Monday, August 31, 2009

Sights and Smells: Venice Beach, California

For photos illustrating this post, go here.

When I began going to Venice Beach some time in the mid-Seventies, it was struggling against the ruins of 60’s peace ‘n’ love; druggy, dirty, dangerous and filled with vagrants. Every vestibule reeked of stale urine, and was often occupied by someone living in a cardboard box. Paint peeled off the buildings in sheets and sometimes windows fell out of their casements. Trash blew along the boardwalk like tumbleweeds. Coming out of a tavern off the pier once, I saw a coyote trotting down Washington. He was retaking an old territory.

But there was a vitality and realness to it all. There were still artists’ studios on Market Street then. There was the restaurant without a name near Pacific and Windward, immortalized by the Doors song “Soul Kitchen,” where you could get really good food -- breakfast or meat & three -- for a couple of dollars. We were eating there the day I saw my first corpse. The coroner’s van pulled up in front of an old bungalow across the street, and presently they brought out the body of a fortyish man, bearded and cyanotic, not bothering to cover him. We shrugged and went on eating our eggs -- some junkie’s death -- but I never forgot it.

I didn’t actually go to the beach in those days, just hung around the boardwalk area, taking hundreds of photographs which I can’t find now, drinking coffee at the Sidewalk Cafe, or just walking around. It wasn’t until later, during the ’84 Olympics, that I actually lay on the beach with towel and sunscreen. It became The Thing to Do during those two weeks, because so many foreign women sunbathed topless, as at home, and the American girls followed suit. If the cops rousted you, you simply pretended that you didn’t speak English and didn’t understand them. Pretty soon, they gave up.

Anyway, we went down to Venice on a Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago. It’s been about twenty years for me.

It is, thankfully, still tattered. But it seems that the whole place has become a sort of show. I’m not sure who the target audience is, but I suspect that it might be me.

As I looked around, I realized that just about everyone promenading up and down the boardwalk was some sort of mark. The bands were playing for them; the guy who snaps a mousetrap onto his tongue was performing for them. Even the “kick me” guy was there for them, I

It’s not as though there weren’t street performers years ago, or trinkets vendors, or freaks. It’s just that these were professional freaks. People who made their livings as freaks. And I, once a participant, had become an observer.

One thing hadn’t changed much: the smells. Clouds of incense, rolling out of stores and vans. Patchouli oil-scented skin. Pot. A group of guys walked ahead of us, smoking a blunt, right out on the street, and why not? (It’s practically legal -- there’s even a storefront doctor’s office where one can procure, or so I’m told, a pot prescription, for any number of vague ailments.) Sunscreen. Stale urine -- ah, Venice! -- and overflowing trash bins. Dreadlocked hair. B.O. in every strength and variety. County-fair food from the stalls and restaurants.

Even blind, I would have known exactly where I was.

With eyes wide open, though, I could see that they’ve extended the vending area out onto the sand, and that these new vendors have tents like at art fairs. I could see a sign advertising an apartment Jim Morrison had once lived in (step right up!) as a tourist attraction. A sign advertising the “Venice Freak Show.” Another sign that said “Venice Beach parking $20.”

Not much was the same. Some of the street performers. And the smells.

I think that we use scents as references because, in a way, we have to. The visuals change so quickly now, faster and faster. It is scent that slows down time, reminds us in that incomparably visceral way that we’re still here, that the past did exist, that it's there to be called upon, and it’s free.

Photos by KM Borow, all rights reserved.

Friday, August 28, 2009


Home from an exhausting trip (is there any other kind now?)

I've been lax lately. End-of-summer doldrums, when you're waiting. Waiting for something to wake you up.

Some of my perfumes have been giving me interesting thoughts, stream-of-consciousness and dreamlike.

Let's start with some cognitive dissonance, shall we?

Barbara Bui Le Parfum:

Now I know what lactonic means. I like it, I think. I mean, I just bought a full bottle. Of course, it was only $25. And I don't have anything like it. A big gap in my FB collection: no musky scents. It was supposed to be an Oriental though. Is it? I should know this, but I don't. I mean, I did sample before buying. But it was a recent blog entry (someone else's) that pushed me over. Hardly ever happens. Fer chrissakes it was only $25! Layering? Will soften some of those hard chypres I adore? Time to get creative. Yeah, creative: I love this.

And a fragrance-induced flashback:

Vintage My Sin:

So Mad Men. A room full of wives, circa 1960, the Officers' Club at Tachikawa Air Force Base, Tokyo, Japan. Women in brocade cocktail dresses and Mikkimoto pearls and mink stoles. I'm 8, staring up at them in wonderment. It came to me at first sniff. My Sin: a mink stole in a bottle.

Four New Loves:

Rosine Rose d'Homme:

So good I want to drink it. Earth and patch and spice and rose.

Amouage Lyric:

The magic carpet ride. How could anything on earth be this lush and decadent? Help me somebody! I had to own this. Have I reached perfume Nirvana? Will anything ever smell this good again? Where do I go from here?

Anais Anais:

A rack full of gauzy David Hamilton photographs of young girls. In vaguely sapphic poses. In a railroad station in France, circa 1975. I gave some to a friend's daughter for her birthday. She'll probably trade it for some Jessica Simpson, but anyway, I tried.

Opium (a rediscovery):

I wear it to sleep. To dream in color.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Perfume Shopping: Los Angeles

I’ve just returned from StyleeCity, where I spent my misspent youth and then some. It wasn’t what you’d call a fun trip, as we were visiting my very ill father-in-law, but I was able to make one trip to the ScentBar, one of those Meccas we all have to make the perfume pilgrimage to sooner or later, no?

I’d like to think Atlanta could support a place like this, but culturally speaking, this is a city of tradition, not innovation. There are two kinds of people here -- the natives and the Not From Heres. The natives, those who can afford good perfume, tend to be somewhat conservative, in everything; my guess is that much fragrance here is bought as gifts, which makes this very much a Chanel town.

The Not From Heres, which comprise about 60% of the population, depending on where you live, well, who cares about them? (Now, c’mon, you know I don’t mean that.) We get the Rust Belt refugees here, lots of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Detroit. Lots of Boston, an uncomfortably high percentage of whom can’t believe they ever left their beloved Beantown and proclaim that fact often. We get some New York, bicoastals who tend to eat, speak, walk, drive and leave quickly. We get many Twenties from the rest of the South, recent grads of the big state schools for whom Biloxi or Montgomery just wasn’t enough but L.A. or New York would be too much. And we get corporate transplants from all over the place, roaring through our cookie-cutter ‘burbs in their big SUV’s. They don’t make such great neighbors, by the way.

Had I walked into the ScentBar in my pre-perfume days, I might have been intimidated. First, I wouldn’t have recognized well, anything. It’s mostly niche and indie. Kind of like one of those old too-hip record stores, but prettier. It’s small, just a storefront really, with one person behind the counter. Second, I will say that the person that day could’ve been a little more friendly, but, hey, it could be that I’ve gotten used to Southern manners. Finally, there’s that thousand-watt, clear Los Angeles light, which pours into the place like water, making the bottles glow, meanwhile illuminating one’s own imperfections without mercy. (L.A. homes tend to be filled with mirrors, so the Angelenos are used to that.)

But oh, what a perfume paradise it is. There are the Serges, trays of full bottles for testing. And it’s okay to test scents on skin! There’s a tray of Kenzo, and another of Etat Libre scents. More trays and beautiful bottles everywhere. A database the SA can use to tell you what the notes of any scent are, and, best of all, she’s unobtrusive unless engaged. And they have so many scents I’ve been dying to try. Sublime Balkiss, by TDC, was a standout for me; so was Rien, from Etat Libre d’Orange, and Jasmine et Cigarette. I wish I’d had my notebook; I wish my online perfumista pal had been able to meet me there (car problems). I wish I’d been able to spend the afternoon, or week, or month or year, there.

What did I buy? Amouage Lyric for women, 50 mls, the one I’ve been saving my pennies for (many, many pennies, but you knew that). I probably could’ve gotten this elixir of the Gods cheaper somewhere else, online, but we need to support these places. And, since we have no brick’n’mortars like this in Atlanta, I chose to buy my Amouage (Happy Birthday to me, in, oh, a few months) there. And the SA got friendlier -- a lot friendlier -- after that. I asked her, what did she think the new trends would be? She thought awhile. “Natural,” she finally said. “Natural essences.”

Do we hope she’s right? Pure naturals don’t last on me. But we’ll see.

I hope this is the future of perfume retailing, that there will be enough people to keep places like this alive. It’s not exactly in a low-rent neighborhood, right down the street from the Beverly Center. They must have to sell a lot of fragrance to survive. I hope they do.

The photo is of a postcard from the ScentBar.

The ScentBar’s address is 8327 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, or online at (No affiliation, honest!)

Amouage Lyric for Women is a beyond-sumptuous blend of dark rose, spice and frankincense, made in Oman and available at a select few fragrance retailers and online sites.

p.s.: Regarding my vintage Mitsouko drawing: in my haste to leave town, I goofed and made my deadline for hearing from the contest winner April 26 instead of August 26. I still haven’t heard from the winner, but, to be fair, I need to extend that deadline to September 9th. Winner, where are you? You have until September 9th, midnight US EDT; after that I’ll pick another winner (using my old fave, of course.)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

And the Winner of Vintage Mitsouko sample, etc., is....

....Amy Gibson Thomas!

Send me your postal details at and I'll get the package right out to you! I'd love to know what you think of the vintage perfume vs. the modern one.

(uh, one thing -- I'll be away next week, so try to get me you address before Saturday if you can, thanks! Other minor details: If I don't hear from the winner by April 26, midnight US EDT, I'll chose another one.)

And thanks to everyone who entered!

(The vintage Mitsouko ad is from the 20's. The image is from

Monday, August 10, 2009

Utterly Charming Perfume Cartoon

Reminder: the deadline for the vintage Mitsouko sample, etc., is this Wednesday, August 12, at midnight US EDT! Leave a comment to enter!

In the meantime....

Click here for a great 1925 cartoon on how to use perfume! (Sorry, couldn't get it to resize properly -- click the link and then the cartoon so you can read it.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Cold Sweat

Remember: the sample drawing for the vintage Mitsouko ends midnight US EDT, Aug 12! Leave a comment to enter.

The pheromone debate rages on, with one large consumer-products company manufacturing soap supposedly laden with the li’l devils. (Read all about it here.) Now, truth be told, I’m not so sure I’d want to walk around exuding subliminal signals that say, “C’mere, stranger!” but the MBA’s who develop these products seem to think I would, and you would, so there ya go: the geniuses of American business are at it again!

A couple of things: it’s not at all certain that human pheromones even exist. Animals have a special organ which perceives them; if you’ve ever seen a cat lift its head, open its mouth slightly, draw its lips back and mouth-breathe the air with a vacant expression, you’ve seen it -- the pheromone-detecting organ (VNO) at work. Some researchers think we have them. Others say we don’t. Others think we might, but vestigial, like the appendix.

Sweat, until recently, was just thought to be well, sweat. But there are different kinds of sweat. There is exertion sweat, and emotion sweat. Here’s the best part; the nose can’t tell them apart, if they’re fresh, but the brain can.

In 2009 a team of researchers, funded mostly by the military (are you surprised?) published a quite comprehensive study about the subliminal perception of fear-sweat. They looked at eighty presumably sane people who had signed up for sky-diving lessons. Somehow, the research team convinced these subjects to shave their armpits, control their diet prior to the study, and wear collection devices before, during and immediately after their first jump, done in tandem so they wouldn’t have to move (exert themselves) much, thereby reducing exertion sweat.

The collected apocrine sweat, analyzed by gas chronograph, showed significant amounts of androstadienones and androstenones, compounds reputed to be involved with human reproduction. Aha!

The jumpers and their sweat were put through every imaginable test to rule out what in research is called the “confounding variable.” (If you would like to read the original paper, do so here.) The gist of the research was this: the subjects -- those smelling the collected sweat -- were tested inside a Functional MRI, which “looks” at an active brain in real time, using magnetic imaging. If the methodology is good, and this was, it is the purest, most accurate way to determine what is really going on in the brain and reach the most accurate conclusion.

The areas that lit up in these subjects were in the left brain, specifically in the left corticoid amygdala. The amygdala is a referee of sensory signals and emotional reactions. It modulates, coordinates and ultimately delegates. It is one of the most crucial brain structures, as it links the “old” (primitive) brain with the “new” (cortex) thinking/interpreting one.

The research team then came up with an interesting way to look at how this innocuous substance (remember, the subjects couldn’t smell “sweat” consciously) might affect fear perception in the smeller. They took a series of morphed images of facial expression, which ranged from neutral to ambiguous to fearful, and showed them to the subjects which had or had not been smelling the fear-sweat from the jumpers. The subjects who had been showed significantly sharpened perception; in other words, you might say their vigilance was heightened. What this means is that their brains were put on alert, even though the smellers were not consciously aware of that.

This kind of thing has obvious applications for all kinds of interesting investigation, especially for the military. They also say that more research is needed, as they’d like to look at this kind of brain arousal in conjunction with other kinds of facial expression.

If you really wanted to stretch, I suppose you could call these sweat substances -- androstadienones and andostenones -- “pheromones,” but these researchers don’t. There is another study, not nearly as comprehensive (or as well-funded, I’d guess) as this, which concludes that women can tell the difference between sweat from sexually aroused males and those who are not. Now, if somebody could come up with a way to isolate those same compounds from females, then they’d have something! Can you imagine the big perfume manufacturers just falling all over themselves to get at it?

Back to the soap company. The “pheromones” they supposedly isolated came from good ol’ garden-variety sweat, apparently. Not the sweat of terrified skydivers or aroused males. Research this good is, apparently, hard to find.

But not that hard.

The original article, “Chemosensory Cues to Conspecific Emotional Stress Activate Amygdala in Humans” was published in 2009. Copyright 2009 Mujica-Parodi, L.R. et al including Strey HH, Frederick B, Savoy R, Cox D,, used under open-access status, Creative Commons Attribution License.

Photo copyright Drazen Vukelic,,used under license