THE SMELL OF MONEY
by Mark Wagner
WHAT'S THAT SMELL? THE SMELL OF SUCCESS!
WHAT'S THAT SMELL? THE SMELL OF DEMOCRACY!
MY MYSTERIOUS SOCK DRAWER
As soon as my sock drawer opens, you can tell something is amiss because of the smell. A not-so-faint, volatile, chemical smell issues. A smell that might alarm the clean-living, the chemically sensitive, or the organically minded. But to the rest of us, it is not a strictly negative odor.
It is a manufacturing smell. The smell of newly configured materials still off-gassing. The smell is a cousin to the smell of fresh paint... of new or newly renovated interiors. The smell brings with it the promise of productivity... an olfactory reassurance that man manufactures. It is the smell from just underneath the cellophane.
I know it’s dumb. That burglars always check your undergarment drawers right after the family bible for hidden booty. But here is where I hide the crispy ones. As ubiquitous as the one dollar bill is, crisp uncirculated ones not so much... so when I get some, I get a bunch. There's usually a grand or two in there. I dig to the bottom to remove a couple hundred at a time to the studio. I know it's laundry day when--sock level at low tide-- banded stacks peek out and I've got to throw a few undies over them.
THE PRESS ROOM
That smell is the smell of the pressroom. The exciting smell of new ink on paper.
For those of us initiate in the "black arts," it hints at the alchemy which has taken place. In which an undifferentiated blob of dark and dirtying matter (aka ink) has seized into a precise matrix of tiny lines and the spaces between them in a transubstantiation of rude material into meaning.
At the paper conservation lab, we learned the poor-mans test for archivality: sniff it. If it smells, it’s changing... if it’s changing, it’s unstable. These bills are still new... barely made. The oil in the ink is still in the process of curing. One could argue that they are not...that the ink is still becoming. Sometimes the final press run--the relief-printed black of the Federal Reserve seal--is still "loose." You have to be careful not to smear it. It dries with exposure to the atmosphere, but these leaflets have been stacked tight.
AN EMOTIONAL UNDERSTANDING OF MONEY
What is there in that familiar, welcome smell? Sniff.
There are many intoxicants consumed through the act of inhaling. Probably the compounds emanating from a stack of new money contain no directly psycho-active compounds. But neuroscience shows that aroma has a tricky way of shortcutting the brain's more analytical functions... to impress smell deep within your emotional self.
Now listen up. Our beliefs and behaviors regarding money are more emotionally driven than economists would have us believe. As individuals, we are more emoters of finance than calculators of finance. Our subconscious is crowded and clouded by murky beliefs, misconceptions, and contradictions about money. So, in the interest of our emotional understanding, lets smell again. Sniff... sniff...
The sharp tang of linseed oil and the gasoline-pine of turpentine. That linseed oil, perhaps pressed from the seeds of the very plant that gave its flax fibers to the paper... oh non-Kosher world! Gum arabic, a slight, almost strawberry note. And a hint of talc puffed between the sheets as they stacked at the end of the press... this a slight astringency in the nose rather than an outright smell.
THE SMELL OF SUCCESS
Poking around on the Internet to see what others thought about "the smell of money," I was excited to learn of a perfume called "Money." Someone had done it! A fragrance to finally sucker-punch our second-most-cherished desire. A logical follow-up to "new-car interior"-flavored air freshener. We thought Phillip K. Dick was only joking when he wrote about stuff like this 30 years ago, but the future is finally here, and see now what it brings!
I traveled to the website of this perfume called "Money," hoping... I don't know... that I could help them out with images or advertising or something. That I could saturate the gallery with that smell during my next exhibition.
The bottle comes in a box filled with shredded money... that's a nice touch. Though its probably not money... probably the never-monetized printing mistakes one can buy in bulk form the bureau of printing and engraving. Not that distinctions like that make a difference to anyone else.
Then I saw there were "his" and "hers" flavor and my excitement began to wane. Its not like money in my wife's sock drawer would smell any different then money in my own. Then I read the fragrance description "precious woods, fresh ocean, bright citrus, rosemary, grass." That's not it at all.
"Money" the perfume isn't some awesome meta olfactory recreation of currency; its just another perfume with a random identity pasted on top. It's just another incident of band-name-ism, in which something one is interested in has its name usurped by something one is not. Thus hampering the clarity of all future conversations and Google searches on the subject.
People talk about the smell of money. I fall into the habit too... thinking mostly of my sock drawer and the cubbies of cut up bits at the studio. But money, in fact, does have two smells... though not "his" and "hers".
I'm always up against the limited color-value offered by the dollar bill. The "white" of the blank paper upon which US money is printed is actually cream color, and the "black" of the darkest crosshatched lines is really just dark grey. Compare a bill to, say, white typing paper and glossy black paint and you'll see.
So early on, I developed a preference for newer, less-circulated bills. These had the highest contrast because their whites hadn't started to get dingy and their darks hadn't started wearing away. I'd cut up only the clearest, cleanest bills in my wallet.
Sometimes I'd get a hundred dollars in ones from the bank and separate it into four piles: best, good, ok, and "to spend," with most bills ending up in the "to spend" pile. Sometimes there would be a fickle fifth pile... the bills limp from use, sometimes even tattered at the edge, you could hardly believe they were still circulating.
Here is a point where the whole point of money breaks down. Money is supposed to be a substance where only quantity matters. As a unit of exchange, it is supposed to be completely fungible, with any specimen capable of replacing any other specimen. Each an unassailable platonic agent in a system void of individual characteristics.
But all bureaucracies are composed of individual personalities. Just visit the local post office a handful of times and you will realize its better to deal with that one friendly guy than "the scrutinizer." Similarly, all dollars are not created equal.
Even in their freshly printed, uncirculated state, some stacks are cut off center, some printed lighter, others over-inking. Indeed each bill is given a separate name-of-sorts by way of a unique serial number. And because there is connoisseurship possible in all things, among numismatists, this dollar or that may have a higher market value simply because of notable confluence of digits... a low serial number, an odd serial number, or the appearance of a small typographic star within the number.
THE SMELL OF DEMOCRACY
The banking system regularly removes old, spent bills from circulation, but some bills eluded retirement. Whenever one of these really, really worn bills crops up, I save it. Can't tell if they are a collection or if they are material to some day use, but they are certainly compelling.
I've stress-tested new bills... sending them repeatedly through the wash to see how they'd fare. They are surprisingly resilient. After even twenty-five wash-and-dry cycles, a bill only barely shows wear to the ink. The paper too remains barely changed.
How many thousands of hands have these bills passed through to get so soft? Like a baton in an endless relay, leaving behind some minute particles of themselves with every runner. Their paper now more akin to paper towel than cotton bond.
Each bill is a single red blood cell riding every capillary, servicing now the brain and now the pinky-toe. One day it is in the hands of a Rockefeller, and days later, those of a migrant laborer. Now it is used to buy drugs, now it is in the collection plate at church.
And everywhere it goes, it carries away some microns from the hands that pass it along. A bit of oil, a few skin cells, some particles of food, some pomade from the barber's hand, the juice from a cashier moistening her fingers on a half lemon in a cup by her register.
Whatever nobility of experience one might project upon these venerable bills, there is also an air (literally) of ignobility... because they stink. For all the world like feet and armpit and sour gym locker. But then all circulated bills have this aroma to some extent. This is the second smell of money... the democratic smell of money... added to by every one of a hundred thousand hands.
SOILED MONEY IS NOT SPOILED MONEY
People say "filthy lucre" and "dirty money" to describe ill-gotten wealth, but the terms work in a strictly literal manner too. Money is gross. In the interest of public health, I might suggest that the Federal Reserve start "laundering money."
In the studio, for one reason or another, parts of bills occasionally find their way into my mouth. Here too is another reason to prefer the new bills. Think of the bacteria, the virus, the fungus.
Think of all the unsavory "transactions" you'd ever witnessed a bill perform. Bills pressed into a sweat-soaked wallet between buttock and pickup seat. Bills stuffed into g-strings as close to "the money" as possible. Bills rolled for cocaine... folded to pick teeth and toenail... falling in a roll from Charles Bukowski's back pocket into the toilet at the race track. There was a bum on the street who would eat any money given to him as a trick, only to regurgitate it later for spending.
Dwell on it long enough, and you'll find yourself reaching for your debit card instead of cash.
FINANCIAL TECHNOLOGIES AND THE SUBLIMATION OF GOLD
There seems to be something incompatible here, like the mind-body problem in philosophy. For us humans, it is often difficult to reconcile the divinity of thought, love, blah, blah, blah, and all the complexities of the erstwhile soul with these pooping, sneezing, tired, aging, wrinkly bodies from which they emanate. And money--a clean counting concept of balance sheets and precision unto decimal places beyond the penny--is embodied here in a filthy, flaccid piece of paper.
In a way, electronic currency seems to be what currency was meant to be: a pure, incorporeal, calculatory promised land... like heaven to the soul.
As fintech replaces our physical understanding of money with a conceptual one. As more and more we pay for things with less and less physicality... transferring no physical anything... not even a signed slip of paper... sloughing off even our plastic cards. We will start to think of money in the bank more like electricity in a battery than as gold in a vault. That is, money as an energy capable of performing work rather than as a tangible commodity exchangeable for other commodities.
There will be casualties in our understanding. There will be subconscious, atavistic beliefs about money, which no longer apply to this new form. We will fetishize new aspects of our new money. Perhaps the chirp or bleep of the "transaction completed" prompt will take on new nuance and significance... as the resonant ring of true gold and silver had in previous centuries.
As money continues its ascension to pure spirit, leaving the corporeal world behind, smell will be among the lesser cousins of missed qualities. The imagery on bills and the familiar faces of world leaders... these will become things of the past too. What will our eyes do then? What subconscious roll has that iconography played within us? Images on money have advertised central governments for millennia... since the very first coins were struck.
I miss them already.