I was young when I married the first time, and so I can blame some of my naiveté on my age. The first time I went to visit my in-laws I noticed an odd odor to their hometown – a smoky smell with just a hint of nail polish remover. I tried to be polite and not say anything, but I didn’t sleep well.
The second time I visited, the town had a slightly different odor – this time more of a sulfur smell. Easter brunch just goes down better with a lingering scent of rotten eggs in the air. This time I did mention it, Did anyone else notice that? (I had to ask, I was afraid I had a brain tumor). I was brushed off with pithiness like ‘I don’t really smell anything’ ‘Oh, you get used to it’ and my favorite: ‘That’s the smell of money!’
Later that evening it was explained to me that the smells came from the local plant. It was one of those towns with one major industry and a full third to half the town worked for the company in some respect. Not that I thought that made the odor any better.
Then I was directed into the kitchen and to the refrigerator where I was offered wine. What I saw was a small magnet asking residents to report any odd smells or smokes to certain toll free numbers. I was asking ‘shouldn’t we call?’ when the wine glass was shoved into my hand and I was smiled at like I was a little nuts. No, we shouldn’t report this, these are regular smells!
I left town three days later with a raging headache and vague unease. But I went back for Halloween, when I commented on the fact that at least the plant had a sense of humor. I said this because we were all standing in the back yard with our wine, looking up at the sky and the smokestack that was belching out a thick orange smoke. I asked if the plant celebrated all the holidays this way and what color was Christmas going to be?
I was laughed out of the yard. I know that even though I haven’t seen any of my former in-laws for about fifteen years they still tell about how funny it was when I asked if the plant celebrated all the holidays. My bad. Apparently thick, orange smoke is a normal occurrence there.
Not that I can complain. My hometown is Oak Ridge, Tennessee, ‘the town that built the nuclear bomb’. Yes, the plant in my hometown is a nuclear reactor. Once a year Knoxville or Chattanooga reports about the radioactive frogs that are hopping their way from Oak Ridge. Folks in the surrounding towns refer to all us Oak Ridgers as ‘night lights’ due to our supposed ability to glow in the dark.
So, who was I to complain about a funny smell and ever changing smoke colors? Later, a college friend explained how she had grown up in Iowa and to her the odors of pigs were ‘the smell of money’. It seems I was just naïve. Most every place has an odd odor here or there, and that one phrase seems to make it all okay.
I have come to believe that the phrase ‘The Smell of Money’ roughly translates to: ‘We know it stinks but we can’t do anything about it, so breathe deep and be glad there’s food on the table.’
Years later, a cross country trip with my friend Eli made me realize that I shouldn’t have harbored such thoughts about my in-laws (living with that smell!). It seemed each time we crossed a state border the odor changed – and they were mostly foul. There were a few paper mills, an odd clinging smoky smell and haze in one area (a coal refinery?), but mostly places smelled like manure.
After passing from one state to another, it became a great game to try to recognize the major industry by odor. We correctly identified the pigs and horses, but goofed a factory that I could have sworn smelled like a litter box. It didn’t say ‘Tidy Cats’ all over the plain side of the building, so I lost that bet. We both also goofed beer, which you would think would smell good, or at the very least like, well, beer. All of this is a misperception.
To this day though, we wonder what that was in Oklahoma. I have smelled it a few other times since then and it always makes my head snap back. Still, I am never quite able to identify it. I only know to use the lesson I learned in my first marriage. I smile and nod, and while I may think to myself ‘Ah! That smells like Oklahoma!’ what I actually say is “Yes! That’s the smell of money!”
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