Transcent

1993 – 1997

I

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My bleached hair waved above my shoulder. My intention was not the Japanese surfer look I sported but a mixed-cultural androgynous model that my Timberland’s would hopefully heighten. The mall’s glossy ground rose to my moisturised legs, up my white denim skort (shorts that’s half skirt), then to my tight grey top. My blemished face shone making you forget I had eyes. Tucked in my bag, strapped across my body, was the money I saved up from my “do you want fries with that?” job to buy my first perfume.

ck one by Calvin Klein (1994) was the seminal perfume that I finally felt could express my trans ideals as a teen. When the print campaign first appeared: a row of bejeaned, singleted, multi-cultural models, including Jenny Shimizu, I saw myself in them. I wanted to buy into that identity as if it knew me intimately. “A fragrance for a man or a woman” was its catchphrase, but because of what I was going through I felt neither. An in-betweener. What I was buying into was the idea that a unisex perfume – not seen in the market for a long time before ck one – gave me a sense of permission, publicly, to be one and the same with the general population at this time in my life. Perfume marketing says “for men” and “for women,” but beyond the sexes smelling is inclusive. ck one’s current catchphrase is, “We are one. For all for ever.” Good marketing reflecting the age? I don’t know, but buying and wearing ck one cemented the vision I had for myself that, clearly, the powers at Calvin Klein were adept to capitalise on in this young consumer.

II

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From memory I see photos of my family and me on holidays by a beach, a lake, in a hotel lobby, on a dance floor, in my mother’s home. I was 16, and it was the first year of psychiatric evaluation for my transition. In one of the photos by a lake, I am taller than everyone around me, my wavy, bleached hair is salty, my skin is smooth and tanned in the evening sun, and the boatneck shirt I wear compliments my shoulders. Despite my cheeks being bumpy and lumpy with acne my smile is big. I felt I was maturing into the person I would become.

The perfume I wore at this period in my life was Dune by Christian Dior (1991). I’m pretty sure I convinced my mother to buy it for me for the trip. When I first smelled it on a counter I recognised the warmth of the woman I was desiring for myself. A quiet confidence that the wind could embrace as its own. The images this perfume imparted in my ever-growing imagination were poetic, smooth, lulling, private, peaceful. The desire to be at peace with who I am.

III

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A couple of years pass. My sister and I were walking, she looked at my long, frizzy hair (plain brown) and said I looked like a “druggo”. I shaved it all off, then played with shaving Saturnian rings, horseshoes, and random shapes on my head. I was exploring a new sense of self: reading Buddhism, practicing hatha yoga, meditation, and my introduction into mindfulness. By some gentle transition I sought out Dune’s young brother Dune pour homme by Christian Dior (1997), and Platinum Égoïste by Chanel (1993). The former smelled comforting, especially in the woolen, mustard v-neck jumper I wore to death at the time. And I brought the Chanel on my first trip to France.

I don’t know what happened but when I completed my second year of evaluation, on the eve of my hormones being prescribed, something changed. Convinced of my transition since I was 6-years-old, nothing surprised me more when on the way home from the psychiatrist – our the last meeting – I heard a conversation in my mind: the bus was full, the sun was shining, I sat on the seat facing everyone: what I heard was, “If God wants me to be who and what I want to be, then I can be who and what I want to be like this. As I am.”

 

Featured image contains a portrait by Juan Carlos Ortiz from ‘I Am Only Partly Here’.

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City Notes

The instant I smelled the unmistakable notes of Shalimar in the ferry toilet I knew it was going to be my next post. I had to wait, of course. It became my new adventure: smell this city.

Home life often becomes a case of ‘familiarity breeds contempt’, and this adventure of smelling Sydney took my usual routes from home to work, from my travels on foot and on public transport. There was a moment on a train where the all-too familiar smell of sweaty socks, or feet enclosed in shoes too long, made me wonder if I should include it here … I guess I have now. Alas, no photo evidence of that, but I sat there chuckling like I’d discovered something naughty.

The process of this smelling the city adventure is simple: smell, take a photo, and write down the notes. In the first part, the first three I smelled, I recognised manufactured perfumes from three different brands. With parts two and three I recognised – as simple as I can describe it – singular notes. I wondered if an adventure, or exercise, like this transmutes its own journey, without direction, nor premeditation. Does this kind of curiosity create a layered map of one’s own environment? I have no clear answer, but the adventure is enough.

As you may have read from previous posts, I am a fan of smell researcher and artist, Sissel Tolaas’s work. On her last visit to Sydney she said she was in the process of collecting smell molecules of this emerald city. I wonder, and desire, what that smells like.

Sydney, with its hills, eucalypts, harbour, beaches, large clouds skies, tempestuous weather, graces me with its beauty to no end. I’m no molecule collector but this small adventure saw me through moments of despondence. Perhaps your discoveries will see you through your city.

I

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1. Shalimar, Guerlain.

I was surprised to smell Shalimar in the ferry toilet because the room spray on the wall there usually spurts its typical rose-scent (along with the pink hand soap on the right), and not Guerlain’s classic perfume of the vanilla-citrus kind. Its contrasting notes of civet, castoreum, birch tar, and musk played to perfection the toilet’s aluminium and ultraviolet radiance.

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2. Gardenia Sotto la Luna, Andy Tauer.

A street in Darlinghurst stops me in its tracks. Andy Tauer’s Gardenia is recognisable for its white floral-vanilla juice. Though I didn’t wear it that day, I know its sandalwood, tonka, vanilla dry-down, without it being too sweet, nor sickly. Its quality is intimate, like those images of Isabella Rossellini in Lancôme’s Trésor ads.

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3. RIEN Intense Incense, Etat Libre d’Orange.

After work people walk up the stairs and find their seats with a view of their phones whilst the night descends on the harbour. The cliffs and headlands become the darkest green, the harbour surface a charcoal with wisps of white spaces, and the rows of seats create a cosy enclosure, especially in winter. Etat’s incense, leather, and musky rose provides a shield in this space of exhaustion as we are ferried to rest. Rien’s cumin note imparts the human element – perhaps coming from those well-worn seats – so common in public, and private, places.

II

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4. Sea grapes, or Caulerpa Lentillifera.

Ensaladang latô in the Phillipines is a salad of sea grapes, vinegar, fish sauce, and maybe slices of small red onions. I smelled this in this garden, and the popping of these grapes in my mouth releases the odour of the sea, both salty and sour. It brought back childhood memories of eating a typical, humble dinner of white rice, fried milkfish, and this salad, on plastic covered tables.

Here in the foreground, the smell of earth, grass, and luscious variations of trees play their part on a bed of harbour, ocean, wind, and sky.

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5. Poppers, or Amyl Nitrite.

Commercial wharves have their businesses lined up, emitting scents from their produce, appliances, electrical goods, lights, etc. The ramp at the centre of the picture is freshly painted with a non-slip paint that gives this whole space a wildly familiar, strong scent: amyl, or poppers. I wonder if the ingredients in the paint – solvents, binders, pigments, and other additives – has anything in common with the vasodilator “lite” drug that relaxes muscles, creating heat, blood flow, and excitement? If so, I can smell.

III

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6. Bergamot.

Leaving this health shop in Darlinghurst with a friend, our cold expirations rise. Bergamot floats, like Casper the Friendly Ghost, where long streets, bars, boutiques, cafes, and traffic commingle.

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7. Vanilla.

At the end of our art excursion, friends – fellow artists, and health nuts – walk through a walkway that leads to St. Mary’s church. To the left is a public pool, to the right is a park filled with bay figs and grassy knolls. I wondered if the smell came from my friends, whom I stepped away from just to go back and take this shot so I can smell what I smell.

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8. Wood fire.

In the same vicinity, and within minutes of each other, the scent of wood fire follows the earlier catch of vanilla. We pass the Archibald Fountain, to the right is the Hyde Park Barracks Museum, on the left is St. James church (not in photo), and on the top left of the photo is the Supreme Court of N.S.W. Another large fig tree becomes a one-sided gateway to Macquarie Street.

Synonymous for its summer fires due to Sydney’s dry climate, combined with the oil-rich eucalypts, this is one of my favourite smells.

Go! Smell your city, and share your notes, please.