- It smells like a rose up in this joint. (photo: TBD staff)
Could it be that Bohemian Caverns is really starting to smell like a cavern?
About a month ago, I began hearing complaints that “the caverns,” the basement level of the venue, which is designed to look and feel like an authentic cave, was starting to take on an authentic cave-like aroma.
Among the descriptors I heard were “mildew,” “toilet bowl,” and just plain old “toilet.” Most of the people who initially mentioned the smell refused to go on record, fearing backlash at besmirching the good name of a D.C. institution. My friend Ayana Edwards, however, was willing to confess that 2001 11th Street, NW smelled of “really old building and spilled drinks.” On a recent visit, my own nose detected a flooded basement note with a hint of grandmother’s attic.
I asked Tyrone Norris (of the One vs Many creative agency) who holds a weekly Beat Clash hip-hop showcase at the club, if he’s picked up any strange smells in the cavern. “It's a cave...you can smell Miles Davis in there,” he wrote to me in an e-mail. When prodded he added, “Personally, I’m about the hip-hop…I’m just happy to have a place that supports the culture [and] allows me to throw weekly events that can include a college crowd.”
Agreed — who wouldn’t endure a little funk for a good hip-hop show? Also, smell is highly subjective and our cultural obsession with Glade Candles and Febreze means that people’s sniffers are often overly sensitive to anything that doesn’t smell like “Mountain Rain” or “Summer Breeze.”
So how does one determine whether complaints about odors are based in fact? Enter the Nasal Ranger Field Olfactometer, a device created by St. Croix Sensory Inc. to “measure odors with precision.”
According to press materials, the portable Ranger, which St. Croix loaned to TBD, allows users to “quantify odor strength in nearly any situation or circumstance. It measures odor in terms of “Dilution-to-Threshold” or "D/T" ratios, which is the most common unit of odor measurement. Michael McGinley of St. Croix explains that a D/T of 4, for example, means that the smell is picked up by the nose even if diluted 4 times. If something stinky is diluted, say, 30 times, for a D/T of 30, and can still be detected by the human nose, that means it’s, well, extremely stinky.
To make sure the Ranger worked, and I knew how to operate it, I used it on some two-and-a-half week old broccoli in my refrigerator. I left the door open for a good while, stuck my nose in the device, followed the instructions, and sniffed. I picked up a garbage odor that registered at 15 D/T at close range, and a 7 D/T from several feet away.
Last night, I went to Bohemian Caverns with the Ranger, ready to sniff, but was met with incense and candles. After the smoke cleared, I gave the Ranger a shot. I registered a musty smell with my bare nose — with the Ranger, it was discernible at 4 D/T. (Bohemian Caverns' management has not responded to phone calls for comment.)
McGinley says anything under 7 D/T is considered inoffensive, if outside, but that indoor all-day exposure to a smell as low as 2 D/T could be considered a nuisance.
“In an office setting, for example, you want to measure 2s or nothing,” McGinley says. “With 4s in an office setting, people would likely be complaining, whether it was a strong perfume or a bunch of Sharpie markers, people would likely tend to be bothered. But 4 might not be a big deal depending on what it is. If it’s a 30 D/T and it smells like a bakery, that’s probably not a big deal, but a dead mouse [smell] at a 4 is a big deal.”
McGinley also says that various smells can affect people different in ways. He mentions the Hedonic tone scale of pleasantness and unpleasantness, which quantifies how different individuals react to certain scents. “A negative 10 is typically the worst thing an individual has ever smelled, while a plus 10 is the best. Zero is neutral, like sniffing a glass of water or fresh air,” he says. “And everyone’s scale is different. A raw sewer smell is typically a negative 5 for everyone, but some things, like skunk, are negative for some, while some people love it.”
Must, the odor I’d classify as the dominant note at Bohemian Caverns can be pleasurable for some, offensive to others. “Something can smell musty and someone says, ‘Mmm, I like that, it reminds me of my grandma’s house,’” McGinley says. “Or they could say, ‘I slept in a basement as a kid, that’s a negative 5 for me.”
The Hedonic tone scale could explain why most people who walk into Bohemian Caverns don’t detect anything at all. On Tuesday night, the place was packed for Beat Clash — I saw lots of people having a good time but no one holding their nose.
TBD's verdict: the Bohemian Caverns has a light, musty basement smell, which is fitting for the setting and is not offensive enough to keep anyone away.