“What in The World is That Smell?”

One day years ago I took the 71 bus from Watsonville to Santa Cruz, California. It was a local bus, a milk run, that made many stops along the way. Depending on the time of day, it could take you well over an hour to ride the twenty-mile route from one end to the other. I got on in Watsonville, paid the fare, and found a seat in the middle of the bus.

I have always liked riding buses. The large windows, the elevated view, the feeling of power as the bus surges forward, the wagon wheel used to steer it. All of it has a giddy effect on me. Sure, I’ve had unpleasant experiences, but for the most part riding has been a joy.

This time, though, something was off. I couldn’t tell exactly what was wrong, but something did not feel right. I looked around for confirmation, but no one seemed to notice or look my way. So, I ignored my gut. Besides, I am used to that pained expression of people on public transit.

Things changed when we got to the local community college. A student boarded, took two steps down the aisle, and exclaimed while waving his hand in front of his face, “What in the world is that smell?” This caused everyone to look up. The driver shuffled back, sniffed around, and ordered everyone off the bus. Later, when the mechanic arrived, they determined that nitrous oxide had been seeping into the bus through a crack in the exhaust system.

I felt like a fool on two counts. First, I relied excessively on other people instead of trusting my instinct. Second, I never spoke up, settling into complacence rather than risk being thought a fool. These are exactly the things I have tried to teach my children and students. Ironically, it took a student to open my eyes, or, in this case, nostrils.

I remembered the bus experience this weekend while traveling on a flight back to New York. During the flight the woman directly in front of me, who had been knitting with determination, suddenly stood up, looked around, and exclaimed, “What in the world is that smell? Somebody’s been fartin!”

I looked immediately at the thin, Chinese woman next to her and decided that she was the culprit. I must have been right, because the thin woman got up and stood in the aisle, scrolling through photos on her phone. Luckily, there were no further emissions, nitrous oxide or otherwise. Again, someone relied on what they saw as the truth (the knitter) and then spoke up about it. I still can’t imagine standing up and yelling on a crowded plane like that, but there it is. The lesson is clear.

Here’s the thing. The smell that the student and knitter identified can take many forms. It might be a used car one day, a piece of fish the next. It could be a person, which was my reason for traveling this week. I visited a friend who was having problems with a relative who went “berserk” on him because she feels threatened by him. Family members who witnessed the display of vitriol and venom admitted that she acts like that on a regular basis. She did it again in my presence and then lovingly attended to her pet poodle.

Barring a medical condition like a brain tumor, such behavior is inexcusable, and even then you can’t excuse it as much as try to understand it. Such behavior constitutes abuse, and when other people permit it either because it has been going on for years or to keep the peace, they become accomplices to evil. I don’t think that’s too strong a word to describe what I witnessed this week. Not to be dramatic, but writ large you get Neville Chamberlain proclaiming “peace for our time.”

As I told my friend on the way to the airport, somebody needs to stand up and yell, “What in the world is that smell?” And then, if they want the family to heal, they should do something about it. Especially when the smell has become a stench. After all, the children are watching.

Image credits: feature by João Jesus; B&W by Burak K; middle by Wesner Rodrigues. This post is dedicated to Joseph Bradley, Ralph Kramden man about town. Happy birthday to Josephine Frasula Brancatelli, March 22. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a proud member of The Free Media Alliance.

Note: Remember to send me your dad jokes by replying in the Comment section of this post. I will include them in the post scheduled for Sunday, March 31, 2019, the day before International Dad’s Day. See the March 10th post.


  1. Yes! Your post is timely on many levels. It seems like many persons are unsure of what they see and do not speak out of that uncertainty. People wait, look around, and determine their responses by what appears “right and appropriate” to others, by what others see. Another example would be the comment to a neighbor or friend, “Someone really needs to do or say something about this!”

    But, I can’t complain too much. I, myself, have questioned much of what I have seen, thought, or felt in my own life. I understand why people go looking for their “tribe.” There is a saying that I can’t quote exactly; …Taking the one seat in your life. This means that I have a seat, eyes, ears, thoughts, and experiences through which to see and speak of what I see. There is no one who can do that for any of us and when lacking, results in the lack of just that word or picture or story…that is desperately needed.

    My first post -secondary educational program took place at a well-known School of Performing Arts. I remember all of the times I would stand outside the studios of Heifitz, Rostropovich, Zubin Mehta, and many more of my musical heroes, listening to the lessons and classes they were giving. In my second year, I was accepted by the teacher of whom I dreamed.

    It was all that I’d hoped: Highly demanding work, excellent students, and many opportunities to be heard. There was one thing that I lacked, the ability to hear myself. I needed to match the tone and interpretation of my coach; one of beauty beyond measure. To accomplish this, I needed to hear her vision, sound, conception of a great work by Beethoven. I, therefore, listened and performed what she heard and had experienced, rather than my own vision, as required to perform my graduation recital.

    My performing arts experiences took place in the 70’s and 80’s. I am certain that things have progressed. I am thankful for all that was passed on to me with few regrets.

    I celebrate all of the teachers and professors who guide their students towards the development of their “one seat”: thought, sight, perspective, vision, sound, dream…

    1. It’s hard to be yourself, stand up for yourself, take care of yourself, and respect yourself, especially when it seems everyone is out to stop you. But that’s what has to be done. It’s the mission of a lifetime. You play the harp? Have you ever done it in a marching band…?

  2. Rather than lose face in our semi- primitive culture this article brings to mind about issues such as pride vs humility. It brings to mind an old saying that captures the current reflection of our present day ” pass the buck” cultire…
    ” The one who smelt it dealt it!”
    Very Good Robert!

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