New Yorkers are accustomed to strong odors, but several years ago a new aroma began wafting through the city’s streets, a smell that was more unnerving than the usual offenders (trash, sweat, urine) precisely because it was so delightful: the sweet, unmistakable scent of maple syrup. It was a fickle miasma, though, draping itself over Morningside Heights one afternoon, disappearing for weeks, reemerging in Chelsea for a few passing hours before vanishing again. Fearing a chemical warfare attack, perhaps from the Aunt Jemima wing of al Qaeda, hundreds of New Yorkers reported the smell to authorities. The New York Times first wrote about it in October 2005; local blogs covered each outbreak, augmented by firsthand reports in their comment threads.

The city quickly determined that the odor was harmless, but the mystery of its origin persisted for four years. During maple syrup events, as they came to be called, operators at the city’s popular NYC311 call center—set up to field complaints and provide information on school closings and the like—were instructed to reassure callers that they could go about their business as usual.

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