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.”

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