They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. It’s funny how hard a time I have identifying smells and how hard they are to objectively describe, even in reference to each other. One can describe the characteristics of a shape or a sound or a sight quite easily, even a feeling, by likening it to other things in the same genre. But smells seem to link us only to past times when we smelled it. And unless we pay very close attention to the flowers and leaves in our surroundings, it can take years for us to really consistently label a smell’s source, even if that nasal imprint has a lasting impact on the mind that lays in wait for the next opportunity to besiege the soul through the nostrils.
Take dogwood, for example. I can’t really tell you what dogwood smells like in a vacuum, but there’s something sickly sweet and I can kind of recognize the mucked mulch of white leaves in a pile from which the overpowering odor wafts. It smells a little like nausea, but mostly like overripe summer days in the south, or probably spring days, days on college campuses thick with malaise and oncoming heat and restlessness. It smells like a frat party unthrown, or overthrown, like backwards baseball caps with frayed bills exposing the little curl of cardboard beneath, like stale beer in a half-upset red Solo cup, like sodium lights overbrightening just one patch of winding wet lane. Like the dog that barked at me tonight as I passed his inviting, door-opened house, soaked and mangy looking, the victim of an involuntary bath in the earlier deluge.
They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. I don’t think I smelled any magnolia tonight, quite, on my sojourn into the Crescent, but they always take me straight back to Beverly Hills and the long languid sidewalks on the hot path to Starbucks from Russ’ old place. When the moving truck came, 18 wheels long, to our first stop in New Orleans, it took out a high branch of magnolia overreaching the street and the leaves and little pineappley pods sat in the gutter and withered in the searing swelter of the ensuing months. The green rubber leaves curl into tough brown husks, but each tree seems to have such abundance of leaf to give, growing strong over the paths while raining down little offerings of itself as summers drift to fall. There had to be a campus or two with these trees sometime, maybe the University of Florida, in high school. I have had the luxury of growing up on so many college campuses in my life, before, during, and after, and arguing at almost all of them.
They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. The pitter-patter of rain comes with a fresh but musty whiff of the water itself, or perhaps the water’s interaction with the fertile wet ground already saturated with a day’s sky runoff. It’s Oregon first, Oregon almost always, muddy Little League rain delays and quick splashy runs from the car to the theater, the bus to school, the beach to the arcade. Haystack rock and the tidepools at first light, fending off puffins and seagulls so we can see the little life clinging to the shallowing inlets against the craggy barnacled surface. But it’s warm, and so Washington DC, or that Baltimore summer, the first experience of an honest-to-God rainstorm that wasn’t unpleasant, it was just humid and showery and almost refreshing. But quickly back to Oregon, for it isn’t that warm and the gray pelting of precipitation against the receding yellow flowers of the scotchbroom.
They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. One can’t really smell one’s own sweat, unless in reflection, or so I guess they also say. I’ve actually always had a rather bad sense of smell, objectively speaking, and especially in comparison to sight and hearing. And I’m not a huge sweater, or wasn’t when younger, so it was only a particular hat or shirt after hours of outdoor basketball, and then only faintly. New Orleans will surely challenge even the most tenaciously dry person, no doubt, but it is mostly the heat of memory itself and the little addition of sprinkly rain dripping from the magnolia leaves that brings me to this thought. I strain to smell my own pores, my own contribution to the milieu, but it is useless. I am reminded only of a particular baseball practice or two, but I really have to force it and that is not what tonight’s about.
And then, bam, jasmine. Jasmine? I could never identify jasmine on its own, the word doesn’t really even mean anything to me and what it is remains beyond a guess. But jasmine just sounds somehow like the smell I’m getting, here in front of someone’s small herb garden where honestly it could be anything. Unlike the vaguely queasy overtones of dogwood and magnolia, this is slightly purer, much more direct and open and pleasant, though a bit on the sharp side. All our descriptions of smells are tales of sound, attributes of feelings, elements of vision. We do our best with what we are given. But what we are given now is a girl, a girl who must’ve adorned her skin with some reasonable facsimile of this at some point, maybe just for a day or two, but they were all gone too soon, weren’t they? Too long and too soon and this is a dangerous garden indeed on a walk alone at night and it is perhaps best to just away to the vague must of the sweat-rain-road.
The road. To car exhaust accented with dogshit. Yes, even car exhaust, it’s true, with its traffic jams and parking lots and urban street scenes. A night in New York City with debaters and the desire to step, just briefly, out into traffic, mostly of frustration, to give them something to honk about already, to make a gesture that one is a person, mad as hell, and all that jazz. Garages, their ramps aswirl, taillights ahead and the radios blaring the boredom of the people who only that moment realized that they could be doing something better with their lives.
And the scraping of the latter, the fetid infestation of so many days just become bad in the little grooves underfoot. No matter how many tilts and turns and bangs, the deep cuts of a sneaker does not relinquish all of its brown totem of dog, no amount of grass-blading or pen-picking or soaking is going to get the job done. There will be a little trail of stench with you the rest of the day, a bit headachey, mostly revolting, never quite acclimating as you turn your own nose and those around you. Less fun even than the infamous bird overhead, if only because that makes for such a better story of the caprice of fate than just misstepping into doo-doo.
They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. We never cook meat at home, but we allowed an exception for guests over Mardi Gras and I awoke one morning to my grandmother’s kitchen, less a little tobacco at least, and actually had to pause when I saw someone sixty years her junior (and alive!) at the stovetop. The sizzle of bacon, more sound than smell, but oh that smell is a time machine swifter than all the rest combined, the political arguments and chewed straws, the ratty nightgowns and cackling, coughing laugh. “You’re joking!” Bounding down the musty carpeted staircase beneath the pirate-hatted Dutch painting my parents would later forget, never once awaking earlier than her at the stove with the little slices of slaughtered pig. And I at the little table where I would one day write my first book, transported, in one of those rickety chairs, wide-eyed with a sense of place and purpose and all of it being ahead of me.
And the smell so profoundly unleashed in a riveting performance of Our Town, back in New York City, and I wept openly with the drama of the reveal of what is always the best scene, but done now so over the top, so boldly and colorfully, and even with smell! “They don’t understand, do they?” And I wept on a shoulder that would be gone by summer’s end. “Oh, Earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”
They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory. Don’t spite my face, just let me forget.