Despite what all my argumentative opponents claim, I’m not really a capital-D Democrat. Not yet anyway. I would like to think I’m a little-d democrat. I do admire (d)emocracy. And I love when you can smell it.
You can’t smell (d)emocracy at the mall. You smell warm plastic and eye-burning cologne and fabric dye at the mall. You smell capitalism there.
You can’t smell (d)emocracy at work. That smells like white-out and burned popcorn — both smells of mistakes, one that’s covered up and one that can never be covered up. That’s the humdrum side of capitalism.
You can’t smell (d)emocracy at church. Sometimes you smell urinal cakes and Pine-Sol, Nilla wafers and Stouffer’s Lasagna. On a bad day, it smells no different than the mall. On a good day, you smell red grapes (in various states of fermentation) and good bread. It’s Love you smell, I think.
You can’t smell (d)emocracy at home. Home smells like pot roast and candles and laundry. That’s what life smells like. And love too. But less communal than church-on-a-good-day and more corporeal.
You can smell (d)emocracy at the public library. It smells like mildewed paper and ink. You smell it while you hear your neighbors clicking away at circa-1990s keyboards and watch your five-year-old sign his name on his first official document — a library card. It’s not the same smell at a college library. Most university libraries smell like fatigue and onions — at least on the grad side. The undergrad side smells like denim and Skittles. Except the BJU library. It smells like hair product and anxious pheromones.
You smell (d)emocracy at any downtown Fourth-of-July fireworks display. It smells like gun powder and sweated-off sunscreen. It’s not the same smell at the Disney Magic Kingdom fireworks. That’s churros.
You smell (d)emocracy at the St. Louis Zoo. It’s the only free city zoo I know, and it usually smells like the Ape House — close and poopy. That’s when you’ll hear elementary school field trip war stories from 40-somethings about the good ol’ days when there was no Plexiglas barrier between you and the chimps! There is the smell of asphalt and dried-up worms at the zoo. You smell that while all the giggling adults gather ’round the giraffes’ pen cheering the male on while he repeatedly attempts . . . aaaaannnnnddd again fails to make love to his captive and “arranged” giraffe wife. We all cluster together — whatever our rank or race or politics or faith — for no other reason than mammalian empathy and adolescent curiosity.
You smell (d)emocracy at interactive fountains in city parks. It smells like chlorine which protects us from too much (d)emocracy. We still share vastly different senses of propriety, different states of (un)dress, different linguistic norms, different levels of preparation, and different definitions of “swim diaper.” And that’s when I’m thankful for chlorine. But still we’re all there. All splashing. Laughing. Running. Falling.
You smell (d)emocracy on Election Day. It smells like stale coffee and damp donuts and wet shoes. November is the rainy season here in South Carolina, and there’s always an icy downpour that day. I never smelled (d)emocracy when I lived on the BJU campus and went to the 29614 pol. That just smelled like work — proper and sucked-in and rictus-ish. Like a girdle in a fluorescent-lighted dressing room. (d)emocracy out here in Taylors feels much more collarless and irritated and much less-white but still friendly. And honest. There’s more camaraderie here. We all wait together — the A-Ms vs. the N-Zs. Waiting for our sticker to prove we’ve done our civic duty.
You smell (d)emocracy at the DMV. It smells like carpet glue. There we all sit gripping our sweaty numbered paper slip until Patty or Selma reward us with their half-lidded attention. That u-shaped paper is our ticket to success if we just hold on to it tightly enough. We’re all the same there — a square unflattering picture, an organ donor, a corrective-lenses wearer. Just a person who can’t help herself by herself, seeking wallet-sized proof that she exists and can transport herself from Target to Ingles.
You smell (d)emocracy at the ER. It smells like worry and antimicrobial lotion soap. You race in with your healthy son to see your sick son, lugging your over-packed, fugly duffel and muttering something incomprehensible to the guy in scrubs. He presses a button and points and says a room number. You grab your boy’s hand and shuffle over, looking back at all the panicky boredom sitting behind you and pray they are all okay too. It’s not about health insurance there. Or what kind of car got you there. It’s just about getting help. Immediately.
You smell (d)emocracy in a public school kindergarten classroom. It smells like ketchup and peppermint puke powder and well-worn wooden play kitchens. It’s different than the petroleum-based play kitchen at Sunday School. This one’s more earthy and more mid-century and more open-ended. There are no licensing agreements on this toy. They don’t have paste jars anymore in Kindergarten. And they’ve given up on those terrible bignormous pencils. No Dick-and-Jane that I can see. No vinyl nap mats. No chalkboards. Those smells from my Kindergarten year are absent.
You don’t smell (d)emocracy in the car line at the end of the day. That smells like liberty and individualism and stay-at-home-mommyhood. Your own private smell — privileged somewhat because you can stay-at-home and you can afford to waste an hour a day just sitting and reading in solitude while your littlest naps in the seat behind you.
(d)emocracy smells human. . . . well, it smells like humans. When people interact with no merit, no class, no money, and no pretense but simply for the same purpose, there’s a smell. It’s not an entirely bad smell, but it’s out of our control. It just happens.
But I like it.