On the Subway

Oops, my post is late.  I’ll explain, but not today.  In the meantime…

I sat next to a man on the subway yesterday who smelled sort of minty-cilantro with a powdery undertone.  That sounds horrible, but it wasn’t.  It was delightful, in part because it was so unusual.

I desperately wanted to ask him about it, but every approach seemed problematic, starting with the fact that nobody wants to talk to you on the subway in the morning.  Was it his cologne?  His clothing?  Something he ate?  Some combination of all of those things?

And how would I ask him?  If he told me he was wearing Cool Water or whatever I’d know that wasn’t the smell.  And if I tried to describe to him what he smelled like, he might think I was complaining or that he smelled weird, and not in a good way.  (Non-perfumistas do not embrace these subtleties.)  I should probably shut up, I thought, and be grateful I got the last seat in this car so I can crush some candy and discreetly sniff at him.

I generally get a seat.  I’m nicely dressed and my hair’s up in a silver bun, so folks (menfolks) tend to offer their seats to me, and I tend to take them, because my sense of balance is terrible.  I like to practice saying “Why, thank you, young man!”  Then I think about how I should have started saying that in my twenties, that would have been a hoot.  But in my twenties I was too worried that I didn’t look like Linda Evangelista.  Boy, was that time wasted.  The exception to the seat-offering is tourists, which I find odd.  Gentlemen tourists from the midwest will hold the door for me and call me ma’am, but they are not getting up out of their seats for me.  Also they stand two abreast on the escalators until someone barks at them to stand to the right.

https://i0.wp.com/ggwash.org/images/posts/201407-062013-1.png?resize=312%2C286&ssl=1Have you seen our escalators at the deepest underground stops?  They’re some of the longest in the world.  I get on at Bethesda. I remember when I first started commuting on Metro I’d have to steel myself as if I were stepping onto a roller coaster.  Now I just grasp the handrail and sprint down the steps.  I mostly forget how they look now, and then I’m reminded when I see tourists come upon them and say “oh, hell no!” or stop to take a selfie in front of them.

Everyone stares at their phones on the commute.  Sometimes when I arrive at the dark underground platform, it looks like a scene right out of Black Mirror – just a bunch of faces lit up by their small blue screens, like zombies waiting for their marching orders.  It’s partly a conversation-avoidance technique, but mostly an addiction.  The few times I’ve forgotten my iPad or not charged it I have that moment of panic — aiiieeeeee, what will I do with myself for 23 minutes?!?!  Then I snicker cruelly at myself and go back to staring at everyone and sniffing the guy next to me…. is it cilantro?  I want to know!  But what if he’s got some metabolic disorder that makes him smell odd, and I’ll just be making him feel worse?  I went to college with a guy like that.  He smelled like metallic baby powder.  It was not a nice smell.  I wonder what ever happened to him?  He was a shy, sweet, super-smart mathlete.  I hope he’s running a STEM program somewhere.  I hope he found a partner who loves him for who he is.

I thought about that with cilantro-mint man.  Does he smell like this all the time?  If I were his lover, that smell would make me swoon.  I’d smell his tee shirt in the hamper and I’d be happy.  The smell of those you love.  I’m about 98% sure if I were blindfolded I could still tell my four kids apart just by their smell.  I hope I can do that forever.



  • Ann says:

    Howdy, dear!! I had to smile reading about the man who smelled so good! In the past, if I’d encountered a woman who smelled delightful, I’d gently approach her. But these days I think discretion is probably wise. I hear you on those long escalators, too. When I worked in downtown Atlanta at the Apparal Mart a lifetime ago, there was one going down to MARTA that used to scare the bejibbers out of me. It was around 200, I think, so not as bad as some of yours, but still enough to make me close my eyes and hold on tight! Hope you and yours are doing well — big hugs to you!!

  • grizzlesnort says:

    In Portland, Ore we have light rail. People here are a bit too PC to wear much fragrance but a couple of years ago I experienced the following. Young man leaning/ standing/ sitting on divider suddenly takes of his head phones with a jerk. Then he strip off his jacket and hoodie. Off comes the shirt and even the undershirt. Reaches in his backpack and proceeds to give himself a nice sponge bath with hand sanitizer. Efficiently, nonchalantly. Finishes up. Puts his clothes back on and gets off at his stop. No one asked him what brand he might be using

  • Koyel says:

    Every time I have to get out at the Bethesda station, I sigh heavily, steel myself, and run up the escalators or stairs. I can manage it on the escalator without wanting to die, but the stairs…oof, my legs get tired on those.

    I once worked with a researcher who smelled like baby powder and poop. He also had incredibly bad breath. He got married and had a child; I wonder if his wife just has no sense of smell.

  • RoseMacaroon says:

    Such a fun post! I have that same inhibition. Next time I’m feeling not-timid, which either randomly occurs or else for astrological reasons I haven’t been able to track, I will ask that whole commuting across the SF bay. Most days there’s someone wafting something enjoyable or even enchanting (which makes for a much nicer commute). Lovely post, March!

  • tiffanie says:

    About half the time when I smell a nice fragrance in the wild I will stop and try to discover the source. If I can find the person then about half of those times I will tell the person they smell wonderful and ask if they will share what they are wearing. I never did this a few years ago. I am getting bolder and older, haha. Most people are happy to answer, though sometimes they are vague and uncertain. Perhaps sharing with a nosy stranger puts them on guard.

    Last week I wore NO perfume and was surprised how often I smelled scents on other people. I was in a vacation zone with more dress-up occasions and such, so people were likely to wear fragrance, but I think my fragrance-free state really freed my nose to experience the scents around me.

  • HeidiC says:

    Maybe I’m gauche, but I always ask “Are you wearing a fragrance? Your scent is lovely.” That way I can find out, but I head off that they’ll worry I’m complaining.

  • Amy M. says:

    Love love love everything about this post! I always freaked over the steps in the Woodley stop. Can’t imagine Wheaton!

  • Sarah says:

    I fell in love with my husband’s scent (on a forgotten unwashed stinky sweater) before I fell in love with him.
    You’re adorable March. In the future – ASK!

  • Tara C says:

    I ride the metro in Montreal and rarely smell anything. I see lots of people reading and playing games on their phones but I never do. I never pass up an opportunity to people-watch, it’s so interesting to look at people and wonder about their ethnicity, language, culture, life stories. Montreal is very diverse.

  • Portia says:

    Because I wear a soft cloud of fragrance people have have used a heavy hand for me to even notice they’re wearing fragrance. I do like to casually be wandering in someones wake though, it’s nice to get a jolt of fragrance.
    Portia xx

  • DinaC says:

    Since I, like you March, live in the DC Metro area, I can perfectly visualize you on our Metrorail system. My Metro riding days were back in the late 80s before cell phones. So my nose was always buried in a paperback book from the library. I LOVE your description of the zombie underworld of today’s Metro riders. Makes me want to join the workforce just to become one. My people-watching game used to be to notice others’ wristwatches, haircuts and shoes. Those things interested me. I think the mint-cilantro man sounds like he smelled good. Was it anything like Cartier Declaration? Love that one.

  • Musette says:

    I wrote a post about smelling my friend’s husband at their plant nursery – I sweatergawd I was smelling Encens Mythique d’Orient – and it drove me mad, trying to place where it was coming from!

    At the time I didn’t know either my (now) friend OR her husband – and this was out at the back of beyond, where wimmenses JUST DON’T DO THAT. And he is kinda quiet and not that comfy with strange (VERY STRANGE) women.

    But I HAD to know.

    And that’s how we all became pals!
    (still don’t know persackly what the scent was – the wife told me the laundry detergent and softener she used but, try as I might, I could never replicate the persack smell)

    and that damb Bethesda escalator is the stuff of nightmares!


  • cinnamon says:

    My tube perfume experience was smelling Mechant Loup many years ago on a very crowded Jubilee line train. Actually tried to move towards whoever was wafting it but couldn’t fine them. In any case, they wore it very well.

  • crikey says:

    I get the same paralysis: dying to ask but not quite being able to find how to frame and raise the question.

    I was walking home from the station yesterday and got a waft of the most glorious scent–I have no idea what this plush, rich rose and spice number was. I had been in a world of my own, so by the time I clocked it and looked around, the people around me had dispersed… and I stood there for agres trying to work out who it was, sniffing the air like a cat who is trying to track down unguarded ham… I would have asked, too. Because it was gorgeous.

  • Gretchen says:

    Ha! Reading this on Metro and laughing that I never manage to be near someone whose smell is appealing. I ride through PG though, and get to hear some of the strangest conversations and music to start and end my day. I wonder how many of these riders smell me, another middle aged woman, and think ugh, old lady. I’ll revel in my L’Heure Bleue today and sprint on the stairs in your honor!