Eau Dear: Sniffing Out the Big Apple's Smelliest Spots
Thursday, August 17, 2006
We are getting closer.
"Over here," says Laurice Rahme, a perfume maker with an elegant French accent. "Stand right here. It's incredible."
We inhale together, then nod in unison. A hell-borne stench wafts over the corner of Baxter and Canal streets, a hectic intersection in Chinatown.
There is a fish market nearby with an assortment of scallops and lobsters cooling on ice, but those odors have been overwhelmed by something else, something vile and pitiless. Hints of rotten mustard, a soupcon of ammonia, undertones of armpit. The scent evolves in your nostrils like an argument that escalates -- it starts off testy, then insults your mother.
"I think it's the kitchen," Rahme says, walking down the street and toward the rear of a restaurant called Sun Say Kai. Embedded in the sidewalk is a trapdoor leading to the basement, where men are sweating and cooking. They gaze up, startled.
Rahme takes some tentative whiffs. "Old fried oil, heated and reheated," she guesses. "And organs, like the kidneys and liver."
We are on the hunt for stupefying aromas -- a stink safari, if you will -- and this is exactly the sort of gruesome emanation we knew we'd find. For every passion of the senses there is a nirvana: Wine lovers have the vineyards of Bordeaux, fans of John Singer Sargent have the Tate Museum in London. For connoisseurs of the rank, New York in the summer is a destination without peer, a wonderland of the noxious.
It smells so bad that we've brought along two olfactory experts for this tour. Along with Rahme, the parfumeur , there is Andrew Macchio, a retired veteran of the New York City Sanitation Department. He speaks with a robust Bronx accent, and when he isn't speaking, he sings. His specialty is '40s and '50s standards, and his signature tune, he says proudly, is "Mack the Knife." At social gatherings, when friends goad him into singing -- one imagines it wouldn't take much goading -- he saves that number for last.
"I make 'em wait," he says. "They yell for it and I make 'em wait."
Macchio was a few paces behind Rahme on the Chinatown sidewalk, but he has caught up and is eager to investigate. He bends at the waist and peers into the subterranean kitchen. Then he stands up and shrugs a little.