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Original Issue


I went to visit my mother the other day in Boulder, Colo. When I walked into the house she said, with her usual frankness. "You smell like a gym." She did not say, "like a high school gym," but that's what she meant—and she was right. I did.

High school gyms have a singular aroma, all high school gyms, and I am an expert on the subject, having been in so many of them. Doing research for this story—the first definitive work on gymnasium bouquet—I was chagrined and saddened to find how many people have never given this matter any thought. Why is it that high school gyms are just about the only things that all smell alike? After all, houses have their special scents, as do restaurants and airplanes. Outdoor odors also change from place to place. Tennyson once rhapsodized about the "moist rich smell of rotting leaves." But which rotting leaves was he talking about? The ones in Nevada are not like those in Georgia. Even the aromas of large sports facilities vary. The smells of Madison Square Garden are different from those of Philadelphia's Spectrum which are different from those of Denver's Sports Arena. But, ah, the sweet sameness of high school gyms.

I was surprised when reading The Sense of Smell by Roy Bedichek to find that the author made no mention of high school gyms. To me this makes his book incomplete. Still, you have to admire a man who loved to load up his truck with cow manure and then drive around enjoying the aroma.

Bedichek, however, did note that blended odors are the best. That's why it's wrong, he added, to pick one flower in the woods and walk along sniffing it. Better you should sniff the whole scene. This is where Bedichek really had something. Why he didn't go right on at this point and discuss high school gyms, I just don't know, because for 26 years Roy Bedichek was executive director of the Texas Interscholastic League, which oversees the state's huge high school athletic program.

I could tell you I've been in 5,000 high school gyms, but I'd be understating the facts. Just believe me. I know about the blends that make up the smell. The mother church for my research was the gym at my high school in Boulder in which I attended something like 500 games. So I asked Boulder Basketball Coach Kent Smith why all high school gyms smell alike. "Gee," he stammered, "I don't know." Later, Smith tried again. "It's just a bunch of warm bodies sitting together." But assuming that the fragrance is caused purely by warm bodies is inadequate. It's certainly not a complete analysis of this special aroma. Let me give it a try.

First the players. How do they contribute to the mix? They use yards of adhesive tape, which has its strange, astringent flavor. Then there is Red Hot, a lubricant that is supposed to ease soreness. Athletes are always sore, and they glob on Red Hot with unbridled glee. To describe its odor is impossible. Players also spray on a lot of Skin Tuffner. Tape remover smells like alcohol. Nitrotan is a hot smeller and has replaced Merthiolate. Many shallow thinkers neglect to mention the odor of the rubberized numbers on the uniforms. Or the fragrance of the Ivory Flakes players often put between their shoes and their socks in the mystical belief that it will prevent blisters.

Another factor is the combined aroma of the towels that the players dry themselves with. This is important. For the first time in their lives these kids are able to use a towel, hurl it to the floor and not have their mothers holler at them to pick it up. The result is that clusters of towels dot high school gym floors like moguls on a ski trail. Dirty, smelly moguls. This problem has reached epidemic proportions, as evidenced by a sign that hangs in the locker room at Niwot (Colo.) High School: "Your mother is not enrolled in this course. You will have to pick up after yourself."

Officials contribute to the aroma, too, partly because they rub a lot of Ben Gay on themselves before a game to warm up aging muscles. This, when mixed with the faint smell of the Comet used to clean the wrestling mats which are stored in the gym, adds a unique ingredient to the air.

Popcorn helps make gyms smell alike. Popcorn is an even more dominant smell than cotton candy. Besides, at basketball games cotton candy is not sold as widely as popcorn, probably because it's the only food item that tastes worse than brussels sprouts. What is often overlooked is the smell of moth balls. That comes from the heavy jackets worn by the policemen hired to keep what passes for order at high schools these days. You see, basketball starts in late fall, and the cops have just taken their coats out of storage. I asked one policeman about this, and he said, "Go back and sit down," thereby confirming my opinion.

There is a lot of stale smoke which, blended with the lacquer on the floor and the Clorox in the restrooms, adds to the formula. Then there is the breath of the students who attend the games. In Colorado the breath smells like Coors; in the state of Washington it smells like Olympia; and in New York it smells like whatever the kids can get their hands on. Some students suck on Life Savers or, in certain trend-setting schools, cinnamon suckers. Cinnamon suckers are very big this year, and they are ordinarily followed by chomping on Bubble Yum, otherwise known as bubble gum.

Perfume obviously contributes. Very big in the gyms these days are Lily of the Valley and Windsong. But the most popular of all, a sweating cheerleader told me, is Charlie. She explained helpfully that Charlie smells like gerbils. Another pulled me aside to explain that the scent of musk has traditionally been considered an aphrodisiac. I told her carnations remind me of funerals.

This is a complete list of the ingredients that make up the smell. I have forgotten nothing. So don't anybody write and suggest I did, because I am the expert.

My basic motivation in undertaking this monumental work is that a good sense of smell isn't widely praised. Good hearing is. good sight is. good smell isn't. As the college professor said. "We may say of an acquaintance that she is a lady of taste, but not that she is a lady of smell." Many people consider smell one of our lower senses, ignoring the fact that smell, perhaps more than any other, brings back memories. My expertise in this area—my talent for using my hippocampal gyrus with its hooklike end, the uncus—should be applauded. It's not. People really are unaware of it, with the possible exception of my mother—as noted above.

Recently the smell-alikeness of high school gyms has begun to face a number of threats. One conies from the trend toward a playing surface other than splendidly odoriferous wood. Tartan, for instance. I don't think this will seriously affect the traditional aroma, however, I also detect a recent tendency to let more sunlight, that enemy of odors, into gyms. We will survive that, too, because architects have nearly always designed high school gyms that are poorly ventilated and badly lighted, and they will never abandon this tradition of their trade. A school janitor further reassured me. "If the gym was ever cleaned good, it wouldn't smell like it does. But where are you going to find a janitor who will clean much of anything good, especially a gym?"

It's possible that one of the ingredients that make up the smell could be missing from a high school of your acquaintance. If, for example, the girls in Montana are not wearing Charlie, this shortcoming might be made up for by the boys who come to the gyms with stuff on their boots. Minor regional substitutions like this would not really flaw the end result.

I submit that things better not change when it comes to this universal fragrance of the American high school gym. It's important to the fabric of this country that in these tumultuous times at least one thing remains constant: when you have inhaled the fragrance of one high school gym, you have smelled them all.