The Scent Of Service

AUTHOR:  
Published:  November 14, 2013
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Words — Leanne Prain
Illustration — Annu Kilpeläinen

 

A tale about air fresheners and the NYC taxi.

“The thing that you have to understand,” says Sam, “is that this is a public service. I have 30 people get in and out of this car an hour. And with a lot of people comes a lot of smell.”

Sam’s clad in a leather jacket and has the world-weariness of someone who has been driving a taxi for a long time. It’s pouring outside and traffic is crazy, but he stopped to pick me up anyway, despite my broken umbrella and soaked clothing.

He’s driving me to Union Square from 6th Avenue, calmly navigating the car like a big ship. I’ve just asked him why he has an air freshener in his cab. The Medallion Passenger Bill of Rights requires ‘scent-free’ air, but this is not the first freshener that I’ve seen in New York.

Earlier in the week, I’d been trapped in a poorly ventilated taxi during rush hour. I’d stared at a clump of paper strawberries for 20 minutes. The cab did not smell like any kind of berry.

Sam’s freshener is a yellow rectangle printed with a silhouette of the Manhattan Skyline. It hangs on a simple piece of craft string, but whoever designed it took the extra care to include die-cut bevelled corners.

I ask him where he buys them. He doesn’t hesitate in responding. “At the gas station or the car wash. You get them for about one dollar. Simple is what you need for a taxi, but for your own car, you can buy something nicer, something more luxurious.”

In his job, Sam rotates cars with several other drivers. He doesn’t take his air freshener with him from one cab to the next. The drivers replace the fresheners in whatever cab they happen to be using.

“The only modification made to the design by its originator was to alter the shape of the card from a busty pin-up girl to a fir tree. The conical tree shape proved easier to pull from the cellophane than the curves of a woman.”

“How do you know when to change it?” I ask. The mirror reflects Sam’s raised eyebrow.

“That’s where you have to use your best judgement. If the cab stinks, you go get one.”

In 1954, the first patent for a paper air freshener was filed by Julius Sämann, a German- born Jewish chemist. Inspired by a milkman that complained about the stench of his work, Sämann created a paper saturated with “odour- destroying, air-perfuming substances”.

Since 1954, the air freshener has changed very little. The original patent noted the importance of a string as the oils on the card could make it difficult to pull the card from its scent-concealing cellophane.

The only modification made to the design by its originator was to alter the shape of the card from a busty pin-up girl to a fir tree. The conical tree shape proved easier to pull from the cellophane than the curves of a woman.

Sämann’s Car-Freshner Corporation now sells 60 different scents and is a third-generation company which, according to its president, has sold “as many fresheners as McDonald’s has sold hamburgers”.

The knock-off industry has added several billion more fresheners to the market. Looking at the cabs passing by us, I see freshener designs as varied as Jelly Bellies, marijuana leaves and Mickey Mouse. Air fresheners have become a part of popular culture.

Exiting Sam’s cab at Union Square, I can’t stop myself from asking one final question – I need to know what he uses in his own car. What is the air- freshened smell of luxury?

Without hesitation, he says, “The smell of suede.”

 

Leanne Prain is a ‘DIY Craft’ author and graphic designer. She blogs on crafts, design, publishing, textiles and writing. 

Annu Kilpeläinen is a Finnish illustrator living and working in London.

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