Couple years ago while visiting in Atlanta, I tossed my bag on the bed, unzipped the sides and flung them open only to watch my grandson wrinkle his nose and hear him say, “Oh. It smells like Key West.”
He was grinning so I decided he liked that tell-tale trace of Eau de Key West. The alternative, hanging my head in shame, that my clothes and suitcase were DIRTY, didn’t seem necessary. After all, he was right. The whole kit and caboodle smelled like Key West.
We smell it every time we walk into an island house that’s been closed up for an hour or two, even with the air conditioning chugging away. We smell it when we open a closet in July or unpack a vacuum-sealed bag from the storage shed. We smell it when we walk into the cleanest, shiniest bathroom in a Key West restaurant. (Bar bathrooms, too, but that could be something else entirely so I’m not going there today.)
And, it’s certainly not the stench of summer’s green trash cans left to ripen on the sidewalk because not even their owners can bear to scrub them out, though, if we have any sense of decency and appreciation for the guys who heft them into the trash truck, we surely would get out the bleach, soap and hose. Nor is it rotting sargassum (not much of that this year, thank heaven; but I digress).
That first whiff is a bit musty and sort of earthy, like newborn mushrooms at the base of a forest tree after a rain. Just a whiff; nothing unpleasant or demanding of remediation. But definitely not the crisp, dry, scentless mountain air of, say, Utah.
Then it’s gone, wafted away on the slightest air current. Our noses adjust in a few seconds and we don’t smell it again until the next time.
So. If it’s none of those nasty things, what the heck is Eau de Key West? Assuming you DO clean your house, that you empty the trash, the coffee grounds and the cat litter and you don’t leave bananas to puddle on the counter, then the answer’s easy.
It’s mold. Or mildew. Or a jolly combo of both.
Eau de Key West | It’s there forever
You’ll never get rid of Eau de Key West no matter how much white vinegar or hydrogen peroxide you scrub with (please, no bleach) or how obsessively you purge organic things like indoor plants, cardboard, bath towels, newspapers, T-shirts, rugs, drapes, tutus, headdresses, cats, leather sofas and slip-covered chairs from your house. Unless it’s growing down your walls and overtaking your stuff (both of which have happened to my house), you’ll not need a full-on remediation.
I don’t smell it often, but I know it’s around because it’ll trigger my prescription for asthma meds.
You’ll sound silly if you go round tut-tutting that it can’t happen to your house because you just gutted it down to the studs and replaced all that old stuff. Give it a year or two and Eau de Key West will lurk in your corners and the backs of your closets. Two reality checks: One, unless yours is a new build, you’ve still got those 100-year-old wood studs, sub-floors, foundations and such, all well marinated in Eau de Key West. (Same with concrete block construction.) And, two, Eau de Key West is a progressive Democrat; it includes everyone and everything under its sniffy tent.
Eau de Key West is particularly aromatic this summer. We are weeks into the hottest, most humid summer on record. Mold and mildew love that stuff.
Think about this factoid from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: To reduce the chances of mold and mildew in your house, you need to keep the indoor humidity level between 30 and 60 percent. Right now, in Key West, the indoor humidity level is 70 percent, which is considered dangerously high. We can run our air conditioning 24-7 at full-on Arctic and we’re not going to dry out our indoor spaces enough to stop mold and mildew.
Open your windows and doors when the breeze kicks up. Get rid of things that grow mildew and mold as best you can, especially cardboard. Clean with distilled white vinegar or hydrogen peroxide solutions instead of bleach. (Mold and mildew consider bleach dessert.)
Clear out the plants and stuff blocking air flow in your outdoor crawl spaces. Install attic exhaust fans. Ditto fans under the house if things are really damp. Keep the inside temps around 78 degrees, which helps reduce condensation and thus reduces indoor humidity. (I know, I know. It seems counterintuitive, but it works. It’s science, folks.)
The good news is, so long as you never leave the island, most of us don’t much notice Eau de Key West. But if we’re on the mainland everyone around us will. I’m thinking they’re jealous we’re from Key West. Surely they aren’t wondering if I need a shower and clean clothes?