A prolonged standoff with a new piece of gear and its malodorous aura.
Photo: A brown and tan guitar amplifier sits inside a blue tent in a backyard, with grass and plants in the foreground and background. In front of the amp is a deionization machine, which is a small grey box with a handle.
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Jimmy told me to call him when I was five minutes out of Columbus. He said that’d give him enough time to set up and plug in the guitar amp in the driveway of his apartment building. It’d been a while since I did a Craigslist buy. So far this was a by-the-book experience.
As promised, Jimmy was plugging it into an outside outlet when I pulled into the lot. Jimmy’s company polo shirt was neatly tucked into his pressed, khaki trousers. His short-cropped, thinning hair benefited from a product of some sort that kept what was there, there. I pegged him as a working, divorced dad. Another assumption flew into my head as I climbed out of our Toyota Highlander. “I bet he wears cologne,” I thought, for no particular reason.
We shook hands, I loaded out my guitar and banjo, and we strolled over to the Crate CA125D 125-Watt 2×8 Guitar Combo with Tweeter and DSP. If that seems like a lot of shit crammed into a single amplifier, it is. Guitar players can be snobs about all gear, but about amps in particular. I wasn’t going to get much musician respect showing up at a gig with this thing, but at least that would be on par with my playing.
Jimmy was on a short turnaround, time-wise. He wasn’t rushing the sale, he was just honest about what was next on his agenda: a meeting with his ex-wife and his kid’s teacher at a new school. I plugged in and played. Jimmy helpfully twisted with the knobs. He had asked for $300. I countered with $200, which he accepted. I had it in cash.
We loaded my instruments and my new, used Crate acoustic amplifier into the back of the Highlander, shook hands again, and I headed to the Highway 151 on-ramp and back to Madison.
At first I thought the smell was cologne. I immediately remembered my cologne prediction and Jimmy. I took my right hand off the wheel and held it up to my nose. I was sure I would smell the smell that was filling the front seat. After all, my hand was the hand that touched the hand that applied cologne this morning. But there was nothing there. My hand just smelled like my hand.
The smell was gathering steam, sweeping into the car like an unwanted hitchhiker. Vomit makes a sickly, sweet smell. This had the same sickly sweet aspect, but not the voltage of vomit stink. One thing was clear. The odor was definitely coming from the back of the Highlander. It was the amp for sure.
This was alarming. I knew if the smell made my eyes water it would be twice as bad for my wife, Peggy, who can smell a dead mouse in someone’s house just by walking by it on the sidewalk. If I bring this thing into the house, I thought, she’ll be the one to freaking file for a divorce.
I opened the hatchback in our driveway and put my nose to the amp’s blonde cabinet. Hoo boy. I decided it smelled like house-freshening aerosol that people use to make their house smell like, well, like house-freshening aerosol. My denial skills are huge. Nothing an overnight in the garage won’t cure, I thought. I carried my new purchase into the garage, plunked it down by the bikes, and left it there.
When I opened the garage door the next day, the entire space was engulfed by the smell. This was a monster. I immediately Googled, “getting a smell out of an amp.” There were 31,300,000 results. Where to start? I clicked over to Facebook and sent out an SOS for de-stinkification ideas. I know a lot of musicians. I figured I’d have this in hand in no time.
“That thing is never coming into the house,” Peggy declared. “In fact, put a tarp over that goddamn thing.”
So I did. Meanwhile the Facebook suggestions were flowing in. So were the har har comments. Most of those made fun of me for not being able to handle smoke and spilled-beer smell, the odor carried by approximately 93.7% of used amps sold worldwide. I expected that it would smell like cigarette smoke and beer. That would have been great! This perfume-y smell was so much worse.
By now you’re probably dialing in your own suggestions, so let me just tell you alright already with the baking soda. That was my first line of attack. A full, new box set next to the cabinet, settled beneath a blue tarp tent overnight. When I pulled the tarp off the next morning, the smell was unchanged. A quick sniff revealed that the tarp itself was now infested with the stink.
Another person suggested popcorn to absorb it all. Not microwave. Pan-popped. We popped enough to supply Marcus Theaters for a weekend, built a popcorn nest around the thing, and covered it all up with another tarp. I was directed to leave it in the popcorn chamber for a few days. The helpful person was absolutely sure this would do it. It didn’t do shit.
Vinegar. Mr. Clean. A vodka and lemon juice scrub. Nothing worked. I put it in the bright, hot, backyard sunshine every day for most of the month of June. That seemed to knock it down some, but nowhere near earning it a place in the house.
My friend Erik brought down his deionization machine. He said he bought it after leaving a pan of beans on the stove while he was out running errands, almost burning his house down. “It took the black smoke smell completely out of the whole house, room-by-room,” he told me. I got very excited.
Erik helped me set it up in a camp changing tent in the backyard, leaving a small vent open at the top zipper. We plugged it in and I left it going for six hours, after which I eagerly unzipped the tent and took a whiff. No change. “It took me more than a week to get the stink out,” Erik told me after I reported my lack of progress. “Keep the machine on it for a while longer,” he encouraged, like an olfactory Life Coach.
Tilting at this smelly windmill has not been the highlight of the summer. I’ll tell you one thing: I’ll never buy another amp without thoroughly smelling it. In fact, I’ll never buy anything again without thoroughly smelling it. As we speak, the Crate resides under a tarp in the garage, like a captive animal waiting to be released back into the wild. My buyer’s remorse is only surpassed by the guilt I carry about assuming Jimmy wore cologne.
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