I’m sitting in the waiting area in New York’s Penn Station right now. Penn Station is a horrible place, not least because it shares a name with one of America’s greatest public buildings, the old Pennsylvania Station, which was torn down to make room for this monstrosity. But there is one thing about the new Penn Station that is worth appreciating, if not necessarily admiring. It’s one of the few buildings in the world I know of that has a truly distinctive musk. There are worse smelling buildings, no doubt. But the enduring odor of this place has been one of the olfactory landmarks of New York since I was a kid. What does it smell like? It’s very hard to say. The accumulated stress hormones and sweat of millions of commuters is clearly the broth to this malodorous soup. But you can’t leave out the wafting ozone from the train and subway tracks or the lingering and often piquant cooking smells from the various pizza parlors and delis down here, nor the distinct acidity that decades of homeless people setting up camp here provides (particularly in the rainy season). The special fermentation that comes with vast windowless spaces, plays a part to be sure. And of course, there’s that pinch of saffron that is misdirected urine left too long in hidden corners.
Anyway, I can’t say I like it. But it is oddly comforting.