Mostly whimsical reflections on life
College is about discovery and among the things I discovered in college is what makes perfume perfume. My learning lab was improbably, or at least so I thought, a raw furrier, where I worked my senior year.
My job was to assist the head fur man, Irwin Goldberg. I measured beaver pelts, fetched furs ranging from ranch mink to wolverine and helped trappers unload their trucks. I didn’t pay much attention at the time to the large plastic bags containing clumps of goo. I just dumped them unceremoniously in the back of the cooler.
When spring rolled around, I learned what it meant to be low man on the fur totem pole. My assignment was to haul those bags of goo up an elevator to a vacant floor in the Seattle Fur Exchange Building. After spreading large tarps over a floor that nearly covered a city block, I was to reach into the bags of goo, separate the goo and place it gingerly on the tarp to dry.
It was only then I realized – in spite of my expensive four-year, private college, liberal arts education – that I was dipping my hands into bags of beaver genitalia, referred to on the raw furrier work floor as simply, beaver balls.
At this point, Irwin, a charitable man who had sprung this spring surprise on many other unsuspecting college students, explained that I was contributing in some important way to something very important. As I was swooning with the smell of the unveiled beaver balls, I took his meaning to mean I was responsible for creating perfume.
In actuality, my role was more modest – I was spreading out beaver balls to dry so they would be easier to crush in some machine to produce musk, that fundamental essence of many ode de toilet – oops, that’s a Brad Paisley song – the essence of pour homme.
Those beaver balls I spread out on a huge tarp over two weeks that spring became the base notes of perfumery, an ancient aphrodisiac that drew women to burly men with bad breath and even worse body odor. The essence of musk deer tops the pecking order, but even the balls of alligators and beetles will do in a pinch. Beaver balls were a sensible middle ground.
There were byproducts from my daily labors. My hands repelled water like Turtle wax on a Corvette. Instead of smelling like fish fingers, my hands became a chick magnet. Women I only imagined in a wet T-shirt after a water balloon fight came up to me and gave me their dormitory phone number. I achieved a level of popularity for which I was clearly unqualified. Or maybe I just imagined all this because my nostrils were filled by the smell of drying beaver balls.
Later that spring, after the water beads on my hands had disappeared, but perhaps not the residual musky scent, Irwin gave me a special reward. I was told to report to work one Saturday afternoon, and would be paid time and half. I donned my raw furrier work coat, not unlike what Clint Eastwood wore in “Hang ‘Em High,” and headed to the same upstairs floor where I spread the tarp and separated beaver balls ball by ball.
There was a noticeably different ambiance on the floor. A temporary dressing room had been set up and was filled with models from Europe. Their job was to show off finished furs made from raw furs that I had fetched and measured.
I assumed my Saturday job would be to fetch and hang up the furs they modeled. But the assignment was a bit more complicated. My job was to help the European models slip out of one fur and into the next. In calling me to show up for work, Irwin had neglected to mention the models only wore the furs.
It is hard to look at a beaver ball even to this day without remembering that Saturday in spring in Seattle.