Inner-City Smell-O-Vision

By Bart Campolo 2-25-2008

No words can really communicate the essence of what we are doing here. For that, you'd need Smell-O-Vision.

In case you didn't know, Smell-O-Vision was a system developed in the 1950s that released odors during the projection of a movie so that the viewer could actually smell what was happening onscreen. Thirty years later, cult filmmaker John Waters tried the same thing with scratch and sniff cards. In both cases, the idea was to take advantage of the scientific fact that smell is easily the strongest and most vivid of our senses when it comes to processing emotional experiences. If you've ever smelled something and had memories you hadn't thought of in years come flooding back, you know what I'm talking about.

What you may not know, however, is what the scent of urine in a hallway tells you about a low-rent apartment building, or what the combination of cigarette smoke and baby formula on an infant's blanket tells you about a family, or what cheap liquor on an addict's early morning breath tells you about the rest of their day, or maybe the rest of their life. These are some of the smells I'm learning these days.

I know a few already. At the grocery store the other day, I didn't even need to turn around, let alone ask any questions to be sure the man behind me had no house, no car, no job, and nobody looking after him. What I needed instead was the intestinal fortitude to talk with him like a friend even though he was mentally unstable, and to offer him a ride to the soup kitchen even though it would take half a day to get his stench out of my van.

I know marijuana in the afternoon air means I'm going to have to answer a lot of bizarre theological questions from my street corner buddies Richie and Big Mike. I know the smell of mold and too many cats means helping a friend pass her Section Eight housing inspection is going to take more than a morning, and the smell of an open electric oven means we might as well not bother because her lousy slumlord still hasn't fixed the furnace. And, unfortunately, I know the smell of fecal matter coming out from under a dirty set of clothes means it doesn't much matter how skillful I am as an after-school tutor.

There are wonderful smells here too, of course

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