times. However, our prime objective was to catch up with Angela Sanders, a friend and grant writing colleague who we don’t see often enough. Angela is an engaging conversationalist with an eye for vintage clothes, a taste for classic cocktails, a talent for tarot, and an uncanny knack for bringing together fascinating dinner guests. She also has a mutt named Tex.

Angela can craft persuasive grant proposals, but that’s the least of her writing talents. Over our second round of drinks (this time I chose the "Monkey Gland"), she gave us an update on her in-progress mystery novel that promises intrigue, plot twists and Portland locations from Mary's Club to the safety deposit box vault at U.S. Bank. We also chatted about Angela's endeavors as a blogging “perfumista.” For the past few years, Angela has been applying her vast knowledge and love of fine fragrances to regular posts on Now Smell This -- one of the scores of websites dedicated to the art of the perfumer. Besides having a great name, Now Smell This enjoys a devoted following and Angela is one of its star writers. Her posts, which include both perfume reviews and general commentary, invariably engender a string of chatty and complimentary comments to which she dutifully responds. (Yes, I’m jealous).

Reading about perfume absent a sample to hold under your nose may seem pointless -- like pouring over a cookbook without breaking out the saute pan, or reading about a wine your pocketbook will never afford. But a skilled writer can engage your senses and delight your mind enough to overcome such deficits. Angela does that with writing that is passionate about its subject while being packed with delightful similes and smart, not-so-fusty prose. A good place to start is by reading one of my favorite posts on Now Smell This, in which Angela discusses the meaning of perfume.

And here are a few randomly selected, yet marvelous excerpts from some of Angela’s reviews:

“Wearing most of these Patous is like pinning on an old rhinestone brooch or carrying an alligator clutch from the 1930s. They don’t smell like anything made today.”

“Balenciaga Rumba’s flowers appear then disappear then gently reappear amidst the churchy wood, as if they’re blowing in from a night garden ... I imagine a Cuban bar with an outdoor seating area and a palm reader in the corner ready to tell you your fate while you sip your second El Floridita. Meanwhile, the music inside is loud, and a deadly handsome man is watching you (here insert Sean Connery circa 1964).”

“I also loved Normandie, which smells to me like a cedar chest with an armagnac-soaked prune in it.”

“Amber Ylang Ylang is as close to a pale gold cashmere sweater as you can get in smell. It's a simple cardigan with a jewel neck and small, mother of pearl buttons, and it hugs the body. It's silkily warm, well made, and goes with just about anything in the closet.”

“Imagine that you're standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. Behind you is an acre planted thickly with pink roses. It's the end of an August day, and the sun is setting in tones of apricot fading to purple as it bleeds into the sky. Now add a full orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing The Beatles' 'All You Need is Love'. What you get is grand, passionate, lush, and faintly cartoonish. In other words, you get
Guerlain Nahéma."

"Charlie smells like two-dollar sauvignon blanc served in a bruised glass lightly filmed with dishwasher detergent … In truth, to me Charlie smells just like hangovers from cheap mixed drinks served at the disco at the Holiday Inn on the outskirts of a depressed logging town. It smells like divorce, ratty polyester crepe de chine the color of Lucky Charms marshmallows, and an old Chevy Nova with transmission trouble. It smells like food stamps and Jimmy Carter on the television set. It smells like this plus June bugs raining down on the Kmart parking lot in August, all through the eyes — and also apparently the nose — of a little girl.”

“Lady Stetson ... is a lush, easy, drinkable brew — a sort of Snapple in a perfume bottle or what I imagine a supermarket viognier would taste like if it were packaged in cans like beer.”

Prince Matchabelli Sexiest Musk is sexy like Revlon Cherries in the Snow lipstick and a cheap, baby blue push-up bra are sexy. Sexiest Musk is a powerful, sweet, straight-on, ambery musk with a subtle undercurrent of lavender, the kind that beats up Serge Lutens Clair de Musc in the schoolyard then goes to smoke cigarettes by the flag pole. There's nothing complex about Sexiest Musk. It's boy mechanic and New Jersey girl musk, frills-free and available at your local drugstore for less than the cost of a subscription to True Romance.”

Rumeur opens with a sparkling floral burst that hints at a happy, gardenia-like scent. This fresh beginning quickly flattens into a dull, dry, vaguely rose, jasmine, and lily of the valley heart that feels fuzzy and high-pitched to me. Imagine standing in a stuffy storage room and looking at a dusty, plastic bouquet on a shelf a little too high to reach. You stand on your tiptoes and grab at the bouquet, but after a few minutes of fruitless struggle you give up and decide to open a window for fresh air to ward off a migraine. That's how the middle of Rumeur feels to me. And Rumeur goes on and on — through twelve hours, washing a sink full of dishes by hand, and a bath.”

“[Arpège] feels deep and elegant and wants to drag me out on rainy nights to see sopranos singing Schumann, followed by champagne and candlelight and polished mahogany tables.”

Comparing Amouage Jubilation 25 with Rochas Femme: “Its sheerness is one of the things that, in my mind, differentiates it from Femme. If Femme is a rumpled peach satin teddy, worn a day already, then 25 is a pale mousseline slip.”

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