Rat Money Redux

Since I’ll be just arriving in Paris and barely getting around, I decided to dig up an old post from February 2006. The number of readers we have has increased greatly over the last almost two years, so it may be not new to some of you, but should be new to most of you.  It cracked me up to look at the 8 comments (four of them mine) on that post.


Some smells in life you remember vividly and others are the stuff of legend and exist only with a story and a very sharp memory, but no smell at all except what you want it to be.

4-h.jpgEvery summer, as loyal head, heart, health, hands 4-H members, me, Shirley, Tom, Dick and Harry awaited the Sheridan County Free Fair. That magical week when we loaded up the pigs, steers, chickens, vegetables, baked goods and tea towels sewn by 8-year-old hands and took them to town, slapped an entry tag on them for judging and waited for that sweet, sweet prize money check to come in the mail. Pigs and steers were our main bank for the year. After judging, they went to auction, and we got the money they sold for. Even white-ribbon hogs would net over $100, sometimes 200 or 300; steers would go for closer to $1,000. Our job was to look adorable when we paraded them through the auction ring, smiling into the crowd, doing a rigged trip here and there to get an “aw” and a higher bid. It was never entirely clear what was being sold here, though it appeared to be a popularity contest to see which dad was spending the most money at the elevator or borrowed the most from the bank (these were the normal bidders). Of course that wasn’t us, but what we lacked in cash and buying power, we made up for in charm.

This story isn´t about that. What came with the fair was the far-from-free carnival. Hoxie, Kansas was a really small town, and we got a really small carnival. But no matter how small the carnvial, with it cam the rides put together with electrical tape, the games of chance you couldn´t win and the Carnies. Carneis just scared me a little, except that one swarthy teenage boy that just looked dangerous and hot as hell in his tight jeans, greased back hair and a cigarette dangling from his lips.

My dad loved the Carnies – he loved the Gypsies too, but that´s a different story. Carnival time was the one time wen he could fleece people without moral reservation. Normally he had to check himself when he played poker because he didn´t want his friends and neighbors exiling him from the  Poker Reindeer Games. Now, it seems a little ood that Dad never felt that same restraint when he schooled us in poker – taking more of my pig money than I care to talk about, until I finally realized I couldn´t win.  He was too good and playing angles I didn´t even know existed – poker was his game.

But the Carnies didn´t know that … at least not at first. So as we took our pigs and steers out for judging and dutifully modeled that A-line shift with the bad seams and unfinished edges in the style show, he was over playing poker, drinking whiskey and taking money from the carnies. My mother, of course, hated it.

This story isn´t about that either. Besides our hometown fair, there was the Wakeeney fair, which was the “big one” for us. More rides (and ones that weren´t put together with duct tape), car races, a thriving midway metropolis. We always traveled for one night to the Big Wakeeney Fair. This carnival had….

Rat Roulette

Just wrap your mind around that concept for a second while I explain what it looks like. If you´ve ever seen a Roulette wheel, then you´ve seen The Rat – just think bigger holes. The wheel was spun, and they released the rat from the middle. Around the rat ran until the wheel slowed down,  and he would finally pick a black or red or white hole, each numbered, and dive into it. Whoever had their bet on that hole won. I´m still not sure how this game managed to avoid Police involvement in Bible Belt Kansas – it was just gambling, pure and simple, though with an added rodent spin.

Daddy would get his one night at the Wakeeney Carnival too, and that night was spent with The Rat. He only had one night because they would never let him play again that year, and he had to wait until the next year with new Carnies who didn´t know him. More than once, they made him leave midway through the night because they were out of money. Nobody ever really knew, and my Dad never told, exactly how he knew where the Rat would go, but he knew with a freakish certainty. He told my Mom it was one color of hole they always went in, but given how many holes there were available, that really doesn´t account for it, but it did eliminate a good number of the holes. He also said he knew which direction the rat would run once it came out. Being an expert on Rat turning behavior doesn´t explain it either, though I’m thinking that’s a seriously mad skill every woman should have when she’s in her very active dating/nightclub years. Having seen the Rat run lots of nights, I can say I saw no pattern – it would sometimes dive for a hole quick and sometimes meander around for quite a while.  

So every year my dad would come home with Rat Money, hundreds of dollars of it, and give it to my Mom.  My Mom hated it. She hated the smell, said she hated spending it because it just reeked of rat. But spend it she did, still complaining, but without one bit of embarrassment, because we needed it for new school clothes.

Rat Money Smell is what sin and whiskey and forbidden sex smells like. It´s the shady side of life, the smoky biker bar full of bad men that look irresistible, the dark rivers of life that nobody really talks about too much because it is fun, and we all go there from time to time and hope we don´t get caught up in the Rat Money current and forget to swim out and find our way home.

I don´t remember what the Rat Money really smelled like, but it´s my phrase for every smell that I identify with that something that makes you wriggle up up your nose and look the other way while casting furtive backward glances trying to figure out what it is and if it´s as much fun as it looks and whether anyone will catch you sniffing ’round it. Amber is that smell for me. Whether it´s in Laura Tonatto Amir, Hermes Ambre Narguile (aka The Nazgul) or Parfum D´Empire Ambre Russe, it´s not the perfume itself, it´s that note that screeches “forbidden, you slut.”

Every life needs a little Rat Money smell. It is mixed in with the sweetness, the passion, the sorrow, the loss and regret. It meanders through all of our lives like cigarette smoke, clinging sometimes to what we wear, but never to who we are. My daddy understood that. He played in the Rat Money World, but he never became part of it – instead he brought his Rat Money home to his wife and children so we could have a microwave or a new tv, a luxury we couldn´t otherwise afford. (Dante’s Inferno by Rodin)

I think that´s why I always keep amber perfumes around. Sometimes I open up a drawer and I smell it, and I think, ah, Rat Money, and I remember my dad and all the lessons he taught us about life – the love, the fun, the loss, and the honor.

What’s your rat money smell?

  • barbara says:

    my rat money smells-my nana’s armoire, the waft of cedar and tobacco, and her gallon size chanel on top of her dresser, which also held her dream books for a ltille horse race fare;paris-the attic room i took in the damp new year of 87, and all i wore was guerlain and the pink of the guerlain rooms;emeraude at 14, mixed with my father’s pipe tobacco that was mixed with cherry and something dark and sexy;tabac and gualoise and the smell of the fleeting love’s white porche(leather) that he screeched up on my sidewalk with(he was from colombia-they park on the sidewalks, as you will see in paris).The county fair in montery, where i won my blue ribbons-horses, cows, sawdust, under foggy skies-that is also what serge’s ambre reminds me of-tie one on in paris for me…take your corksrew and sample the autumn wines….

  • Rita says:

    I am so happy to read this again! I love scents that take me back. I use to love to go on car trips with my grandparents, and Chanel Cuir de Russie reminds me of those days. The smell of the leather interior mixed with my grandfathers spicy aftershave, but that hint of my grandmother’s dusting powder every now and then(how I wish I could remember the name of the powder the used!) My dear grandmother, who never yelled at me once for the amounts of her fragrances I sprayed or for that matter, the number of roses I pulled from her bushes so I could carry them around with me all day. This is the main reason behind my love of Rose de Nuit, it reminds me of the scent of the roses I trampled every day as a child just to get to that perfect one. As a kid, I didn’t even think about how much money and labor she put into her gardens. And that dear lady never said a thing, after all her hard work, just because she knew it made me happy. She WAS a rose. This post has made my day, thanks Patty! Hope you ladies are having fun in Paris!

  • Teri says:

    My rat money smell is a combination of bay rum, cigar smoke, motor oil, and men’s hair tonic.

    My maternal grandfather was a career railroad man, working his way up from signalman to district sales manager for the Great Plains states before his retirement in the early 1960s. Grandad was a ‘man’s man’ and a real smooth customer. He was an avid hunter, fisherman, gambler, cigar smoker and all-around bon vivant.

    He was also a ladies’ man. Women of all ages (not excluding me) adored him. It was my grandad who took me to buy me first real lingerie, if that tells you anything.

    Grandad had a ‘den’ in the loft of their garage. This was the place where ‘the boys’ would come over to play poker, drink ‘bourbon and branch’, cuss and discuss politics, and smoke their stogies. I was strongly cautioned to stay away from Grandad’s den, which had the effect of making it completely irresistable to me. Surely that den must be a veritable den of iniquity! Whenever I knew ‘the boys’ would be coming over, I’d slip into a hiding place under the stairs on the main floor of the garage. I’m fairly sure my Grandad knew I was hiding there, but he never ‘outed’ me either to his friends or to my mother.

    As a result, I grew up with a strong interest in and knowledge of politics, sports, fast cars and faster women. That forbidden bastion of masculinity just HAD to house the smell of rat money.

  • Maria says:

    What a beautiful post! Thanks. I hope you’re having an okay time negotiating your arrival.

    For me the main rat money scent would be musk. I’m not drawn to skank. I do wrinkle my nose a bit at it. But sometimes I have to wear Jicky and very, very frequently Musc Ravageur.

  • March says:

    Leather, tobacco, anything that smells a little boozy. I think Ambre Russe is total rat money. Cumming’s seriously rat money too.

  • Judith says:

    What a wonderful post! My rat money scents are leather, tobacco (my daily diet–and I completely agree with Elle about the addictive properties of Acqua di Cuba), and above all (though I wear it less frequently), musk (esp. MKK and CB).

    Have a wonderful time in Paris. I won’t say any more about the World Series (but you DO owe me all of your perfumes)!:d:<:-p

  • Veronica says:

    What a great post, Patty!It’s good to recycle:) It’s so true about the rat money side of scent, you shoudn’t be able to get your perfumista badge ’till you grasp the rat money scent concept! Good musk seems to fill that category for me ( Madini Musk Pierre, sweet fall personified), well-made patch perfumes (Borneo 1834, Mani Padme)and some Carons (Yatagan, En Avion, Montale extrait).
    Wishing you more good rat money fume finds and more in Paris!

  • Suzanne says:

    Patty, when I first discovered the world of perfume blogs a little over a year ago, I found this post of yours and was so moved by it that I made my husband read it, too. I’m from that very same world you speak of: grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, was in 4-H, showed cows and exhibited my terrible sewing projects at the county fair each year. But your post reminded me of how it was actually a very different county fair at night; it was like a dark veil fell over the fairgrounds and the smell of the barnyard animals clung to the cool night air and then the Carnies came out and ran the show. And then it really was, to borrow you perfect lines, “the dark rivers of life that nobody wants to talk about too much because it is fun, and we all go there from time to time and hope we don’t get caught up in the Rat Money current and forget to find our way home.”

    For me, my rat money scents are any that have a lot of indoles or civet in them. Bal a Versailles, gorgeous as it is, has that skankiness that makes it a rat money smell to me. Love it!!

  • Louise says:

    Darn, I think my post went to the trash! Can you filter me out? Thx.

  • LouiseZ says:

    Wonderful post, Patty.

    Gosh, mine would have to be a very odd one. Mothballs. Maybe unpleasant to most, I know, but laden with memory for me. I’d never have them in my house now, but all the ranking grown women in my family did-the bubbies, tantes, and mommy-friends all used them liberally. Their homes always had a touch of the odor, and even the cookies that came from their them had a slight hint of it.

    It’s the smell of clothes and accessories rarely worn. My mom’s cherished double-headed mink wrap (heads-still-on), sleek ball gowns, tucked-away silk scarves. Bubbie’s very few select dress-up dresses (the housecoats worked fine for daily wear). Aunties’ fine hats, to be worn only when Grandpa’s old Caddie went for the rare spin. It’s the smell of preservation, of course, but also of luxury carefully parceled out. And of a clear separation of the quotidien from the very special.

    Those women are all gone now, sorely missed. And though it’s been years since I’ve been near a mothball, I can still smell them just by honoring the grand women’s memories.

    Fashion mores now pretty dictate much a leveling of dressing to a few fine distinctions. My friends and I live, work, even celebrate in sweats, jeans, and the occasional dress and boots. We rarely really have much occasion for the genuinely exquisite things we may cherish, though we probably have a few tucked away. Not so much need for mothballs, since it’s all wash-and-wear.

    Perfume fills that need for a special luxurious oasis in my life, sometimes rather secret, other times out to party. In the midst of a dull action film, or an out-of-control class, I rely on a tiny waft of lovely sillage or sneek sniff of the wrist to take me far away. I cherish that escape.

    Patty, happy and safe travels!

  • Lee says:

    I’m with Elle – tobacco fetishist fast developing here….

    And lovely post. I remember this the first time round, but I’m not sure if I’d come out of the commenting closet by then.

  • Gaia says:

    I had to think about it long and hard, but I think I have it: It’s a weird mix of Old World smells that make me think of some of my mother’s old friends (actually, friends of her dead mother, these were older ladies) from Lithuania, carefully manicured from top to bottom, radiating a certain femininity I could never hope to posess and encircled in grief. Heavy coats with fur collars (that had absolutely no place or reason where I grew up) that had funky smell, the scent of old fashioned lipstick (nothing like the berries of today), classic chypres, probably some smoke. It’s foreign, forbidden (I wasn’t allowed to be around) and totally mysterious.

  • Elle says:

    Your dad sounds like the most incredibly interesting, wonderful man. I think my rat money smell would have to be tobacco and/or smoke. I can’t resist anything related to tobacco in perfumes. I love it all – from pipe tobacco to cigars to cigarette ashes. Am currently going through a phase where I want to just bathe in SMN Acqua di Cuba. If it at some point came out of the ground as tobacco, it makes me absurdly happy. And, no, I don’t smoke and never have (well, one clove cigarette every couple of months) – didn’t want to mess up my ability to smell all the notes in perfume. But a cigar bar or a tobacco store are my idea of heaven and I will always request the smoking section in the few restaurants that still have them. And if there is a tobacco note listed in a perfume, I *have* to try it.
    Hope you’re having a wonderful time in Paris w/ D!