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The Smell of (d)emocracy

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.

The smell still surprises me. I’m really not used to it because I’ve lived (and left) a life of separation from such things. Such human things. Maybe that’s why the smell is so strong.

But I like it.

12 thoughts on “The Smell of (d)emocracy

  1. Grant said precisely what I was going to say. (except the parenthetical message. Not that I *don’t* love you, just not in *that* way.)

    I simply love this. Every word, every image, every smell. I love it.

  2. Camille, i wish I had a better smeller, so I could enjoy all these smells. Never occurred to me before. This is great !

  3. I smell a book coming… It smells warm, like success; like sweaty, excited autograph seekers at booksignings; it smells like hairspray and facepowder and Oprah’s expensive designer perfume… Oh, you get the idea and would say it so much better. Love this.

  4. Hey Camille:
    I just discovered your blog today. I’m a (98 & 2K) BJU grad. You wouldn’t know who I am. Though I wasn’t a school of FA guy when I was there, I was in choir during the years that Grant was a GA. He probably wouldn’t know me either. It’s been over 7 years since I was in G’ville. I’ve let time and miles distance me comfortably from the alma mater for which I’m grateful.

    Read parts of your “Ebenezer” today. very compelling. I plan on reading the rest and having my wife read them too. The vestiges of an unhealthy separatism linger in me and often surface like the Smeagle/Gollum struggle (if you know what I mean).
    Grant’s and your journey resonate w/ us in a few ways; one of which is the stillbirth of our second child in Feb ’03.

    Anyway, just wanted to clarify something. As I live in the city of Chicago, the Lincoln Park Zoo is free. However, if you want to park in their parking lot, it’s like $15. If one tries hard enough they could find parking outside the zoo property or take public trans.

  5. It would be equally apropos to note that:

    (d)emocracy can smell of the mingled blood and sweat from an antebellum slave’s whipped back.

    (d)emocracy smells like the fear of being a white farmer in Zimbabwe.

    I’m sympathetic to your egalitarianism, but it has the potential of being every bit as oppressive as elitism (and can even perversely resemble it at times).

    1. Way to completely miss the point, dude.

      You’ve *smelled* those things? You’ve smelled antebellum slaves and white farmer’s in Zimbabwe? You’re supposed to write what you know. . . . that’s what this was.

      Dissing democracy is your call, but that’s really not the point of the post. At all.

      It’s *irony* I smell now.

      1. Never read a more illogical response as Paul’s! Sounds like some anti-intellectual rationalization of the world’s suffering humanity. He ought to migrate over to Sharper iron’s dull minds! They’d love his non- think -illogical -spin, over there!

  6. I Love the freedom that good men and women fought for, gave their lives for, in the two world wars, the freedom that we have to enjoy today now, in the West, that we must never take for granted, and that we all need to regard as something precious to protect, like our wonderful constitutions, in Canada and America. To me, true democracy and true freedom go together. And our constitutions are there to protect us all from the unlawful encroachment on the democratic freedoms of people. Great post. The only smell I don’t like, is the smell of hospitals. I try to pretend it doesn’t bother me. But am always relieved to escape from it when I leave.

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