The Horror Of The Airport Perfume Aisle

Amy Shuard as Lady Macbeth, 1960
Amy Shuard as Lady Macbeth, 1960

I’m walking through the airport perfume aisle. Airports are the most racist, classist places on Earth. They’re mini police states, where freedom of movement is violently constrained by where you’re from and how much money you have. The rich and corporate literally sit in first class or business while everyone is lumped together in ‘the economy’. And the perfume aisle distills it all.

Perfume is a French word, a French brand, which is ironic because Paris is historically one of the smelliest places in the world. Even today it remains littered with dog shit, and the stench of brutal colonialism pervades it all. Perfume is the distillation of colonialism because it takes cheap, ‘exotic’, ingredients from all over the world, mixes them with marketing and bullshit, and makes them reappear as ‘French’. Like Belgian chocolate or Italian coffee, it’s all a colonial con. Resources are stripped out of the South, branded in the North, and both the credit and the cash are laundered up and out. Like so much smoke, blown up the asses of us all.

Ambergis from all the whale populations they brutally genocided, sandalwood from the trees they cut, all borne upwards on palanquins by the colored people that do the actual work of colonialism. Colonialism works (still works) like holding a child down on the playground, making them slap themselves with their own hands. The hands around the neck of the South are usually brown with white palms. The true white man remains quite distant from it all, calling Africans corrupt (while laundering their money through London), calling Indians unhygenic (while not washing their own butts), and calling Chinese despotic (while living under completely corrupt and unresponsive governments actively killing the sick and maintaining the highest caged populations in the world). It’s all distilled into heady and ultimately ephemeral ideas and ideologies. Perfume covering the stench of Paris.

As Lady Macbeth said (with more geographic accuracy than modern marketing):

Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
hand. Oh, oh, oh!

I digress, but what else do you do in an airport. My children are with my mother. We’re broadly fleeing into the maelstorm. In this liminal space where we’re effectively under arrest between each gate, I just look around.The immigration staff are almost all brown. The people at the coffee shops are brown. They’re all degrees migrants, here by permission of the White Empire, indentured servants serving their time in this shitty clime, coming here for a ‘better life’ only because colonialism has made life so actively worse across the rest of the world. What do you get? All the smells of the nature you used to live in, distilled in a bottle that cost $100. All of this ‘progress’ all of this ‘western civilization’. It’s just the trampling of a flower to experience it. It’s the pinning of a butterfly on a wall. The stuffing of a Dodo. Things would have been better off left alone.

It stinks. That’s what I think in the perfume aisle. And I like perfume. That’s the rub. The Lady Macbeth rub. As Shakespeare wrote:

Doctor: You see, her eyes are open.

Gentlewoman: Ay, but their sense is shut.

Doctor: What is it she does now? Look, how she rubs her hands.

The fact is that our main thought, walking through an airport, is to not to tear this prison of passport apartheid and classism down. It is to get an upgrade, to move ourselves up while keeping everyone else down. It is to get thru the system with petty privilege, not to fight for actual freedom for all. Hence colored people still try to work through colonial structures. Critical historians like David Olusaga become members of the Order of The British Empire, becoming historical anachronisms themselves. Historians repeat themselves as farce. At a more ordinary level, we man the immigration counters, rejecting ourselves in different avatars. For petty salaries, we sell each other out. The salt of the Earth barter themselves for nothing. Some daily bread instead of life abundant.

It stinks, but then it’s all laundered clean as bottles and sprayed around our necks. It’s shit but it smells good. The entire idea of western civilization is crushing a thousand flowers to create an experience that disappears after a day. In the historical sense, this ‘superior’ civilization actually destroyed indigenous civilizations that had achieved balance over thousands of years.Dismal and violent West Asia (ie, Europe) actually looted far richer places like India and China, then turned around and called them poor. They looted the environmental heritage of generations, bottled it, branded it, and sprayed it into the air. Now any good smells fade away and all that is left is the original etymology of the word perfume. “To smoke through”.

We are, after all, in an airport. As much as the halls might be scrubbed by colored servants, as much Dior scented Burberry as you wrap around your neck, there is still a growing spot in the atmosphere that won’t come out. The orgy of distilling climate into commodities has ended and the lights have come on, leaving only shame, strange smells, and a godawful mess to clean up. Which can’t be cleaned up. We spray some perfume on the thing but it still stinks to high heaven. All the oils of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Our eyes are open, but our senses are shut. Such is the horror of the airport perfume aisle.