Alexis Madrigal writes at The Atlantic about the pleasant smells of 1948 San Francisco, as reported in a reading passage from a school textbook,and how oddly out of place one of them seems today:
Just a minute ago Rick Prelinger tweeted a page from a 1948 school textbook that includes a list of pleasant things to smell in the city. They include:
- "The beautiful flowers in Golden Gate Park"
- "The cooked lobster and crabs and shrimp along Fisherman's wharf"
- "The coffee roasting in factories near the Ferry Building"
- "Delicious chocolate" from "the factories near Aquatic Park"
- "Vegetables in our great wholesale district"
- "The salt of ocean spray" and "The clean, washed air of the Pacific Ocean"
- "Oil from ships along the piers by the Embarcadero"
Hmmm... Which one of these does not belong?
At least that was my thought on first inspection. But then I started to think about the way these smells are framed. Humans are responsible for nearly all of them. It's not just chocolate it's chocolate from a set of factories; it's not just crabs, but cooked crabs. It's not just oil, but the oil that powers ships that bring goods to the city and leave with its salable cargo. These students are not smelling the California landscape so much as the goodness of humanity's own creations from fuel to farmed vegetables.
He's talking about the oil because nowadays, post-environmental movement, people think of oil as something that has less of an "aroma" than of a "stench."
Smells can play tricks on your memory. For example:
I am a lifelong nonsmoker.
When I was in college in the mid-1990s I hated the smell of cigarettes: hated the way my clothes would reek the morning after a night out at the bars, hated it when smoke wafted over to my table from the smoking section of a restaurant, would cross the street to avoid a cloud of smoke.
Now it's 2012 and (at least where I live) smoking is banned in bars and restaurants and almost every public place I go. I go days, maybe weeks, on end without ever smelling cigarette smoke.
But now, if I happen to be out and about, and I catch a whiff of someone's cigarette smoke, it now smells good to me. It reminds me of being young and in college and hanging out in bars with friends. It's funny, because when I was young and in college and hanging out in bars, I hated the smell. But now it's nostalgia.
I also derive a whiff of pleasure from diesel exhaust, which reminds me of Paris.
I wonder if someday I will feel nostalgic about the smells that surround me these days. Burned grilled cheese sandwiches, or the faint scent of urine, or the appalling perfume they put in baby wipes -- will they all remind me of my young-motherhood, and be forgiven?