I’m happy here, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes I’m reminded of odd bits and pieces that are very New York and very much of the time living there. These have a tendency to float into my consciousness when I’m doing nothing after a flurry of activity or a period of stress.
Of course, there are the places I lived (an old rope factory in Carroll Gardens and before that a walk-up nearby). But mostly there are the walks, the food; the view out of the F train window riding out of the tunnel from Carroll Street to Smith & 9th. And the smells of course.
Back when I lived in that part of Brooklyn my father had moved from Michigan to Park Slope after my mother died. We’re talking almost 30 years ago. I generally saw him once a week for dinner, and mostly we met in Park Slope. That meant, unless I was coming from work, either the F train to 7th Avenue in Park Slope or walking up Union Street from home to his place on a warm spring or summer evening. There was a bus on Union Street back then – it disappeared though. And back then it wasn’t the most salubrious walk — that area was still a bit dicey — but there was something really compelling about doing it.
In that part of Brooklyn to get to PS you could walk over the Gowanus Canal which at that time stank of oil and was full of all kinds of shit (shopping carts, vague rubbish, sometimes an animal body – it’s since been cleaned up). My father liked to talk about how decades ago barges loaded with stuff sailed up the canal to offload for the small industrials located around the waterway. See, he’d lived in Brooklyn back then.
At the bottom of Union Street, near my apartment, there was a pink-apricot mimosa tree. It remains one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen or smelled. There were other mimosa in the neighbourhood, but I could reach the lower branches on this. Those feathery flowers and that light, sweet fragrance that epitomised summer.
The smells from the Italian delis – crusty bread, meat, cheese, brine for olives. One of the things my son continues to crave from those sorts of places is smoked mozzarella. Not to be found anywhere here. He’d get so excited when we’d be able to buy these. Crusty bread and tearing off bits of cheese. Food nirvana, according to him. But that smoky cheese smell …
Then, there were the Italian bakeries on Smith and Court Streets. The smell of butter cookies piled on to plates, wrapped in transparent coloured cellophane, and tied with ribbons for Christmas. Butter, vanilla and sugar wafting into the cold air. But my favourite smell was cannolis. Crisp pastry smell (like my Diptyque biscuit candle), sugar, cream, ricotta and candied bits – in a white card box tied with twine. Riding on my lap on the Union Street bus to Park Slope for us to eat after going out for a meal (“What should it be this week? Thai, burgers, pizza? No, I want to try the new Mexican place on 7th Avenue.”).
What perfume did I wear back then? Definitely l’Artisan Mure et Musc for a long time.
Is there any place you no longer live that offers these kinds of entrenched but fleeting memories? When they enter your consciousness they cause you to slow down, your heart rate and breathing to slow? But they don’t stick — and I wonder if they aren’t meant to.