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April 19, 2024 Nonfiction


Miss Unity

Trash photo

The real estate company that owned the Antifa squat on Cermak padlocked the gate leading out to the alley from the building’s rear door. As a result, we had no place to throw our trash, except in the area between the alley gate and the rear exit. Over the course of several months, that area became a miniature garbage dump. There were ten or fifteen units in the building, and each unit had two or three people living in it. That added up to hundreds of bags of trash per month, each bag unceremoniously dumped over balconies or heaved out the building’s rear door. Eventually the mountain grew so high it reached the wooden balconies attached to the second floor apartments. It was disgusting. The smell was immense. Angry hordes of flies swarmed through fetid clouds of poison gas. Rats tore holes in the bags, scampering about and tracking trails of noxious, festering refuse throughout the building. 

But we didn’t care. We were punk. We were too busy drinking, smoking, shooting up, or going to Food Not Bombs to worry about a little trash. We’re lucky we didn’t all die of MRSA.

The smell from the trash pile reached all the apartments in the building, forming a singularly disturbing base note for us to build hideous, multi-layered scent concoctions. Ball sweat, BO, ass, dirty armpits, nail polish, hairspray, feet, Newports, Bugler, Jack Daniels, vodka, cupcakes, tequila, donuts, Squirt, hot Cheetos, McDonald’s wrappers, coffee left sitting out for weeks, half price ground beef simmering on the stove, post-nasal drip from the world’s worst cocaine, blood from bed bug bites smeared across effluvia-encrusted bed sheets. These pungent notes formed the heady aroma that hung in the air of the apartment I shared with Kenya and Joy that summer. 

We had several bottles of designer fragrance among us, which we sprayed in all the rooms to mask the scent, and all over our bodies and clothes, a substitute for soap, shampoo, and laundry detergent. We kept the bottles on a shelf in the kitchen for communal use: Versace Eros, Jean Paul Gautier Le Male, and my contribution, and signature scent at the time, Chanel Chance. This was what I wore when I saw tricks, to cover the smell of sweat and cigarettes and human degradation baked into my skin. My friend Hannah had gifted me the Chanel without its box, an obvious re-gift which I appreciated nonetheless. I didn’t have much of a nose for fragrance. All I knew was that it was slightly spicy, with a hint of jasmine, and that it made me smell high class, mature, and MILF-y. 

One time Kenya’s boyfriend Simon came down to visit from Madison. When I went to hug him he pulled away, nose crinkled in disgust. 

“Your dress…” he said. “It smells way off.”

I lifted a corner of the fabric to my nose and sniffed. I couldn’t smell anything. It just smelled like garbage, smoke, and whiskey sweat, same as everything else. I stripped the dress off and laid it on my mattress, then started spritzing it with perfume. I spritzed from left to right, top to bottom, bottom to top, then flipped the dress over and did the same on the back. 

“There,” I said, pulling the dress back on. Simon leaned in, cautiously at first, and smelled me. 

“Mmmm,” he said. “That smells so good.” 

Weeks later, after I’d been expelled from Antifa and moved into my solo squat on Twenty-First Street, I kept incense burning throughout the day. I awoke each morning at six and sat outside the Lebanese deli on the corner by the park until they opened. I poured myself a large coffee from the self service station, then ordered two loose Newports from the guy at the counter and as many sticks of Wild Berry incense as I could afford. I paid for everything in nickels, dimes, and quarters. I couldn’t get enough of that incense. I burned it all day, often two sticks at once. Ocean Wind, Nirvana, Opium, Patchouli, and Jasmine were my favorites. The squat smelled marvelous, like a different realm. A fragrant oasis in a desert of poverty, abjection, and despair. When the cops finally came to kick me out, they raised their noses to the air, sniffing like prey animals smelling the wind for predators. 

“This is the best smelling squat I’ve ever smelled,” said one of the cops, frowning in confused awe. “You wouldn’t believe how most of these places smell.”

I beamed with pride. It was the most flattering compliment I’d ever received. 

“Trust me Officer,” I said. “I know.”