No city is perfect. Each comes with quirks that its inhabitants wish weren’t there. And yet those quirks simultaneously define the city for what it is. Portland has a rich, diverse and deep hipster culture. Equipped with villain styled, pencil thin mustaches and enough argyle sweaters to make my grandmother jealous, Portland is the mecca for ironic-but-maybe-not-so-ironicalternative style. I’m not breaking any news to anyone here: Portlandia has forever immortalized Portland for its hipster, backwards and yet quaint ways.
Some Portlander’s might like it, especially those that follow that fashion trend, but I’m sure there are those that hate it. They cringe when they see someone waxing their mustache, churning their own butter or braiding their own rope. For those that haven’t visited Portland, Portlandia has defined the west coast town and given them a way to generalize it.
Corvallis, the town that houses Oregon State University, the school I went to, is no different. OSU holds one of the best engineering colleges on the west coast and is home of the country’s largest tsunami simulator at OSU’s wave lab. The university has the population of a small town and the campus boasts a variety of disciplines ranging from engineering, forestry, education and computer science.
And yet it smells remarkably odd four to five days out of the week. One can’t quite place it when they first smell it.
Friends and family would come visit and encounter its awe inspiring aroma. They’d roll down their windows to witness the Willamette River flow below them as they entered town; a smile spread across their face as they took in the concrete sprawl they drove into. And then, as they passed by the Dutch Brother’s on their right, then La Conga on their left, something would overtake them. They’d crinkle their noses, furrow their brow and try to place just what it was they were smelling. At first it was just a hint of something familiar. Not many of my friends and family had dealt with this particular stench, since we grew up in a city and not in a rural location.
Then they’d cross over the railroad tracks, pass 9th street and the entire force of the aroma hits them square in the face. Cow shit. Cow shit, everywhere. There was no escaping it. You could smell it in the classrooms, on the football field, in the bathroom and even while you were floating the river. When I first smelled it, I instinctively checked my rearview mirror: sure I’d find a cow chewing cud in my back seat.
OSU, while having a rich business and engineering school, was originally an agricultural college. It still has a strong agricultural department and because of that there are a lot of rural farms on the outskirts of the campus. That’s why it has that pervasive fertilizer smell that it can’t quite shake. Oh, and a freight train carrying tons of cow manure would pass through the town at least twice a week, that too. It’s hard to take your town seriously, your higher education seriously, when you’re sitting in a lecture hall and can’t flee from the lingering stench of cow-pie.
I majored in history, and while some may label it as “boring,” and “tedious,” and “soul destroyingly mundane,” and “Son, why would you major in that useless degree, I thought I raised you better than this,” it did have a magical feel to it at OSU. I’d be sitting in my outdated, poorly heated and insulated history building, learning about the creation of the Magna Carta and the smell would penetrate Milam Building’s thin walls. All of the sudden the history became alive.
The building was constructed around the same time Stone Henge was erected so its radiators have a hard time keeping the inside above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s like I was sitting on the cold cobble stones on the streets of London. The classroom was filled with students in massive coats, fingerless gloves and puffs of steam as our breaths left our lips.
Then the overpowering smell would hit me. And it was like I was right there in 13th century England; if I closed my eyes, I could feel winter’s bite, see the horses, cows, dogs, cats and humans defecating everywhere. Forget smellovision, I experienced histodory. I keep adding this remarkable educational experience to my résumé, but I have yet to hear back from the History jobs I’ve applied for.
I lived in a house for two years roughly a mile off campus. It was on the west side of town and, rather unfortunately, a stone’s throw from OSU’s rich agricultural farms. Everyday I’d bike to and from class, I’d take a long stretch of road that’d pass by these rich agricultural farms. I remember hating the headwind created from a lack of breakers: no buildings or hills to still the air. I remember hating the heat, and the lack of a bike lane as well as the stupid stop light that seemed to change to red about as often as a leopard changes its spots.
But most of all, I remember the manure. There were times I’d have to get off my bike, cover my face with a hat, sweatshirt and my elbow just to stand breathing that air. I know I’m one for embellishments, but truthfully it was all one could do to keep from suffocating. I felt like an astronaut trying to breathe the poisonous air on Venus. I may have contracted a mild form of cancer; the stench was so offensive, I would be surprised if it was deemed a carcinogen.
So, yes, while OSU can boast an amazing engineering program, a stellar agricultural school, tens of thousands of students, a Nobel peace prize winning staff member, and a massive football stadium with a booming athletics department, it still smells like feces. Worst of all, it went unnoted. I don’t recall any staff or faculty even mentioning it. Whether they wished to ignore it, or perhaps accept it, like a captive spiraling into Stockholm Syndrome, they ignored the elephant in the room.
Perhaps it was a shame, to them. It did feel wrong; to be discussing things like the philosophical notes of Nietzsche and have the odor insert itself into the discussion like that awkward kid in high school that lingered on the edge of your circle. I can imagine it feeling ridiculous, perhaps they were incredulous, to be at a prestigious institution that smelled like a pair of old socks left to rot in a garbage lagoon. I imagine actors would be upset if the Oscars took place at a used car lot instead of a grandiose amphitheater.
It goes to show, even if you’re the top in your field, even if you have the following of a small town and you’re smarter than most everyone you know, you still smell like shit from time to time.