Saturday, June 14, 2008

Follow Your Nose

This outdoor flower stand was photographed
just last month in Berkeley, and it does not have the magic
nor the scents of the San Francisco ones described below.
Pretty though!

The Sunday Scribblings prompt is "guide."

And what better guide than your nose? Would it lead you to fresh-baked bread? To fresh-brewed coffee? Would it warn you to avoid noxious fumes?

By the time children start to kindergarten most have words to describe much of what their eyes perceive. They know the names of basic colors. They can tell you that someone is short or tall. They know the names of circles and squares, and, due to the good fortune of having binocular vision, whether an object is near or far.

They have other senses as acute as sight. But who among them has adequate vocabulary to describe odors? (“Yucky” and “nice” come to mind!) Yet my childhood is evoked most clearly by the memory of the scents that filled that long-ago world.

Come on a journey with me. (And here you may consider me the co-guide with Nose). It is eighty-two or more years ago, and I am less than five years old, too young for kindergarten, my brother not yet born. Mother and I are on the way from our little brown-shingled Berkeley house to “the City”--San Francisco.

The first part of the trip is a few blocks on foot to the electric train that will take us to the ferry dock in Oakland. The air is cool, as befits a summer day near the bay. I smell a newly mown lawn as we walk past, then the tickly, dry smell of wild oats in vacant lots.

The electric train is not a mere streetcar with a spindly trolley. I must be lifted up the high steps. The interior has a slightly burnt smell of electric motor and also the sweetish scent of the seat upholstery, which, as a child, I thought to be woven of flattened straw with a slick coat of shellac.

The train lurches on through the aromas of the Palmolive-Peet soap factory (pungent, yet suggestive of coconut) and the Sherwin-Williams paint factory, and comes finally to a screeching stop in the cavernous ferry depot. Here are steam engines too, with the hot smell of mingled steam and coal smoke. As we join the throng of commuters surging onto the ferry, the fresh cool air on the deck carries the salty, slightly fishy scent of water lapping at creosoted piers.

We climb the stairs to the passenger lounge. The room smells of coffee and tobacco and something unidentifiably mechanical. We watch the screaming gulls that follow the boat and skim the water for the occasional treats someone throws to them.

The interior of the ferry building in San Francisco is large and dark and fascinating to me, mostly because of the little movie screen, high on a wall, showing cartoons of Felix the Cat. It is the first movie I have ever seen. But it is intended to amuse those waiting to embark. We exit on the city side of the ferry building at the foot of Market Street.

The bay smells are drowned out by smells of this particular city: coffee roasting, fish frying, automobile exhaust, chocolate and the wonderful fragrance of flowers, a fragrance that waxes and wanes as we approach and pass the many flower stands on street corners.

Did flowers have more fragrance then? Or has my sense of smell deteriorated? Maybe it’s just that nowadays most flower stands or florist shops don’t display heavily scented flowers such as the shallow trays of gardenia corsages. (Years later, on trips to The City with other Stanford coeds, we would each treat ourselves to a gardenia, pin it on, and feel glamorous.)

My guided tour is over; other years would create memories of San Francisco that too are rife with scent-sory input. Of Chinatown, incense and straw in the shops, ginger and garlic wafting from restaurants. Of North Beach, “Little Italy”, odors of cheese and salami, garlic and olives at the Veneto restaurant where my father took me for a seven-course dinner (twenty-five cents!). San Francisco sourdough bread baking. Crab pots at Fishermans’ Wharf. Roses beside a steep stairway zigzagging up an even steeper hill where one could again smell the ocean.

Notice that my descriptions of scent have very few sensory adjectives--“sweet”, “pungent”, etc.--but must depend on the reader’s own memory of, say, a rose.

Still, for a little while, as I took you on my journey, I was a little girl again, sensing a world that would go on forever and forever.

26 comments:

SmallWorld Reads said...

Brilliant post. What a unique take on the prompt.

Tammy said...

Granny, you have brought back so many wonderful memories of San Francisco. Like music, your nose can take you back in time. My first smell memories were of school paste and the little milk cartons. ;)

Thank you for the beautifully remembered journey!

Mibsy said...

Granny, I just love your blog and want you to know I admire you! I'd love to write about my mother's childhood in this way, and maybe someday I will. Thanks for the inspiration.
:o)

Linda - Nickers and Ink said...

I love the word pictures you paint. You have a gift.


Blessings,
Linda

IN MY FATHER’S FIELD, at Nickers and Ink

Onion said...

Thanks for the interesting journey...

keith hillman said...

Another lovely read and such a
great use of the prompt. I so enjoy my weekly visit to your blog.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

You're right. The nose is a great guide. And your memories, as always, are vivid and concrete.

anno said...

What a wonderful scent-ual tour! Welcome back!

gautami tripathy said...

So very differet post! A pleasure to read it.

guiding lights?

Tammie Lee said...

wonderful that you thought of nose as a guide, for it surely is! I loved wandering into your past, thank you for the journey!

Oh I miss the smell of gardenia

Divinedesign said...

Thank-you for reminding me of a great guide!
Very timely too, as I am going to San Francisco mid-July!

Steve said...

a wonderful read.

Greyscale Territory said...

What a gorgeous journey this is. I believe you are right. As I read this, I recall scents from my childhood. I used to walk past several flower shops quite regularly. You did not need the sign to tell you. The flower scents always drifted around. I remember gardenias being there.

In recent years, I pass flower shops and even enter them. Rarely are there any scents. Must be the freezing done to keep peak freshness.

GreenishLady said...

This was wonderful - and has made me all the more excited at the thought of visiting San Francisco again soon. I'll be looking, listening and sniffing everywhere I go! I do think flowers grown for sale now have less scent than in the past. Carnations that don't smell of clove!

Thanks for this marvellous journey.

anthonynorth said...

Excellently put! I'd argue, though, that our inability to give 'smell' the importance it deserves is a problem of language. The poets haven't described it enough.

murat11 said...

A lovely twist on this prompt. Thank you for taking us all on this journey.

Jon said...

Beautifully written.
Really enjoyed your post.

Maggie May said...

Oh I LOVE to do this & go down memory lane! I am sure that roses smelt much stronger in my younger days. Or is your theory right about us losing some of our ability to pick up fragrances? I guess you may well be right.
Smells can take you back to childhood quicker than any other sense, I think! Some things I can't find the words to describe. But I would immediately recognize the smell. Like hot, soapy, steamy washing coming out of a boiler.

teabird said...

Flowers and the sea - suddenly that sounds like a perfect scent!
Wonderful post. Just wonderful.

SandyCarlson said...

True. Oh so true. Your post reminds me of the euphemism about following your nose--trust your instincts. Perhaps we need to be put back in tune!
Writing in Faith: Poems

Inland Empire Girl said...

I loved taking this journey with you. I also remembered some of these smells of San Francisco.

Kamsin said...

I have a friend who never opens a book or magazine without smelling it first and since knowing him I've learnt to appreciate the way books smell! Anyway, lovely evocative post!
For a long time I've suffered with allergies and often haven't been able to smell much, but thankfully this year I'm relatively free of them (thanks to living far from any trees or forest) and am learning to appreciate the smell of flowers and the distinctive smell of my tatami (straw mat) floors.

Honey And Papa said...

You brought back memories of a later era. Driving to San Francisco we got into the station wagon that smelled of plastic seat covers and exhaust. Before we got to the Bay Bridge we drove by the smell of rot at the mud flats. I knew we were approaching San Francisco by the smell of coffee roasting. It was time to look for the clocks on towers.

Memories of smells can last longer than actual events. I remember the smell of Brazil, often without the memory of the event.

Mary J. said...

I love the way smells evoke memories, too. I wonder if animals associate smell with memory, with emotions attached.

alister said...

Yes, brilliant the descriptions that did the job, and no! I didn’t even notice until you mentioned it. Awesome wordsmithing! :-D
missalister

Shyam said...

I loved this verbal painting...