Who Am I and What Should I Smell Like?

Photograph by Chris Buck

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think life is worth living without a hobby or two. My hobbies have included: model airplanes (lots of noise, lots of expensive crashes), fly-fishing (I sucked – not even the great Lefty Kreh could teach me how to cast), calculator collecting (LED handhelds from the 1970s, part of my Great Indoorsman series of hobbies), deal hunting (thousands of hours spent on Slickdeals.net; latest score: seven boxes of K-Cups for my Keurig coffeemaker, $84 total retail at the store, $1.93 total for me), selling depressing family heirlooms on eBay (according to Sotheby’s, the massive silver pen belonging to the accountant of Czar Nicholas, worth hundreds of thousands, my late grandmother said, is nothing but a stupid pipe fitting), and trying to avoid having to join A.A. due to the above. Great hobbies all, but none is a match for my latest: collecting colognes as part of the hunt for my very own signature scent, the one that says me like no other.

How it happened is another one of those things. It’s a Friday, around the time I should be out huffing sour-mash fumes at a local bistro, but instead I’m canvassing the closeout knitted-shirt racks at Marshalls. Next thing you know, I’m staring at the men’s cologne display, wondering why I’d never worn cologne before; the next, I’m paying $12 for a bottle of Giorgio Beverly Hills Red for Men; the next, I’m sitting in my Kia Soul, spritzing myself with the stuff, kind of digging the leathery spice of it all; the next, I turn on the radio, Rod Stewart, “Maggie May”; the next, I’m sucker punched by a rolling wave of sappy nostalgia for the peaceful, easy feeling of the early 1970s; the next, all I can think is, if I’d smelled like this back then, I bet I would have gotten a much better class of nookie, maybe even a Maggie May of my own; the next, I’m at home, in my basement, at my computer, hanging out online at a site called ­Basenotes.net, which caters to the scent freaks of the world, 68,043 in all, the vast majority of them guys; the next, I’m trying to explain myself to my girlfriend, who thinks I should stop and go do something useful, like volunteer at a soup kitchen. Like that’s ­really going to happen.

“You smell fine,” she was saying. “Why do you need to smell any different?”

“No, no, no, that’s not the point,” I said. “It’s not about smelling different. It’s about having a signature scent, a smell that’s as unique to me as my own fingerprint. Like, I can put it on in the morning and know I’m me the rest of the day. Or when I go to the party, everyone will know when I arrive and paw at the air for my return when I’m gone. I think that’d be cool.”

“What party?”

“For chrissake. Any party. The party of life. Come on, hon.”

“Well, that’s stupid. This whole thing is stupid, like most of – “

“Hey!” I said, stomping my foot. “It’s not stupid.”

And like that we went, back and forth, until finally I nearly got the last word by going all high-minded on her and swiping some palaver from one of the guys on the forum, most all of whom have also suffered from the ignorance of others, via rolled eyeballs, derisive snorts, pummelings at school, avoidance at work, worried-sick parents, and will-rewriting grandparents. You can collect coins, stamps, butterflies, records, rubber bands, but God forbid you’re interested in smells. “My buddies think this truly unique hobby called perfume is just a vice, a pathological waste of cash and the actual reason why I won’t get anywhere in life,” one Basenotes guy complained. As a consequence, any number of these colognoisseurs (or perfumidors or retroscentuals, as they variously call themselves) have taken to hiding their fragrances (a.k.a. frags) and pursuing their hobby in private, spritzing as spritz can. That’s pathetic. That makes me angry. I’m not going to do that.

“You know what the guys say?” I asked my girlfriend. “They say our hobby is superior to other hobbies because it’s a hobby of the intangible. It’s invisible. It only reveals its beauty in your mind. Right up there, where one day, if you’re lucky, you just might get a glimpse of God.”

“A glimpse of God,” she said flatly, and then gave me a glimpse of her back. I watched her go, and then spritzed myself again with Giorgio Red. It’s a soapy little fragrance, a little sour, too, with maybe some oak moss simmering underneath. Very nice, indeed.Seriously, though, you wouldn’t believe what a bunch of whackjobs hang out on Basenotes. By and large, they’re a pretty democratic bunch, with members spanning all ages and, contrary to what you might expect, not a lot of snobbery apparent. If you like a mass-market fragrance like Drakkar Noir or 1 Million or Cool Water, that’s fine with them, if only because everyone’s entitled to his own nose. On the other hand, these are guys who buy special refrigerators for their frags, take pictures of their frag bottles and post them online for others to ooh and aah over, obsessively scour the known universe for vintage bottles of Givenchy Xeryus in the original 1986 formulation, and spend years aging a bottle of patchouli – “17 years, to be exact, [such that] one drop is sufficient for 24 hours of redolent, amazingly intense, complex, rich, and super­smooth output.” And when they get wound up about a fragrance, brother, hold on to your hat because it’s going to get breezy: “Serge Lutens Serge Noire is the signature fragrance of Satan himself,” a poster named Nopasho recently opined on ­Fragrantica.com, another frag site. “It’s the equivalent of a Gothic church with Satan lurching in a corner to lure innocent boys to the priest . . . who likes his boys young and black. Incense, smoldering wood ash, camphor, amber, raw cinnamon, clove. Sultry, rich, a passage in hell in the company of 73 nymphomaniacs and lots of mind-altering substances. A beautiful mind-bending trip out of your comfort zone.”

Another guy has a thing for the smell of new tennis shoes – “and not just the shoes, but the box, the tissue paper . . . everything.” Another guy, I guess you could say, makes his own scents: “I concoct my own gourmand-style, pepper-dominant scents by letting a thin layering of butter and Cajun sauce dry on my naked skin. Once dried, I’ll crush white and black pepper together in a bowl and mix it with an unscented body lotion. I have never received a compliment wearing this creation and have (by accident) gotten some Cajun on my pee-pee . . . which was a real hurt piece.”

And then there are the guys who have devoted their lives to determining which scents are the best so-called panty droppers, the ones most likely to get a girl so overheated that her undies suddenly slide down to her ankles. It’s a topic that generates lots of scornful commentary (as in, “Dude, liquor or chloroform, that always makes a girl weak in the knees”), but most guys, especially the newer ones, can’t get enough of it. One thread on the subject is 60 pages long, with 4,344 responses, and contains a link to a complex spreadsheet featuring nearly all of the 800 fragrances mentioned, tabulated by number of mentions, with Green Irish Tweed, created in 1985 for Cary Grant, currently sitting atop the pack. As a poster named Duke Hunt approvingly puts it, “GIT is the closest thing there is to a universal panty dropper.”

Anyway, you get the idea. Some of these guys might have issues.

But spend enough time in the Basenotes orbit and a couple of things will happen. For one, you’ll develop a whole new vocabulary with which to puzzle and irritate your surfing buddies and significant others. You’ll learn that top notes are the notes that bloom on your skin right after the initial application of a scent and generally spruce up the surroundings for 10 to 15 minutes, that middle notes develop next, last the longest, and comprise the dominant theme of the fragrance, that base notes arrive last, are the foundation of any given frag and help determine its staying power. You’ll become familiar with concepts such as projection, which attempts to measure the distance at which a scent first becomes noticeable, and silage, which attempts to measure how long a scent lingers in the air after the wearer has left the room. Pretty soon, you’ll no longer be surprised that, when you enter a thread titled “What Are You Wearing to Bed Right Now?” they’re talking not about PJs but about juice, as in, “I have two shelves of frags that I reach for right before bed, and most are my lighter scents (e.g., Puig Agua Lavanda, Royall Lyme Vetiver/Muske/Spyce, Malizia Vetyver, Pinaud Lilac Vegetal/Citrus Musk/Special Reserve/Vanilla, Gillette Cool Wave). I also wear lavender-based frags, like last night’s L’Occitan (in the blue box), Caron PUH, or HdP 1725. My fave bedtime scent, as of late, is Rochas Moustache (vintage EDC).” And then, pretty soon after that, you’ll become a whackjob yourself.

Ask any of my neighbors – if you can find them – and they’ll tell you the same: I know my perfume trivia and current sales trends and am happy to share. Did you know that Napoleon Bonaparte used 60 bottles of jasmine extract a month to keep himself smelling sweet? That’s the only bit of fragrance history I find interesting, so I won’t bore you more . . . how it was first used in Egypt way back when, as part of some odd rituals, etc., etc., up to the present time and the introduction of chemically created molecules to replace and add to nature’s own scents, etc., etc., tedium extremus. But, hey, did you know that the market for male fragrances is around $880 million annually in the U.S. and at least $3 billion worldwide, and while that still constitutes only about a third of the overall perfume market, it’s where much of the growth is? I find that fascinating. For whatever reason (i.e., inspired marketing tactics featuring bare-chested celebs like Matthew McConaughey and appealing dweebs like James Franco), more and more guys are wanting to wear a smell. In fact, according to data from the NPD Group, a market research company, over half of American men now scent themselves regularly. Last year’s five top-selling brands were Giorgio Armani’s Acqua di Giò Pour Homme, Chanel’s Bleu de Chanel, Gucci Guilty Pour Homme, Armani Code, and Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue Pour Homme, all of them bearing similar scent profiles, mainly some combination of wood (cedar, sandalwood, oakmoss, musk) and spice (ginger, coriander, bergamot, and various peppers). These scents are what’s currently considered manly, and each has its own brand-extending product line featuring shower gels, aftershave splashes, deodorants, shaving goods, moisturizers, and the like. (So far, no one has come up with a Giò Bleu Guilty Code Pour Homme–scented condom, but it can’t be long.) As expected, the big-name fragrances continue to dominate the marketplace, with more bottles of the top 20 juices being sold than the next 280 juices combined. But in the end, no matter how quality the frag, who wants to smell like every other idiot at the watering hole? Not me, that’s for sure.

Coromandel, by Chanel; Jicky, by Guerlain; Yatagan, by Caron; Nightscape, by Ulrich Lang; Shaal-Nur, by Etro; Têtu, by JoAnne Bassett; Carnal Flower, by Frédéric Malle; L’Air du Désert Marocain, by Andy Tauer; Ambre Sultan, by Serge Lutens; Bodhi Sativa, by Parfums des Beaux Arts; Breath of God, by Lush; S-ex, by Christophe Laudamiel – all of these ridiculously expensive scents came to me in a week’s time via eBay, manufacturer-begging, the Basenotes classifieds section, and sites like Theperfumedcourt.com, which decants bottles of perfume into smaller bottles, making sampling easier.

Basically, anything that any of the Basenotes guys said smelled like a winner – i.e., that reeked of swagger, style, panache, and, above all else, hardcore, sui-generis-type individuality that might set one apart from the common Joop!-wearing ruck – I went after. Soon I had 97 bottles of the stuff. I hate to say the total retail value. It makes me ill to think about. I won’t even tell my girlfriend. Some things are just better off kept to oneself and, in fact, better still, hidden from oneself, which is how I made many of my buys: Just hit the PayPal button, don’t even look, don’t ask why, just do. Or else I’d puff myself up with patriotism à la Andy Warhol – “Buying is much more American than thinking, and I’m as American as they come,” he once said – and justify the expense that way.

I piled all my perfumes on an old ping-pong table in the basement and covered them with a sheet, so my girlfriend wouldn’t have to see them every time she came down to do the wash. Around midday, I’d toodle down with my first cup of coffee, whisk the sheet off, and decide on the day’s trials. My method was always the same, as prescribed by my online betters. I’d take a strip of paper known as a fragrance blotter and spray the tip with, for instance, a little Bornéo 1834, by Serge Lutens, $140 for a tiny 50ml bottle. I’d shut my eyes to block out visual distractions, and then hold the strip about an inch from my nose and take short, shallow inhalations, sniff, sniff, sniff, trying to form an initial impression. Next, I’d bring the blotter to my lips and breathe in, adding taste sensation to the package, and exhale back up through my throat and out my nose. After that, I’d label the blotter and write down my thoughts – “Bornéo 1834, dirty chocolate and patchouli, fucking great” – and store it away for future reference. After that, I’d whiff some coffee beans to clear my olfactory palate and move on to the next scent. Sometimes I tested six perfumes in a day. But then I began sneezing all the time, blowing clouds of tissue-paper confetti into the air. It reminded me of my model-airplane-building hobby, when overexposure to cyanoacrylate glue led to an emergency-room visit and the end of my days as a hotshot balsa-wood flyboy.

So I started taking long breaks between sessions, during which I would look deeply into Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s 384-page encyclopedic opus ‘Perfumes: The A-Z Guide,’ the bible for all scentaholics, with some 1,800 perfumes reviewed. “Ravishingly entertaining,” John Lanchester wrote in the New Yorker, and he wasn’t kidding. Velocity, by Mary Kay: “Functional citrus/white-floral thing, very nearly good enough for a window cleaner.” Carthusia Uomo, by Carthusia: “Supposedly based on an old monastery formula and released in 1948 but could have been slapped together last Thursday.” The reviews are just so damned droll, they’re tiny bits of literature. “Listen to this one,” I shouted to my girlfriend one morning. “It’s for L’Air de Rien, by Miller Harris. ‘It smells of boozy kisses, stale joss sticks, rising damp, and soiled underwear. I love it.’ Isn’t that great? You’re expecting a put-down, but it ends in love. How great is that?” Silence. “Funny, right?” Silence. “You there?” Guess not.

Seven weeks in, I cracked open a flagon of Bond No. 9 Harrods Swarovski Limited Edition, $625 for 100ml with crystal bejeweled bottle, $330 without jewels, which is what I (uncharacteristically) was smart enough to get. Spritz, sniff, spritz, sniff. I tossed the blotter strip on the floor and sprayed the stuff all over me. Scuttling upstairs to the kitchen, I started shouting, “Smell, smell, smell!”

My girlfriend leaned into me and recoiled as if stung. “Yetch. It smells like plastic. What is that? Dirty old Band-Aid?”

I bobbed my head, happily. “Just so,” I said. “It smells like the entire Space Age wrapped up in one. It’s the one part of my childhood I can really remember. It’s got Sputnik and monkeys in it. It’s atomic. It’s baseball. It’s the Bay of Pigs. It’s Eames. It’s Naugahyde. God, it’s just so perfect.” I sniffed my forearm. “What do I detect? Amber, yes. Pepper, yes. Myrrh, yes. And oud. Just tons of oud.”

“I know I’m going to regret this, but what’s oud?”

I gave her a look. “Seriously? Oh, well, it’s derived in its natural form from resin contained within a tropical evergreen called the agar tree. But here’s the cool thing: The tree has to be infected with a particular fungus – Phialophora parasitica, if you must know – in order to produce the resin. It’s among the most expensive oils in the world. Now whether this is real oud or a synthetic oud, I couldn’t say, of course. If synthetic and produced by Firmenich, the Swiss aroma-chemicals monolith – well, scuttlebutt is its oud may irritate some users and get it in trouble with the International Fragrance Association, which, as you probably don’t know, has gone overboard trying to protect the public from even the smallest chance of allergic upset by banning suspect synthetics and naturals in an entirely heavy-handed manner and. . . . Well, oud. I love it. And this stuff has it in spades. Oh, my God, I smell good. In fact, I’ve never smelled anything like me. I’m a new me!”

“I very much doubt it,” she said. “You’re just trying to be . . . perverse. And that stuff is just making you smell weird.” She took a deep breath – as did I, because I knew what was coming next, some larger statement, one that had nothing to do with the fragrance at hand. She steadied herself on the sink. “I’ve about had it with all of this, and I’m thinking of moving out. I need you to stop it. And I need you to stop it now.”

I smiled at her. “Babe,” I said. “Good news. The hunt for my signature scent is over. I’ve found it. I need look no further.” I opened my arms to her.

“Great,” she said, and went back to the dishes.

A few hours later, though, she showed up in my study, where I was furrowed-brow busy trying to understand my attraction to the scent, as per something I’d read in the ‘New York Times’: “The search for the right perfume may be nothing less than the search for the essence of nostalgia, the after-scent of everything you once had within your grasp and can now only long for.” That proved a little taxing, so I moved on to marveling at the superheated prose Bond uses in its sales literature: “Three years in the making, Bond No. 9 Harrods Limited Edition contains as its key ingredient not an oud approximation but the real thing, which has been accented and dressed with a cunning selection of like-minded rich and dense tree resins and spices that enhance its seductive essence. How better to capture both the cosmopolitanism of today’s Arabian Peninsula and the magic of the 1,001 Arabian Nights?”

How cunning, and how better, indeed, I was thinking, when my girlfriend coughed to get my attention.

“Oh, hey, hon,” I said. “Question answered: The oud in this frag is real!”

It was then that I noticed the slim volume she had in hand. She said, “I want you to listen to this and really hear what it’s saying. It’s by Pablo Neruda.” She flipped open the book and began reading: “From every one of these days black as old iron/and opened up by the sun like big red oxen/and barely kept alive by air and by dreams/and suddenly and irremediably vanished/nothing has taken the place of my troubled beginnings/and the unequal measures pumping through my heart/are forged there day and night, all by themselves/adding up to messy and miserable sums.”

I just stared at her. I drew a blank. I really had no idea what she was talking about. I loved how I smelled.Actually, I was kind of besotted with myself – not with me, exactly, I’ve never been a big fan of me – but me wicked in Harrods Swarovski LE was a different story. I’d been hit with a last-call-at-the-bar sudden self-regard. And while I’ve always been a timid little woodchuck in public, all of a sudden I wanted to be noticed in the worst way. I wanted people to get a whiff of me and tell me how great I smelled, because I do smell great, I know I smell great, but I want to hear it from the outside world. And so out I went, to CVS, to Stop & Shop, to Matunuck Surf Shop, to the Narragansett Beach sea wall, to watering holes of all kinds, me all spruced up and ready to receive compliments. Only, I got nothing from nobody, nothing good, nothing bad. I even went so far as to start greeting my girlfriend’s girlfriends with bear hugs – I hate hugging, I never do it – pulling them in tight, but all they did was crawfish away and later on complain that I was acting creepy. The fact that I couldn’t draw a compliment really frustrated and angered me. I went online and found that, in fact, I wasn’t alone in this regard. Lots of guys have that problem, and the solution, most often, is just to wear more. Made sense, so next time out, I did as advised: two shots to each pectoral muscle, two to the middle of the chest, two to each side of my neck, and two to the crook of each elbow. And one final one for my corduroy-clad nethers. Just in case. But still, nothing.

Then, one day, I happened to spend a few hours in the presence of famous actor and bon-vivant ladies’ man George Clooney, who is a well-known Green Irish Tweed fan (not that he needs a panty dropper, of course) and a guy who would undoubtedly take note of the genius on my skin and make comment. I hung close to his side in his house, in his garden, in his office. I had the stuff laid on so thick it’s a wonder he could even see me through the haze. But he said nothing. I couldn’t figure out why. Clearly, he had to smell it. Just as clearly, he had to love it. I started to get a little agitated. My time was up. He was showing me to the door, his friendly little cocker spaniel buzzing around my ankles. We shook hands. And then I couldn’t help myself. I shoved my neck at him, said something about cologne, and demanded to know what he thought of what I had on.

Clooney took a step back and said, “Well, do you like it?”

I said, “Yup, I love it.”

Clooney smiled his easygoing Clooney smile. “Then that’s all that matters.”

What the hell kind of thing is that to say? What does that even mean? I spent countless hours on the flight back home trying to parse his words. They riddled me with anxiety. I told my girlfriend about it, and her response was, “Would you be offended if I asked you to take a shower before you came to bed tonight? You smell like airplane, B.O., and dirty Band-Aids.”

In the end, I decided that maybe Harrods wasn’t so great after all, that I needed a new signature scent, that Clooney can go to hell, and that one of my larger problems is that my little slice of Rhode Island heaven is filled mainly with beach-town derelicts and surfers, none of whom would know their oud from a hole in the ground. What a bunch of knuckleheads.The way I see it, almost every guy who’s ever amounted to anything has had a signature scent and worn it without being paid to wear it. Among the living, Brad Pitt is known for wearing Lorenzo Villoresi Musk; Dale Earnhardt Jr., Drakkar Noir; Elton John, Zents Fig; George Bush, Gendarme; Mike Tyson, Gianni Vive Sulman Parfum VI; Prince Harry, Cool Water; and Pope Benedict XVI, since earlier this year, a Vatican-billions-depleting, one-of-a-kind scent from Silvana Casoli. Me, I’ve got nothing. I spend my days reading old messages on the forum. I’ve been especially enthralled by the ones discussing perfumes that have animalic, fecal edges to them, and I find myself oddly thrilled to learn the sources from which such scents are derived: “When a fragrance smells ‘animalic’,” wrote someone named Shamu1, “basically it means that it smells like it contains oils that come from animals, such as civet (from the anal glands of a civet cat), musks (testicles or scrotum of a deer), or castoreum (scrotum of a beaver, I think?). These scents tend to have a ‘sweaty’ or somewhat ‘dirty’ smell underlying them.” Fascinating. And thus enlightened, I made a mental note to make beaver scrotum a talking point at my next social engagement. Then I set about ordering all the animalic perfumes I could, led by the acknowledged king of the fantastically fecal, Serge Lutens’ Muscs Koublaï Khän, and a week later had them arrayed in front of me.

In the event, I found all of them gorgeous and frightening in equal measure, the logic of which was explained to me in yet another post, this one from a dude going by the name Scentemental: “The ambivalence we feel over the animalic notes is to a large extent caused by the tension these notes create in us as we try to process them olfactorily. Do I like this fecal/animalic smell? Yes I do, but, wait, maybe I don’t, but then again, yes, I do, and before you know it, this vacillation has kept one engaged at a deep olfactory level. No other type of note creates this kind of tension. It’s a ‘troubling’ attraction.”

Indeed it is, but none proved more troubling and complicatedly compelling than a scent from a niche perfumery called Le Labo. The scent’s name: Rose 31. The first time I wore it, I had nightmares. The second time, I tripped on a sidewalk crack and fractured my right pinkie toe. The third time, I swooned after my second postprandial cocktail, which I don’t normally do until after my fifth. The fourth time, I was overcome with a weird, sunset longing for Georg Jensen’s Mitra stainless-steel silverware, the place settings of my childhood. The fifth, I’m not saying. The sixth, a splitting headache. And so on: Each time, a new, unsettling occurrence somehow connected to the frag. I took to spritzing myself and then, for safety’s sake, planting myself in a lounge chair, where I’d stay for the duration of the scent’s lasting, with my eyeballs mostly rolled back in their sockets.

I couldn’t even say what the fragrance was. I knew the ingredients – cumin, pepper, clove, nutmeg, olibanum, cedar, amber, oud, cistus, vetiver, and lots of rose – but what they amounted to in my mind, I couldn’t quite get. It was always tumbling away from me, the way scents do, until the day I woke from a deep, troubled sleep and it came to me unbidden and out of the blue. Rose 31 smells like vagina. Without a doubt.

I scurried over to my computer and started a new Basenotes thread: “Rose 31 = Vagina?” First responses were tame, like, “Seriously?” and “Nope, not even close.” From there, they slanted more toward the sophomoric, like, “Hold on. I’ll have to go do a side-by-side comparison,” to which another poster responded, “Is your sister visiting again?” Then came a few somewhat more considered posts, like, “It is not unheard of for women to perfume the area around the vagina. I think this is far more likely than any random scent capturing a note that is universal vagina.” Then they started to get personal: “Send me your girlfriend so I can get a better understanding of what exactly you’ve been smelling.” About 40 posts into the discussion, the admin jumped in, axed a good number of responses for being “too offensive even for this offensive thread,” and locked it from further contribution. I sat back in my chair, stunned. My girlfriend swept by. I stopped her and told her everything that had happened. I was really kind of pissed. “I mean, what am I supposed to do, censor my nose?”

“Vagina? You think that stuff smells like vagina?”

“Well, don’t you?”

She bent down, got right in my face. “How would I know?” she hissed. And then she left.

So what I did was, a week later, I packed up my bags and decided to take a trip to New York. It’d been a pretty crummy past couple of days. We’d gone to a dinner party where I’d stumbled around asking friends what they thought of my fragrance and what did it remind them of and didn’t it remind them of vagina and, no, no, no, I’m serious, and please take the time to think about it and, well, OK, fair enough, and afterward, I had to listen to an angry voice saying, “What are you thinking? Did you see how our friends looked at you? First you tell them it smells like vagina, then you come out with the fact that you’ve deemed it your signature scent, the one that says you like no other. Don’t you get how freaky-strange that is?” and not long after that, I started folding clothes into my suitcase. It was time to get out of this crummy small-minded nowheresville town.Amtrak took me into Manhattan’s Penn Station and then a cab took me to the Nolita neighborhood, full of stubble-chinned hipsters, and dumped Rose 31–smelling me off outside Le Labo’s New York home. What a nifty little store, very narrow, very stainless-steel industrial, with brown apothecary-type bottles lining the walls. It’s supposed to look like a laboratory and it does; the counter girls, known as “essence assistants,” wear white lab coats to gussy up the conceit, which is then made complete when one of them personally pours your choice of perfume into a bottle labeled with your name and hands it over, along with a hefty bill, $145 for 1.7 oz. I liked the place. For all the contrivances, it felt cozy. And it smelled great. And then in came one of Le Labo’s founders, Fabrice Penot, a stubble-chinned hipster himself, obviously French, slender, handsome, and wearing a groovy Big Lebowski–type sweater, the T-shirt underneath kind of ratty in just the most perfectly appealing way. Nice. My kind of guy. And we got to chatting. Specifically, I wanted to know more about Rose 31.

“We wanted to do a rose for men,” Penot said. “We were annoyed by the idea that a rose scent was seen as only for women. Like, what the fuck? I love the idea of a rose for men. Cumin is very important in our Rose 31. Maybe one of the most important. It smells in the drydown to me like man sweat. Once you catch it, you can’t get it out of your brain. And then the cardamom, wow, it gives this spalike experience to me. And the ambrox, which is a synthetic ambergris, it smells like skin. The dirtiness is coming. You don’t know if it’s angel or evil.”

He took a sip of his coffee and smiled at me. I smiled back. I nodded. I knew what he was talking about, and he knew that I knew. We were on the same wavelength.

This seemed as good a time as any.

“Vagina,” I said. “I think it smells like vagina.”

Someone guffawed in the background.

Penot took his time, rubbed his chin, looked away. “Yes, this perfume is very sexual,” he said after a while. “I can’t deny that. But vagina, I don’t know. I don’t get that.”

He went silent again. The silence went on. I couldn’t stand it. I began talking. I told Penot that I had evolved a theory. I told him that since so many of one’s life choices are forced upon one by unresolved childhood trauma and conflict, it seems logical that one’s choice of favorite perfumes might also be pinned to unresolved childhood conflicts and traumas, which are most often connected to one’s mother. And that this might be particularly true in the case of a signature scent, where primacy is given to one scent above all others. Then I shut up. Because, in fact, I was speaking off the cuff, not really knowing what I was saying, making it up on the spot to fill the silence, but I suddenly sensed that I was headed someplace bad, maybe even evil, with a fragment of that New York Times quote – “the after-scent of everything you once had within your grasp and can now only long for” – and of that Pablo Neruda poem – “nothing has taken the place of my troubled beginnings” – cutting into my brain like thorns and needles. Happily, the exact childhood-memory correlate to my present-day interpretation of Rose 31’s smell receded before it even appeared, but my heart pounded in my chest.

Penot actually looked alarmed.

“This is perhaps not the right place for that kind of thought,” he said. “We kind of deny anything like that. You don’t want to look at that.”

I blanched, shivered, and my wrists ached, like somebody was holding me down, and as soon as I could, I excused myself. Next stop: the bathroom in Penn Station, where I scrubbed and scrubbed the Rose 31 off my skin. Christ, that was close, wasn’t it? Penot was right. Some things you don’t want to look at, or smell, ever again. Only one problem remained. I needed a new hobby. Seriously, I don’t think life is worth living without a hobby or two, to help glide one through, above and beyond all of life’s added-up messy and miserable sums, but it’s got to be the right hobby, and you must take care.

Erik Hedegaard is a contributing editor. He profiled Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston in the October issue.

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