This morning I did something I hardly ever do: I parked my car in a garage. I tutor on Tuesday mornings, and my student's driveway was occupied by trucks, so her landlord waved me into one of two spaces in the building's garage.
It had been quite a while since I parked in a private garage (as opposed to, say, the garage at Portland International Jetport), but its distinctive smell hit me with all the force of memory. You could blindfold me in my sleep and dump me somewhere, and I'd know it if you left me in a garage. You know the smell; if you take a minute, you can conjure it right now.
But what is it? What goes into that unique garage funk? I've come up with five separate elements; if you can think of more, leave them in the comments section.
1. Cardboard. This morning, it was the first separate odor I identified: the smell of old cardboard boxes, which is not quite woody and not quite dusty but somewhere in between, and definitely brown. Even the cleanest garage has a couple of cardboard boxes, so every garage smells at least faintly of cardboard.
2. Motor oil. As I've heard several TV reporters covering the Gulf oil spill remark, oil has a distinctive smell, and it's nothing like gasoline. It's black and greasy, intense, dark. Your car smells like motor oil, but you don't notice it when the car's outside. Put the car in a closed space, and the scent becomes concentrated.
3. Mold. Few garages are climate-controlled or moisture-proof. Mold is inevitable. In closed spaces, you often smell it before you see it.
4. Old grass or hay. Most people store their lawnmowers in their garages, and lawnmowers smell like lawns even in winter. Homeowners in Maine could make a lot of money if they let apartment-dwellers like me inhale the scent of their lawnmowers in the dead of winter.
5. Gasoline. The scent of gasoline is powerful, and lingers. I detest it; my twin sister loves it. Regular soap is not always enough to get rid of it; you need to override it with a stronger counter-scent, such as vanilla, lemon, or vinegar. Vinegar, in fact, will override almost any unpleasant scent, but can leave a tang of its own.