Monday, November 06, 2006

Contemplating B.O.

So, I remember watching this documentary on the Soviet KGB when I was a little kid ( I was kind of a weird kid that way), and in it they showed this huge room with row upon row of floor to ceiling shelving hidden away somewhere in the recesses of the KGB's Bat Cave. The shelves were filled with what looked like over-sized mason jars each numbered and sealed with a single burnt orange cloth no bigger than a dish rag.

The dish rag was a person.

Each jar contained the scent of a person identified by the KGB as a possible threat to state security. The narrator of the documentary, filmed after the collapse of the USSR, treated this somewhat dismissively as an example of Orwellian paranoia run amock, but failed to explain why it was that the first Western television crew allowed in the secret vaults of the KGB was filming the still carefully maintained and preserved collection of human B.O. right now. Was it being kept for posterity sake? Was it the governmental equivalent of a baseball card collection that had been outgrown but still sat proudly in the recesses of guest room closet because it simply required too damn much effort to compile? Or, more likely, was the new Russian government, comprised of the same old Soviet beaureacrats, keeping that Tony Eusebio rookie card around just in case it one day spiked in value?

As a ten-year-old, I wasn't contemplating these possibilities. I was staring saucer-eyed at the catalog of human scents listening to a scientist explain to the television audience in a thick Russian accent how we all, just like dogs, emit a unique scent that could be used to track us down should the need arise. I sniffed my skin and thought about the utter impossibility of escaping someone who was tracking you by scent. In terms of evil, my young mind could only equate the Soviet government to the Emperor in Star Wars or Cobra Commander from GI Joe. A government crazy enough to maintain a library of the human bouquet was a government not to cross. Stop signs required a full stop. National Anthems were to be sung with ear-splitting effort.

Oddly, I've thought about that documentary and the people on those shelves with fair regularity since I initially saw the program. What happened to them? And by "them", I don't mean the jars or the cloths, but the actual people. Did they ever know their scent was filed away in the black brain of a totalitarian state? If they did, were they fearful or did they brag about it over shots of vodka at the local bar, sort of like war wounds? If they're dead and gone, are their scents still there? If their relatives were allowed in the recesses of the KGB, just like the Western film crew, could they unscrew the lid of one of those mason jars and inhale deeply of their loved ones long gone? Maybe their scent is all that's left of them. Could something so delicate be all that's left behind?

I've had friends and relatives and girlfriends who seemed to leak from my memory and then suddenly reappear in high mental definition with one single waft of a perfume or perfectly replicated odor. There's nothing like a smell to jolt you back into a grandparent's house or a childhood Christmas or a girlfriend's arms. My mind has its own KGB vault of odors and I have forgotten most of them until a shelf is bumped and a mason jar crashes down onto the roof of my mouth and there a person stands; speaking, smiling, yelling, crying.