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Here Are Some Smells That I Miss

Ron Cain spreads ribs, chicken and links on racks while the smoker heats up in the parking lot of the Eclectic Cookery shared kitchen space in San Francisco, Calif. on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. Cain serves up his selection of barbecued dishes at Clooney's Pub in the Mission District.
Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Drew Magary’s Thursday Afternoon NFL Dick Joke Jamboroo runs every Thursday at Defector during the NFL season. Got something you wanna contribute? Email the Roo. And buy Drew’s book, The Night The Lights Went Outthrough here.

I came to grips years ago with the fact that I, in all likelihood, will never fully recover my sense of smell. I lost it an accident back in 2018, and then spent part of my recovery both lamenting my dead sense and frantically trying to recover it. I consulted neurologists. I buried my nose in aromatherapy jars, and in unlit flavored candles, and even in bags of fresh dogshit. While the science of smell remains opaque—due, in large part, to it being an under-explored area of biology until the pandemic forced millions to take notice—it has been established that those who suffer from anosmia can sometimes recover from it either through treatment, natural healing processes, or just dumb luck. For a long time, I wanted to believe that I would be one of those lucky cases. Maybe my smell would come all the way back in a year. Maybe two. Maybe someday.

That day has yet to come. At some point before the turn of the decade, I accepted that my case was not a special one, and that my nose would remain dormant from 2018 into eternity. I don’t have to catch a hint of the nape of my youngest son’s neck to know exactly who he is and why I love him so.

Occasionally, I can still catch a whiff of something. I had to mix up some dipping sauce for frozen dumplings a week or two ago, and that I could smell clearly when I sniffed it up close. I can also smell snuffed out candle flames, liquid smoke, and a paucity of other scents that only share a robustness in common. I don’t cry when these scents make a cameo, and I don’t ruminate over what I’ve lost. I just smile, take a second whiff, and then get back to my life. I like that these things smell precisely the way I remember them (this is not always the case with other people who have smell disorders; sometimes one thing can smell like another to a damaged brain). It’s like being reminded of an old friend.

Otherwise, I can’t smell a fucking thing. Again, I got used to this before the turn of the decade. I don’t even sniff my food before or while eating it anymore. You, the reader, do this as a reflex. Sometimes, you may not even realize you’re doing it. It’s instinctive in the act of tasting. My brain, acting of its own accord, told my nose that it didn’t have to do that anymore, so my nose stopped. If I want to smell my coffee while I take a sip, I have to remind myself to sniff the cup when it’s at my mouth. Sometimes I get a hint of joe; most times not. I can’t be bothered either way.

But once in a while, I notice what’s missing. I don’t take it as a given that every able-nosed person takes their sense for granted. All of you have smells that you cherish: chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven, fresh laundry, your middle school crush’s hair, etc. Those smells are direct passages to your most vivid memories and desires. I was like this back when I could smell anything and everything. Now that I can’t do that, I have a keen awareness of which smells were truly vital—smells that defined their source and didn’t merely complement it. These are the smells I well and truly miss, and I thought I’d share them with you here.

Hickory. I’ve been good about not missing the smell of food, which is odd given how much I like to eat. But I picked up a tasting disorder from my accident, freaked out over THAT, got some of that taste back, and ended up content to split the difference. I can’t smell cakes, cookies, fresh bread, wine, stews, chocolate, lobster, or many of the other epicurean delights whose smells are designed to maximize your anticipation. But I can still taste those things. In certain cases, I can only taste part of them, but over time my brain adapted to perceive those parts as the whole. And that’s good enough for me.

Smoked foods are another matter. I bought a smoker five years ago that I didn’t use once this summer. This is partly because no one else in my family is much of a carnivore (for shame, you people), but also because I can’t taste smoke anymore. The scent IS the taste. There is time and love in that smell, not to mention nitrates.

Like a lot of people, my favorite smoking wood is hickory. Hell, I bought that smoker mostly so I could smell the hickory burning. Just the smell alone fills my mind with the taste of bacon, ribs, salmon, sausages, and chickens crudely perched atop empty beer cans. Now, to get my fix, I either have to nosebang the poor bottle of liquid smoke in our pantry, or I have to buy foods that have been smoked 100 times over. I am above neither of those alternatives, but when you have to reach that far for the memory, you tire of the strain, no matter the reward.

Weed. Some people don’t like the smell of weed. I call these people “tight-asses.” If they smell weed out in the open on a city block, they go into full Karen Mode and tell everyone in sight of their shocking discovery, like it’s still 1983. What if the person smoking weed is BLACK oh my god. I have never had that same reaction, for fairly obvious reasons. Also, the smell of weed lets me know that someone out there is having a good time, and I’m always glad when people are having a good time. The funk of weed is intriguing. Mystical even, provided you’ve already smoked some yourself.

The dog. I can’t smell my dog anymore. I nuzzle up against Carter every day, and I always take a whiff, just in case something comes back to me. But I never get anything. I never minded when Carter smelled bad. Dogs usually smell bad, but they smell distinctive when they do. Like weed, nothing smells like a dog does. I used to smell Carter and I could feel his soft fur tickling my mind. Hear his light panting. Picture him resting his front paws on the armrest of my recliner because he wanted attention. To smell a dog is, for just a moment, to be a dog. And who hasn’t envied the life of a good dog? Carter never gives out kisses to anyone, not even me and my family, so smelling him was as close as I could get to some heavy dog-on-man action. Some days, I sit with him in my lap and I try to remember how he smells. But it’s not easy to get a hold of that sensation, and the longer I suffer from anosmia, the harder it gets to find in my mental archives.

School. My wife teaches at the same preschool our kids went to. And I remember walking our daughter in on her first day of that preschool and having the smell of the hallway hit me like a brick. My school smelled like this hallway. Every school, including the ones my kids now go to, smells like that hallway. It’s an ambiguous blend of industrial solvents, building materials, child BO, and lazing must that can’t be replicated anywhere else. Take that smell in and suddenly you’re a kid again, lugging a backpack that’s far too heavy and crossing paths with girls you’re too shy to look at, much less talk to. If they ever sold a “school” car freshener, I would have bought it.

My balls. All Americans have an inalienable right to scratch and sniff. I now only get the scratch part.

Grass. The smell of a field perfectly matches its setting. It’s a fresh smell. Pure. Pastoral. I remember team stretches during football practice where I, with a helmet on, would face the ground while stretching out my quads etc. Blades of grass poked through my facemask and I smelled them point blank. You can smell time and light in a field of grass. You can smell the earth as it was intended to smell. Same as when you smell…

The nut carts in New York City. Walk through any touristy area of Manhattan and you’ll inevitably wander through the aroma of honey-shellacked almonds, peanuts, and cashews, emanating from a street cart that sells them in paper cones. Whenever I visit New York during Christmastime, that’s the first thing I wanna smell. Nat King Cole plays on a loop inside my head. But I can’t get that aroma anymore, which means that the small part of my mind that genuinely likes walking through Times Square isn’t as vocal about it as it once was.

The ocean. I was a water bug growing up. First one in the ocean, last one out. That remained true even into my adulthood, when I would swim with the kids for hours on end while other grownups were sitting in Tommy Bahama chairs, reading shitty books or staring at their phones. I’d still rather swim than do pretty much any other beach activity, but I don’t linger in the ocean as much as I used to. Without the smell of the ocean, I’m not getting the meaning of summer piped directly into my olfactory system. I try to ignore that fact and enjoy the ocean for the ocean’s sake, but I can’t make it the same as it once was.

And I can’t ignore the loss, as much as I want to. In his book Atlantic, author Simon Winchester referred to the Atlantic Ocean as, “always going on.” That’s what I smell in the ocean. I smell anemones swaying, seagulls circling, sharks cruising, whales cresting the surface, and ocean liners cutting through the surf. The ocean has a scent that never rests. It’s restless. Relentless. Always reminding you not only of life, but that there is so much of it.

Fall. Autumn officially started this week, although I live in an area that lives to deny me the onset of Pant Season. Unlike in, say, Arizona, fall does eventually make itself known around here. I used to know it had officially arrived whenever I walked outside and could smell, for the first time since the last fall, the tang of smoke piping out of chimneys and the fallen leaves cracking on the ground. I could smell the COLD, and I loved it. My blood capacity doubled when that smell hit. Fall is my favorite season and always will be. But I walk outside among the foliage now and I get no signal that it’s there. I have to rely on my sight and on the goosebumps rising on my skin to know that fall is back. Those remaining senses still do the job, and fall is still the king of my internal calendar. I still know what I’m missing though. I haven’t shrugged that loss off, the way age teaches you to shrug off so many other things.

But there’s value in this longing. There’s value in all longing, because while I may not be able to perceive these vitals smells anymore, I can still feel, and remember, the love that goes into them. That’s no small thing.

The Games

All games in the Jamboroo are evaluated for sheer watchability on a scale of 1 to 5 Throwgasms.

Five Throwgasms

Packers at Bucs: Every time I check out the ESPN homepage, I’m greeted with their daily First Take highlight:

I am now convinced that the person in charge of the front page layout makes sure to use the derpiest shot of Stephen A.’s face that they can find. “You’re trying to tell me an Uber driver sucked ME off? Please, Skip. Please. Let there be no doubt: if anyone is going to be sucking me off, it is going to be only the finest lady of my choosing. Make no mistake about it.”

Bills at Dolphins: I somehow talked myself out of the Bills while writing their annual preview. I was like, “Sure everyone is picking them to rampage their way to the Super Bowl, but everyone is dumb, and I am so smrt.” Shockingly, they were right and I was wrong. The Bills really are this good and Josh Allen scares me shitless.

Four Throwgasms

Rams at Cardinals: I wonder if Mike Pereira has ever asked FOX if he can just be a straight color analyst on games. He’s the only good ref analyst, and it’s not as if former refs don’t know the game and all of the principles involved. In my mind, it would fun to let Mike let the Tito’s cook inside his tummy and fling the ref dirt all game long. “When we reffed games against Kliff Kingsbury, Kevin, we always had to re-explain the rules to him.” There’s no way that Roger Goodell would ever let this happen, just as he’d never let Jerry Richardson become an owner-analyst for Fox, either. “I say I say I say, Kevin, as a ownuh, you would not pay Kyluh Murray all of that good money if he were not to study his game tape vociferously.” Think of what we’re missing here.

Three Throwgasms

Lions at Vikings: One week in and I was fully prepared to crown Kevin O’Connell the one in Minnesota. I was like, “This guy does and says all the right things, man. This is the guy.” Then the Vikings went to Philly and got a three-hour wedgie in front of the worst fans in football. I wanna tell you I’ve learned my lesson, but it’s one I would have learned 20 years ago if I was ever gonna.

By the way, the new lead Fox crew of Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen? They’re good. Any booth gets a passing grade from me if I don’t find them intrusive and annoying, and these men are neither of those things. GREAT SUCCESS.

Cowboys at Giants
Niners at Broncos
Jaguars at Chargers
Ravens at Patriots

Two Throwgasms

Eagles at Commanders: It was only last week when I realized that the name Washington Commanders DOES link back to D.C. because our president is the commander in chief. Still a dumbass name, though.

Raiders at Titans: The Washington Post published a huge story this week that detailed the NFL’s transparent, and very much deliberate, failure to diversify its coaching ranks over the past two decades. You already know much of what’s in this story before you read it, but the Post also got many black coaches to speak on the record, and to put their names on it. Even better, the story took me back to the halcyon days of Mike Lombardi being one of our preeminent football imbeciles:

During an interview with the Oakland Raiders in 2004, Carthon, then with the Dallas Cowboys, knew almost as soon as he got off the plane that his candidacy was a farce—because, he said, Raiders senior personnel executive Michael Lombardi told him so. “He said to me, ‘You know, you’re not going to get this job,’” Carthon recalled.

Now normally when someone is accused of something like this, they have the good sense to either refuse comment on the story, or to deny the allegations outright through their attorney. But Mike Lombardi’s brainwaves are not able to bridge that particular circuit. No, my man was like OOOH THIS IS MY CHANCE TO TELL PEOPLE I’VE SEEN GOODFELLAS and spoke to the Post directly. After saying he couldn’t remember that exchange with Carthon—fancy that—here’s the unseasoned meatball he tossed out afterward:

Lombardi, who was an executive with four teams around the league and once wrote a consulting report on the qualities that make a successful head coach, believes the roadblocks faced by Black coaches stem in part from the fact that so many owners don’t know how to identify leaders. “Coaches today are elected, not selected,” he said. “They’re looking to see who’s a popular candidate, who’s going to carry the Southern primaries.”

I love what a stupid asshole this man is. It’s like if Thomas Friedman majored in woodshop.

Chiefs at Colts

One Throwgasm

Falcons at Seahawks: I mentioned dipping sauce in the top essay, so let me just add a footnote here to say that when I found out that dipping sauce was just soy sauce and rice vinegar, and that I could make it at home, my world opened up. This happened when I was, like, 26. One of our best sauces, and so simple!

Steelers at Browns: This is tonight’s game. I’m still getting used to Amazon’s broadcast presentation, but I’ll get there. It’d help if they had catchier theme music and on-screen graphics that didn’t look like some shit that came right out of Battlebots.

Bengals at Jets
Saints at Panthers
Texans at Bears

Pregame Song That Makes Me Wanna Run Through A Goddamn Brick Wall

“Womanarchist,” by Bad Cop/Bad Cop! From Mike:

To add some female/female-fronted bands in the pregame brick wall section, I wanted to recommend the excellent band Bad Cop/Bad Cop.

And I’m glad you have, Mike. This band has riffs. Bon Jovi? Zero riffs. These gals? Many.

Great Moments In Poop History

Reader William sends in this story I’ll call LUBY SLIPPERS.

I was in the third grade and I was spending the night at my best friend’s house. It was for only the second time. For dinner, we went to Luby’s. I hated Luby’s then and would now if they were still around. I don’t remember what I ate, likely only Jell-O. 

Cut to that night. I’m asleep and wake up to the worst stomach pain I’ve had in my short life. I stumble out of my friend’s room where I had been nestled on pallet of blankets on the floor. Pitch black in the house and unsure of where I was going, I stumble toward where I seem to remember the bathroom to be. The cramps are getting worse and I cannot hold it in. 

I finally reach what I assume is the bathroom. My eyes have adjusted and I can kind of see the toilet. The wave of shit has hit me and I cannot hold it any longer. No time to turn on the light, I drop my shorts and shit into the toilet. Except I miss the toilet completely and just shit all over the floor. I continue to shit on the floor even after realizing the mistake. I can’t stop the shit. 

Being nine years old and unsure of what to do, I simply go back to bed. Soon, I am back in the bathroom shitting. This time I get to the toilet, but god help me I still miss and shit all over the back of it. Now I feel bad and try and clean it up a little bit. I’m just smearing shit with a square of TP. I give up, stomach gurgling still, and head back to bed. I decide that I will be respectful and close the door, so no one else uses the bathroom. 

Cut to the morning. I sleep until my dad arrives to get me. I never see the damage in the daylight. An hour or so later, at home, my mom answers a call from my best friend’s mom. I have no idea what she said, but my mom looked horrified. She hung up, gave me some Gatorade and asked me to lie down. 

I never heard of Luby’s until I read this story, so I looked it up. Turns out it’s still around, offering the slogan “Tastes like Texas, feels like home,” presumably more as a warning than an enticement. Luby’s serves much of its food cafeteria-style, which again should serve as an admonition to you and your bowels. I asked Defector’s Chief Texas Correspondent Kelsey McKinney if the food at Luby’s is any good. Her assessment:

“It’s fine. A classic after-church lunch place.”

That makes sense. So if you enjoy eating like a fairly well-treated POW, I think we’ve found the right chain for you.

Which Idiot GM Is This?

You know your team is in good hands when the man in charge of the roster is a professionally sweaty guy who MEANS BUSINESS. Which team does the man below hold in his meaty paws?

"We'll take charge from here, Sergeant."

Oh my, that’s Bills GM Brandon Beane, who walks around the practice field all day long talking into his lapel like he’s a Secret Service agent.

Gametime Cheap Beer Of The Week

American Light! From Chris:

A stranger handed me this little blast of freedom at a Lions/Steelers tailgate. Our group had just finished a 30-rack next to a dumpster, so the shoe definitely fit. Like the game itself, the beer is more fun to joke about than experience. It has a fuzzy metallic taste, like some basement carpet that sat under rusted paint cans for a decade. Finishes with a taste like 6:00 a.m. cottonmouth after a bender. Not sure which of those best represents the "spirit of America." Highly recommended!

I encountered regular American—not the light one—back when I was in college, and I never forgot the “Beer is Quality Brewed to Capture the Spirit And Strength of America” copy on the can. How could anyone forget such majestic wordsmanship, not to mention the drunken title case? I’m gonna run for governor of Missouri and hand these cans out at all of my rallies. I’ll win by 40 points.

Gameday Movie Of The Week For Panthers Fans

The Grey, which I only found out was directed by Joe Carnahan of Narc after I’d reached the end credits. I find out many things too late. No wonder this movie wasn’t Jaws But With Wolves. It’s the rare gritty movie where the look really does fit the story. It’s got a harrowing plane crash scene, Liam Neeson looking grimly determined (no one ever looks happily determined), macho dudes turning feral in the face of adversity, and yes, a few very angry wolves. All proper dad movie shit, with just enough indie violence to elevate it.

By the way, I have never seen Taken. I have no good reason why. I’ll get on it. That one is probably more basic in its deployment of dad movie tropes, but that doesn’t scare me off by any means.

Gratuitous Simpsons Quote

“All right, we'll give the dogs one more chance. As long as the puppies don't do anything else wrong, they stay. On a completely unrelated topic, I'm having a very, very important dinner party tonight.”

“Splendid! Who's coming?”

“Reverend Lovejoy, your old army drill sergeant, and the regional director of the IRS.”

Enjoy the games, everyone.

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