In a recent article, Every Time I Talk to You, I Hear Sirens, we discussed how sounds define your environment. Today, using the same places described in the previous article, I hope we can investigate if smell is even more strongly related to place and memory than sound.

Is smell more valuable than hearing?

Washington, D.C. – Eastern Market:
We lived near the Eastern Market Metro station. There was a large, indoor, sort of farmer’s market nearby – that gave the train station its name — we passed through every day. The food was always fresh. The smell of raisin scones embedded in your clothes was a warm and welcome scent that perfumed you throughout the work day and reminded you that, no matter what happened, your scones always loved you.

New York City — Columbia University:
When we were living in Morningside Heights near Columbia, The City had a garbage strike. When an urban core has to deal with a garbage strike in the dead of summer things quickly begin to rot on the sidewalk. And in the streets. And in your mouth. And there is no harbor from the stench of six foot mounds of black garbage bags that line every sidewalk and street corner. Even if you breathe through your mouth you still smell the putrid sting of vomit that bleeds into every crevice and populates every pore.

New York City — Cornelia Street:
When we moved down to Greenwich Village from Morningside Heights, a new Indian restaurant opened across the street the same day we landed in our apartment. The smell of cooked vegetables and spices crawled up our noses and hooked us down a flight of stairs and into the restaurant twice a day! We spent a lot of money in that delightful restaurant but it was worth every bite and smell.

New York City — Alphabet City:
Alphabet City is the area in the East Village between Avenues A, B and C and bounded on the other ends between 10th Street and 14th Street. Alphabet City has a reputation for being folksy and artsy and poor and devastatingly bohemian and so the smell of marijuana hung in the air like a historic blue cloud calling everyone back to the heyday of the 1960’s. You were always slightly high — by choice or not — just by inhaling the Alphabet City air.

New York City — The Bronx:
Remembering life in the North Bronx is to live in again in the sweet smell of cut grass. Green — anything green and alive — is hard to come by in your everyday life in New York City so having an actual lawn and forest surrounding you brought back cool comfort and the scents of a childhood spent knee-deep in haystacks and floating among wisps of cotton.

Jersey City — The Heights:
When the World Trade Center fell, the odor of burning bodies stained the air for weeks while the rubble simmered across the Hudson River. Roasting flesh and charring bones is a smell you can never quite force yourself to forget even when the dead are circled in cut flowers and lowered into fresh dirt.

19 Comments

  1. I need to start thinking about my sense of smell since I can’t really remember anything remarkable for the last 10 years or so.
    Of course, I smoked cigarettes during that time, so I probably dulled my sense of smell so much that it will take a while for it to come back. Newport 100s overpowered my olfactory senses with their strong menthol flavor.
    Since I’ve been smoke free for a while — I’m starting to notice various smells again. (If you want to quit, get your Dr. to give you a script for an anti-depressant — it really works wonders!)
    Lately, I’ve been noticing the smell of barbeque steaks and chicken as I walk around our local park’s track. There’s a certain BBQ place that specialized in ribs near our favorite grocery store that always smells so inviting.
    As I regain more of my sense of smell, I’ll have to start taking in the scenery, not just with my eyes, but with all of my senses.

  2. Hi Chris!
    I knew smoking killed taste buds — that’s why many smokers I know use a lot of salt — but I didn’t think smoking would also negate the nose! I guess that makes sense since most “tastes” are actually “smells,” right?
    I’m glad to hear you’re walking — I do a 30-minute power walk every day around the neighborhood — just to keep everything flowing in a good way. I love walking in the winter after a snowfall. I have the world to myself as everyone else huddles inside!
    Our neighborhood in Jersey City is big on BBQ. You can smell the stuff cooking everywhere — and it is sometimes hard to accept that familiar BBQ smell with the burned-into-memory smells of 9/11.

  3. I can’t even image what it would smell like in NYC right after the WTC attack.
    I want to see Oliver Stone’s WTC movie, but when I was watching the trailer, I could feel emotions from the day coming back. And, my experience was thousands of miles away from Ground Zero.
    I can’t imagine having that day associated with a common smell that could readily bring it back to mind.

  4. Hi Chris —
    I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch an entertainment re-enactment of 9/11 or even a 9/11 documentary in my lifetime. It would be too painful to relive it all over again and nothing can really compare with “being there” when it happened in real time anyway.

  5. I’ve heard a lot of people say that also.
    I think the film will be important for 10 or 20 years from now when a new generation grows up that didn’t ever see the Towers.
    I always felt a special connection to the World Trade Center because from the top of The Tourne in Denville, NJ, I could see the two towers in the distance. When I was a kid, we’d ride our bikes to the park and hike to the top of the hill to see New York City.
    I also remember riding with my parents in the early 1980s and seeing the sun from the west reflecting off of the buildings are we drove near the Jersey City Resevoir in Parsippany.

  6. Hi Chris —
    You’re right these 9/11 projects will serve as documentary evidence for future generations, though I’m certain the movie studios won’t enjoy hearing that now!
    😀
    This is my favorite image of the towers because it shows their relationship to the neighborhoods beneath them:
    http://boles.com/memory.html
    That image was taken less than a month before the towers fell.
    I agree with Donald Trump that the towers should be rebuilt. They might not be used as office space and the top half the buildings would likely never be inhabited again out of fear for a second falling, but at least we’d have our icons back.

  7. Smell is one of my stronger senses – I can go back to moments in time by recalling the smell. The most evocative would be baby powder, the face powder my grandmother wore, the smell of a certain pub in Sheffield where I met a certain man.
    In spite of being a smoker I am still very sensitive to smell and pick smells up much faster than the rest of my tribe. ( Always a problem when the cat or the dog has had an accident – because I KNOW it and then of course I despatch soemone else to find it and sort.)

  8. Nicola —
    Yes, I agree memory through smell is powerful. I am taken back in some of the older buildings here in Jersey City to my childhood and visiting my grandfather’s pharmacy.
    The buildings must have been built around 1900 or so and the smell is musty, woody and a kind of burned tin — it’s a musky mixture that, when it hits my nose, I wonder where I am for just a second.
    It’s freaky and I’ve never experienced that smell transportation anywhere else outside of Nebraska — except for here in Jersey City.
    Sometimes we get plugged up due to allergies and we take a pill to clear our noses and we can then — for about an hour after we take the pill — smell everything the cat does… eating, grooming, litter box business… sometimes it’s best NOT to take a pill!
    😀

  9. Ok, here I am…with all my five Senses… 😀
    At my very first encounter, Wisconsin smelt different! The most significant reason being “maple trees” – I never saw them rather smelt them before!
    It smelt different when it rained…there was that rich earthy smell though…but it’s definitely was different!
    It smelt different when I entered any food joint…
    Even the books smelt different… (I know you guys are laughing…!!!)

  10. I will try… 😀
    Maple has a honeybee-hive type smell which is pretty distinct –
    Common natural scents are mostly ‘sandalwood’ and various flowers like: Gardenia, Jasmine, a type of chamomile…
    You get different flowers in different season…
    I don’t remember any natural smell of a big city, it’s all mixed…petrolium, perfume, ciggerettes…
    I had a habit of smelling new books when I was little… 😀
    Strangely enough, I could differentiate the smell of a text book and a story book – probably it was the smell of ink!

  11. I’m a day late but oh well lol. I also am a smoker. But I thought I’d share a little story with you. About a month or two back, my partner and I went hiking up to a lookout point at one of our favourite provincial parks in the area, which just happens to be halfway up a mountain lol.
    We’d been before and seen the Construction crew but never thought anything of it. We knew the park was clearing up in time for the summer season. As we hiked, I got such a strong whiff of Coconut suntan lotion. It was as though someone was standing right beside me wearing the stuff. I stopped dead and began to breathe deeply, and my partner actually stopped to ask what was wrong.
    He too could smell coconut suntan lotion, but nowhere near as strong as I could. It was a weird feeling but also a little freaky. We carried on along our way and the smell faded. But as we made our way back, I could smell it again, not quite as clearly as before, but still there nontheless. My partner couldn’t smell it at all. When we got back down to the parking lot, we stopped to talk to one of the rangers, and I told him about the experience. He said it was very strange, but the Construction Crew had been cutting Pine trees down, (to make way for the new mogul ski run thats going to be used for the 2010 Winter Olympics here in Vancouver) and apparently, since they’d started cutting the trees down, a lot of people had said the same thing. That in the particular area where went to, people had said they could smell coconut suntan lotion, or “something with coconut in.
    I find this very strange and freaky. Has anyone ever known Pine Trees to smell like Coconut before?”

  12. It is amazing how smells can bring back memories from long ago. A few years ago, I was riding public transportation and the woman sitting next to me smelled like my adored first grade teacher (perfume). The smell of Old Spice or Worcestershire sauce brings back memories of my grandpa who died when I was a teenager.
    I don’t know if it is true since they changed the (US) money, but I used to be able to tell 10s from 20s just by the smell. I worked for a bank. The smell was very distinct for each.

  13. Antoinette!
    Yes! Smell is sneaky! It creeps up on you and then floods you with familiar but sometimes unrecognizable memories.
    Okay, now you have to go more into detail about how 10s smell different than 20s. What is the difference? Describe the smell of each to us, please!

  14. It can be difficult to describe a smell from the past – I don’t have a sample here to try to describe. The 10s smelled very bitter and pungent. Not at all pleasant.
    I have the “revised” money in my wallet now and I don’t think they smell different from each other – then again, they aren’t fresh either.

  15. I’m not sure what’s more disturbing/intruiging, Antoinette. The fact that you smell your money or the fact that you can identify currency based upon the smell.
    BUT… What if the money’s been laundered(as in stolen)? Does it still smell like a 10 or does it smell cleaner?
    ;P Could not resist a shot at “clean humor!” haha