Sunday, January 3, 2010

What's That Smell?

Sometimes I'll be going about my business when an aroma will hit my nostrils and immediately get my attention. (Yes you could make some "big nose" joke here, but you're better than that.) There are certain smells that have the ability to transport me back in time to the days when my back didn't ache, my eyes were like an eagle's, and I had a full head of wavy hair. (Again, resist the cheap jokes please.) The human mind links our five senses to things or events associated with past experiences, and when that sense is stimulated, these things or events rush into our consciousness. For me, I think smells are a powerful way of experiencing the world.

As I wrote in an earlier blog, I was close to adulthood before it dawned on me that not everyone awoke to the smell of frying meatballs on Sunday mornings. To this day that wonderful smell transports me back to my bed on Somers Street, to a time when I could sleep past 6am. Being Italian, our family ate macaroni (not pasta) on Sundays, complete with delicious meatballs, sausage and braccioles. This is simply something Italians did as if it were the eleventh commandment; we had no choice. My mother would start frying the meatballs probably around 9am, and their fragrance would permeate the house. After frying, they went into the simmering gravy (not sauce) and took on a new tomato-cloaked, mouth-watering aroma that promised good eating by around 3pm. It's one of my strongest memories.

In the days before antibiotics, when we got sick, my mother would give us cherry-flavored cough syrup, slather our chests with an ointment called Musterole and put us to bed. This stuff was better than Penicillin. It had a unique smell like a cross between camphor, mustard and menthol, and was supposed to help clear congestion in the chest. We had a "fifties" themed Christmas a few years ago, and my daughter Laura actually presented me with a couple of jars of this stuff, probably smuggled in from some Mexican clinic. I took a whiff of it as I wrote this column, and I expect my sinuses will be clear until the Fourth of July.

They don't use it as much as they used to at Catholic mass, but the smell of burning incense is another time travel ticket for me. I was (and still am) fascinated by the Catholic ritual of high mass. In the days when the church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Brooklyn was a thriving parish, high mass was something really special. An outsider couldn't imagine more pomp and circumstance at St. Peter's in Rome. The altar was crowded with elaborately robed priests and altar boys, each with his own special role in celebrating the mass. I loved when the priest burned incense in a gold colored vessel on a chain called a "censer", and walked around the perimeter of the big altar, rocking the censer in three pendulum swings toward each section of the congregation until the rich, exotic smell filled the church. Neat.

As we got off the Brighton Train at the Coney Island stop, and walked down the stairs to the street, the smell hit you...the beach. It's beyond my ability to adequately describe this heady aroma, but if you like going to the seashore, you probably know what I'm talking about. Part salt, part sand and part ocean, the smell is carried on soft summer breezes and lures you down to the sea like the Sirens' song in Greek mythology lured smitten sailors to their death on the rocks. There was a Seinfeld episode where Kramer had the idea to sell a fragrance called "The Beach" to Calvin Klein. If they could put it in a bottle, I'd buy it.

Smell associations are involuntary but inescapable; no matter what you're doing when the smell hits you, your brain takes control of your thought process and makes the connection that takes you swiftly back in time. The smells are not always pleasant, like the dentist's office, but the associations are just as strong. Sometimes the smell will never be experienced in modern times, for example, I'm thankful there aren't many chicken markets around today. So just let your nose take you back (you can't help it you know) and smile or cringe as the case may be. Mmmm, is that meatballs I smell??

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