Top 10 Worst San Francisco Smells [Updated 6/8/08 for changes]
I've been watching a good deal of the Travel Channel World's Best shows lately, featuring the best food factory tours, eating contests, Las Vegas bathrooms, Las Vegas Pools, etc. It's gotten me in the mood to do a World Best of my own. But with mine, I decided to go the opposite direction and do a sort-of World's Worst.
While there are many enticing smells in this city, unfortunately, there are an equal number of bad ones as well. As a resident for the last 5 ½ years, they don't bother me quite that much anymore because my body has adapted to shut off nostril inhalation at the proper times when it senses a bad smell could be present. But I still get surprised a couple times a day with a bad odor, and some bad smells from the past continue to haunt me in the present. It should be noted that my sense of smell is very acute. Therefore, some smells may bother me more than others, and some might not even be detectable to others. Click to begin now.
I also recently came across this nice short Twain piece on some bad San Francisco smells that he had come across.
#10: Beer Bottle Recycling Pickup TrucksThis one I've just added to the list as I was behind one of these trucks today on Grant Ave. Basically, these guys in beat up old pickup trucks modified with huge walls of steel so they can pile a ton of crap in the bed, drive around to all the bars picking up the empty beer bottles. The smell of stale beer made me gag a bit. Next
#9 Asian Jacket Mothball Smell
Predominantly, this smell is associated with elderly Chinese. It usually is present on a colder than normal day which results in people wearing their heavy jackets or coats that sit in their closet most of the time. I normally smell it as I walk behind the offending person on the street. For some reason, in Asian cultures, it must be a big thing to pack things with mothballs. I never really understood this because I have never seen a moth in a house ever. The only place I've seen moths are by fluorescent lights on a porch or something. But for whatever reason, mothballs are big with Asians. Now, as I live and work and eat out around many Asians in the city, I often get a whiff of this mothball smell, which I find to be a negative odor. It's not a big deal, but it is slightly unpleasant. Now, when I'm old and my jackets are all filled with holes from unseen moths, I might be sorry my clothes don't smell like mothballs. But right now, I don't see a need for people packing their stuff with this stinky, toxic chemical and that adds to my displeasure with it. Next
#8 Tradition Asian Home Smell
OK, let me say that I'm not picking on Asians here. I'm just living around a lot and they just happen to have two in a row on my list. I will start off by saying that Asian culture is responsible for more GOOD smells than bad in the city, notably the excellent smells of Chinatown restaurants. However, this list is about bad smells, and I have to be honest with what I dislike. By traditional Asian home, I'm talking mostly referring to the type of cooking going on, usually by the elderly or those families not fully assimilated to the burger and fries culture (yet). I'm not sure what it is, but something about the smells from the meals cooked in a traditional Asian home is displeasing to my senses. Now, I don't actually go in many of these home. My experiences with these smells are solely from open windows that I walk by around my neighborhood. I mentioned that my sense of smell is very strong and just passing these windows, I get a whiff of the combination of odors from hundreds of meals in a stuffy small apartment that just doesn't smell good to me. Perhaps there is also a tad of mothball smell in the scent. I can't describe it, but a way to think about it is to think of Chinese take-out in your car. It smells great when you get it. Then you get home and eat it and it tastes great. But the next morning, you get in your car and it stinks from the food. Something about the lingering of Asian food smell is bad. Actually, most any lingering food smell is bad, but it seems that Asian food is worse, at least in my opinion. This is the smell I smell passing the open windows of traditional Asian homes. I mean no offense to these people, it's just that I find the smell to be bad. I'm sure if they invited me over for dinner, I would enjoy the food. Next
#7 Omni Hotel Garbage Exhaust
I started noticing this smell during the hotel strike occuring around 10/04. I figured it was due to the lack of workers cleaning up the place but even after the strike ended, I still smell it. There is some exhaust fan blowing out the smell of garbage that hits you as you walk down the street around the northwest corner of Montgomery and California. It's now a daily occurance and it's disgusting. Luckily, I'm usually on my bike around there so I don't notice it, but when I walk, I do and I hate it. Next [6/8/08: based on email sent last year, they fixed the problem for a while, but I notice it still coming back occasionally, but I don't walk this route much anymore since I switched jobs]
#6 Early Morning Chinatown Smell
3/3/04 UPDATE: One possible cause of bad smell: Chicken Hacking. OK, now we're getting into the meat of the countdown. Again, no offense, it's just my personal opinion. This is another smell that I rarely sense, but it's really bad when I do, so it ranks up there. Basically it occurs when I'm biking down Stockton early in the morning on the way somewhere. This is very infrequent and probably only happens 2-3 times a year. But the early morning smells, mostly of freshly arriving fish and other unknown items really is an unpleasant aroma, especially early in the morning. I know not to breathe too much during this time of the day in this area, but I sometimes are forced to inhale and it really is bad. Next
#5 General Bum BO
You would think this would be closer to my top pick, with bums being so prevalent in this city. But in actuality, I don't often smell bum odor. This is because of my acute awareness of bums around me and my body knowing to cut off nostril inhalation appropriately. The important thing in avoiding this smell, is knowing who is a bum. They often have unkempt beards and are dirty looking. They often are sitting or standing around a place that a normal person wouldn't be. If they are walking, they need to have a little wobble to their step, indicated intoxication or physical problem, or they just need to have the look of someone wandering with nowhere in particular to go. Taking in all this information, I compute a quick decision of either "breathe" or "don't breathe". I like to error on the side of caution which means I'm breathing through my mouth probably half the time I'm walking around the city. Still, I am sometimes caught by surprise and the BO is overpowering. It really is just like any other BO, but stronger. It's actually not as bad as #6, but the frequency of it is much greater. Also the cause of #6 is commerce which is good. The cause of bum BO is sleeping in the gutter which is bad. Next
#4 Human Urine
Related to #5, but this one lingers long after the person has caused the odor has moved on. In fact, it gets worse with time. Urine is initially sterile (I think I read that somewhere) but when mixed with scum from the city, that's where it's traditional stink comes from. It used to be that I smelled human urine (not my own) at least once a day. Now, I know the danger signs and know when not to inhale via the nose. There are two keys to avoiding this smell. One, is to know the places people like to urinate. You have to think like a bum. "Where would I piss if I was sitting on a trashcan drinking cheap vodka all day?" Even bums like a little privacy. So basically, any alcove along a street is a danger area. This can be a storefront entry, or just a little indentation in a wall for a fire hydrant or something. You just have to see the spot, identify it as a possible urinal, and cease nose-breathing before and after the danger spot. The second warning sign is liquid marks. I basically assume any liquid on the ground, whether fresh or recently dried up, is urine. I don't breathe around the presence of liquid. I don't try to figure out if it's water or not because it's not worth the trouble. One real trouble spot is Market Street above 4th. Assume urine everywhere. Still, with all my experience, I get surprised a couple times a week and it's really a repulsive odor. Nothing really out of the ordinary, but just one of the worst smells out there. It also is bad because it conjures up bad images of bums pissing and it's depressing to know people are sleeping on the streets and also makes me mad at the bums for stinking up the city. Next
#3 Dog Urine
It may surprise most people that I find this worse than human urine. It's actually because this smell is closer to where I live and is harder to avoid and much more frequent. I also find it very offensive. Now, it's interesting, but this smell did not bother me till around 2000. My theory is that with the DotCom bust, people became out of work and depressed and got dogs to keep them company and from jumping out of windows over their stock options becoming worthless. But for whatever reason, all of a sudden, many more people in my neighborhood had dogs. Now, I really don't care for dogs myself because I don't like their smells in general and I don't enjoy their company. But I REALLY don't enjoy their urine. Most people walking their dogs are pretty good about picking up their crap. But what can you do about urine? Nothing. And these many dogs being walked all take their little pisses at the base of trees in the sidewalk, particularly in the blocks right around where I live. This dog urine has a terrible odor and it's everywhere. It's impossible to see. I basically have to not breathe for an entire block just to be safe, but I always falter and get a whiff. Once one dog pisses, the spot become attractive for every dog and the problem feeds on itself. I think instead of dogs, these should instead adopt a bum and walk him around. Since he's already pissing on the ground, the city's total public urination does not increase any. Let the dogs roam in the suburbs where there's more vegetation to absorb the stink, that's my opinion. Next
#2 Kearney/Jackson Mystery Smell [6/8/08: Mystery is over as I found out this smell was actually Stinky Tofu being produced by Star Lunch on Jackson, which is now out of business and the smell is gone, but it was so bad for so long, I'm keeping it here]
OK, another Chinatown knock. The ironic thing about this one is that it's right near one of my top restaurants, Hunan Homes. This smell is very infrequent. But it is also one of the worst smells ever. I was biking around Tiajuna a couple years ago and smelled a scent that tied this smell for the worst ever. But that is Tiajuana and that place is is trouble. Smells like this should not be in the richest country in the world. Here, it occurs totally random, and only a couple times a year. I think it comes out of the sewer grates at the corner of the stink. I suspect that some illegal sewer dumping of nastiness from a restaurant is to blame. I can't describe the smell. And for a top worst smell of all time, that is a requirement. A smell that you can identify can't be the worst smell ever. Part of the the hideousness of a terrible smell lies in the horror of the unidentifiable components of the reek. I can only describe it as how I would imagine a rotting corpse would smell if I ever smelled one. I hope I never do, and I hope that this smell doesn't return to this corner for a long time. Next
#1: Permanent Vomit Smell at Broadway and Columbus [Added 6/8/08, smell started around beginning of year]
This one really baffles me, but there is an unmistakable smell of vomit at this corner housing the infamous Condor Club, which I have to accuse as the culprit without any proof given the sleazy nature of the place. It doesn't matter what time of day, what day of the week, but when I ride or walk by, I smell it. I would understand on the weekends, but not the week days during light daytime hours. The worst thing is that I'm going up the hill on my bike at this point and usually gasping for air a bit, so my normal smell shutdown that I employ at other times gets forgotten and I get a whiff of this quite often and continue to be equally disgusted each time.
Special Mention: Rotting Bum Leg Smell [6/8/08: Since only a one-time event, not counting as #1 anymore.]
OK, we finally have arrived at the peak of reek. Here's the story: I was having lunch with someone at Kearney and Pine on the big Bank of America building wall. We had gotten food somewhere and the weather was spectacularly nice, sunny and 78 with little wind. As we are eating enjoying the food and weather, a bad scent wafted towards us. We both noticed it at the same time. It was really bad. I had no idea what this could be. I looked around for what the cause could be. I saw nothing out of the ordinary that could be causing such a disgusting smell, except there was this hobbling bum walking towards us on the sidewalk about 50 feet away. No, that guy was too far to be the cause of the stink. No way could any odor emanate from a live human being that far of a distance with such might. We were stunned by the nastiness of this odor. As the guy got closer, the smell got stronger and we realized he was the cause. I was is disbelief and that was my downfall. In my awe of this horrible olfactory offense to my senses, my body's usual smell shutdown response was hindered. He came right by us and the full power of his stink hit me almost to the point of retching. The smell stayed in my mind vividly for the entire day, and still to this day, over 2 years since, it is clear. The guy had on a nasty dirty cast with his dirty black toes sticking out and he was scratching inside it. We instantly got up and had to move because no way could we eat there. He was waiting for the light to change to cross the street. The air around there would be soiled for quite some time and we decided to finish our meal elsewhere. I still am not sure what the smell was, but I imagined gangrene leg to be it. The fact that he was hobbling leads me to be almost certain the horror of this smell was coming from some disaster going on inside that cast. This was a one time occurrence, but by far was the worst smelling experience of any I have ever had in the city. I would have rather smelled double the Bum BO over the last 5 ½ years just to have this one incident never have happened. To this day, when I smell a hideous odor I am reminded of this lunch.
Conclusion: I enjoy living in San Francisco. Mostly, the good smells outweigh the bad. But as with any city, there are bad odors. Hopefully my list of top ten odors has not scared off any visitors or prospective residents to the city. While these odors are bad, they in no way would make me want to cease living here.
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