The other day my son and I had to make a quick stop on our way home from his class, and as we got out of the car, we smelled something a little foreign to the city we live in, and it reminded me of a time I’d smelled that smell before getting out of a car, but back then it was a little stronger. I hadn’t thought about it in years, and it made me smile, so I told my son a story.
The story took me back to a time when I was much younger, on my first internship as a photojournalist, and I was assigned to shoot some Dee Jay named “Señor Frog” at some club I’d never heard of for an article someone was writing for the paper.
I had no idea what to expect, and to be honest a “club” and Sidney, Ohio, weren’t really two things I’d think about in the same sentence, but that’s what the assignment was, and as newspaper photo assignments go, it was pretty simple.
Go find pictures.
Come back with pictures that tell a story.
So as I was going, driving west down an arrow straight west Central Ohio road in the early evening, I was wondering what on earth I was supposed to do with this assignment.
And while I was wondering, and while my mind was wandering, kind of squinting into the sun but also driving on autopilot a little, for a split second I noticed a little black and white blur dart out in front of me, followed instantly by a couple of thumps…
…and in the briefest of moments that I could see after that, I checked the rear view mirror to see the black and white blur tumble to a stop in the middle of my lane. I could swear it had a little green cloud wafting over it, because immediately after that, almost simultaneously, the most powerful, eye-watering, open-all-the-windows-RIGHT-NOW, smell of exploded skunk filled the car in ways it had never, ever been filled before.
I slowed down, wiped my eyes, and overshot my turn. Somehow I managed to get the car turned around and headed in the right direction, but had to drive through my own wake. It was like driving through teargas.
I found and made the turn, found the club, which thankfully had a large gravel parking lot, and parked as far away from the building as I could. Downwind, so the “green haze” emanating from the car wafted over the fields away from the club, not toward it.
This was a good thing.
I got out as fast as I could, grabbed my cameras and gear, and headed into this “club”. Turned out it was a bar with a dance floor, a big sound system, and a couple of turntables in an elevated booth kind of thing, where a middle aged balding fellow was flinging vinyl platters and playing music.
That, apparently, was Señor Frog.
So I did what I could, literally shooting in the dark, and got as interesting a shot as I could of a guy playing records in a very dark room, and then, in a moment of quiet between songs, I realized that something had followed me into the club.
The green haze…
I realized that the space around me was not filled with people. And while they were polite, they weren’t getting any closer to me than they had to. I only later concluded that the wide berth they were giving me wasn’t out of their respect for my photographic skills. It was out of respect for their own olfactory senses. It didn’t take long before I realized I wasn’t going to get any better pictures than what I had, and I wasn’t making Señor Frog’s life any easier by being that close to him, so I chose that time to make my exit.
About that time, a couple of attractive young ladies around my age did the same thing. They headed out just before me, and I, living and for the most part, working, alone, found myself thinking how nice it would be to have someone to just chat with that wasn’t in some way associated with the newspaper or photography. I mean, my name was everywhere, every day. My pictures were seen by thousands of people, every day, but while some thought of it as a glamorous profession, as a photographer, I was there pretty much by myself. It was often pretty lonely, so when I saw a little chance for some possible conversation, I walked a little faster to try to catch up to the young ladies to say something, anything, really.
They didn’t see me and kept walking, and to my dismay, headed in the general direction of my car…
…which was when the wind shifted, the ‘green haze’ wafting toward the fields from the car started wafting toward the two young ladies.
I stopped, and heard one of them almost gag. “WHAT is that awful smell?”
I walked in another direction…
Any other direction.
I tried to look as if I didn’t belong to the car with the cloud around it.
I tied my shoes.
I adjusted my cameras.
I killed time for what seemed like an eternity, and they left.
And then, I had to slice my way through the smell to get to the car, and actually get in the car.
I started it up, turned the fan on high – (realizing very quickly that that was a mistake) – shut it off, opened all the windows, and drove off, leaving the green cloud behind me, but still, it was awful. I wondered if I’d have to wash the car in tomato juice to get rid of the smell, but I knew I couldn’t afford the gallons of it that I’d need, and the acid rain the car had already been subjected to made the paint as smooth as sandpaper to start with. The acid in the tomato juice would just make that worse.
I drove back to the paper, with my head out the driver’s window like a dog, barely able to see because my eyes were watering from both the smell and the wind, but I was able to breathe at least.
Later, as I took care of things in the darkroom, I wondered what might have happened had I not had that encounter with the skunk, but as it was, the only thing that developed that evening was film.
We were almost home when I got done telling my son that story, and we both laughed. Me at the long buried memories a smell can bring back, and him at yet another of his dad’s adventures from before he was born…
© Tom Roush, 2012