Friday, July 31, 2009

An Olfactory Tour of SacTown

Last fall, I was in the midst of writing a piece about the smells of Sacramento, when the Sacramento News and Review published Josh Fernandez's article "Inhaling the City." I scooped together the bits I'd written and stitched them together into following letter. Enjoy!

Letter to the Editor

October 27, 2008

Dear [Sacramento News & Review] editor,

A big “bravo!” to Josh Fernandez for his article “Inhaling the City” (October 23, 2008). Having always been a scent-sitive soul myself, I thrilled to read about Josh’s olfactory memory associations. Many writers neglect the power of smell in their works.

I am an aficionado of the olfactory myself, and have many memories linked to odors. Having been raised in Placerville, the musty smell of caves and mines immediately evokes evenings spent at the coffee shop at the converted Pearson’s Soda Works (now the Cozmic Cafe) which itself is built into a hill. The smell of tar reminds me of an indistinct nightmare, so summertime construction projects always make me illogically squeamish. Wet summer grass is the smell of road trips and being achingly in love at eighteen. Fresh laundry drying is one of the best scents: it immediately takes me back to a particular rainy afternoon spent listening to Sarah Vaughan and reading paperback novels in my bedroom, just next to my apartment complex’s laundry room. I was shivering under a rust-colored afghan blanket, but couldn’t bear to shut out that clean, wet smell. And smelling pie baking will always take me to Thanksgiving Eve in my grandmother’s orange-linoleumed kitchen, where I would sprinkle the pie crust dough scraps with cinnamon and sugar, and bake them on a cookie sheet into crumbly "cookies".

This summer, at age 26, I belatedly taught myself to properly ride a bike. Since mounting my blue mountain bike, I have often found myself toodling through Downtown, sniffing wildly at fleeting smells, like a dog with her head out a car window. I’ll sometimes find several in a single block. For example, T Street between 11th and 12th Streets tonight smelled of sour and smoky cooking (sausage and sauerkraut, perhaps?); the faintly acrid tang of a just-peeled green banana; and something perfumey, like the bubble bath I used as a pre-teen. Downtown Sacramento's alleys are even more fragrant than the streets, exuding the rich scents of backyard soil, ripe garbage cans, and motor oil.

In fact, I think the yellow-jacketed Downtown Sacramento Partnership guides ought to offer tourists SacTown Scent Maps. Here are some olfactory packages to get them inspired:

Locale: Old Sacramento.
Time: Mid-day, warm weather.
Scents: Dust, chocolate (near Rocky Mountain), hay-laden horse droppings.

Locale: Southside Park neighborhood.
Time: 5:30pm to 7:30pm.
Scents: A mouthwatering menagerie of Asian delights on the stove: rice, hot oil, fish in the pan.

Locale: Capitol and McKinley Parks.
Time: Post-rain, springtime or early summer.
Scents: Wet pavement, infinite combinations of flora and fauna.

Locale: Lavender Heights.
Time: Saturday night.
Scents: Each carouser wears her or his own cocktail of scents, a mixture of beer, sweat, soap, cologne, and lotion.

My best friend J’s stepfather lost his sense of smell as a child to hay fever. I’ve often wondered, looking at him pityingly, what a world without my sense of smell would be like. When people ask those irritating “Would you rather…?” questions, aimed at forcing you to think long and hard about which fate would be worse, I usually answer to the one about deafness versus blindness, “either one, as long as I can still have my sense of smell.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Coffee Perfume

I had a marvelous lunch today. I hopped on my bike and made my way to the Sacramento Central Library, and was waited on by a very cute and smiley guy with a few scattered tattoos (and a wedding ring. Drat!).

Then I rode over to one of my absolute favorite places in town, Temple Coffee, and ordered an iced black citrus tea, which was super yummy. When I went to sit down, I saw that the best seat in the entire house - the window seat with all the pillows and the view of the street and the flower boxes - was free... just waiting for me to occupy it! It was enveloped in sunlight and calling to me, and there were music and birds twittering in the background as I floated toward it, so happily.

That tea was so good - cool and tall and flavorful and PROBABLYHADTOOMUCHCAFFEINEFORMEBECAUSEINEVERDRINKCAFFEINEANYMORE!... It was a perfect complement to my delicious peanut butter and honey sandwich. I used soft, healthy bread with texture and all kinds of interesting little seeds to nibble at. The peanut butter was the kind you grind fresh at the store, so there was nothing funky in it - just a thick spread of smooshy peanuts. The honey was just a little crystallized so it was ever so slightly sugary. And to top it all off, I read a super interesting article from my favorite magazine!

Soon it was time to go back to work, and as I went back out to get my bike, I chatted with people standing outside under the shady trees. One of the guys owns this little store next to Temple I've never been in but I'm now super curious about. They sell all kinds of miscellany, and there was a rack outside with $1 shirts on it. I buzzed through the streets and alleys, grinning the whole way at pedestrians, other bicyclists, motorists. I love the allies in Sacramento because they dip down into the basement and parking garage level of the street so you can race up and down the little hills and have an urban adventure! The sunshine was just warm, not sweltering, and I could smell the rich bits of city life as I whizzed past restaurants, dumpsters and cars.

The most incredible thing about this lunch is that I even got back a few minutes early!! A foreshortened lunch hour, yet I didn't feel shortchanged at all.

And before I knew it, I back at my desk, coffee scent hanging off my body like wisteria on trellises. I smelled like a waitress, hon.