Once upon a time?

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.

  • Alityke says:

    Like you my turn back time scent is food shop based. Guest’s was a grocers with a cafe upstairs in a Victorian Arcade in my hometown in Yorkshire in the 60s.
    They roasted & ground coffee, smoked bacon flits, baked bread, sold hand cut cheeses from huge wheels, roast meats & Polish charcuterie was freshly sliced. There was a separate counter for cakes, tarts, buns & biscuits.
    The dark oak floor, brass fitting & Victorian mirrors were highly polished. The smell was unique with the coffee brewing upstairs & as a small child it was mesmerising.
    Many years later I walked into Groocock’s, what was now called a deli in a suburb of a big northern city & whoosh…. I was back in Guest’s & a tiny girl again. The smokehouse, the roasting coffee beans, the cheese, bacon, garlicky meats & beeswax polish.
    Sadly neither emporia exist now, Guest’s is an Irish bar, Groocock’s has changed function many times.
    That smell now exists only in my memory.
    It did help seal the deal when I decided my DH was forever though. When I asked his favourite smell & he said Groocock’s! I think we’re the only 2 people in the world who hold that smell so dear

    • cinnamon says:

      That wonderful. Particularly the story about your DH. I’ve not been north of Birmingham in England. Scotland, yes, but need to visit Yorkshire one day.

      • Alityke says:

        York is a must. The North Yorkshire coast can be beautiful. Stay in Whitby see the Abbey, the church, eat Fortunes kippers then walk the Cleveland Way northwards. Fab beaches, coves, nooks & crannies. The moors, hills & Pennine Way are very Brontë sisters.
        Its rarely warm though!

  • Musette says:

    this is such an elegant post, Cinnamon – and I absolutely adore scent/location memories though, as you say, they are fleeting.
    One of my favorites is connected to Liz Zorn/Soihvole’s ‘Violets & Rainwater’ – back in the Jurassic Era there was a bistro on E. 65th Street and I would often go there after the end of a shoot day (I often had productions in NYC)… there was one of those ubiquitous florists a few doors down and in Spring they always had pots of violets… in the cool/warm/wet breeze the smell of those violets….


    • cinnamon says:

      Elegant … well, thank you. Love the smell of florists — that damp green floral odour. Oh my, the smells of NYC sitting outside a restaurant or cafe on a warm evening. Even the bad smells were good.

  • Dina C. says:

    As a military family growing up we lived in six different places. We had one of those silk trees in our backyard in Texas . They do smell wonderful. Turkey had a lot of memorable smells, particularly the ubiquitous lemon cologne that everyone used.

  • ElizaC says:

    The smell of Winter 1972 by CB I Hate Perfume triggered a strong memory from my childhood in Denver. The smell of slushy snow, run over by cars all day, when it starts to refreeze as the sun goes down. Perfume is an amazing thing some times!

  • March says:

    … no smoked mozzarella? I think that would kill me, I love smoked mozzarella! New York in general smells like nowhere else to me, I even love it in terrible humid 100F summer. It’s a wonderful, heady bouquet of humanity. Paris has its own smell I can conjure up. The closest I have to answering your question is visiting the in-laws for years on the Florida coast at Christmas and Easter, which was so exotic to me at the time, and a welcome respite from the cold. Lots of blooming jasmine, that constant salty breeze, cut grass, a saltwater swimming pool. I adored that collection of smells which I can still call forth from memory.

    • March says:

      Oh! And, Mure et Musc is very much a NYC scent association for me, I bought my bottle at L’Artisan! It seemed to work so well there — not too much, even in the heat.

    • cinnamon says:

      Can’t find it here. I’d even considered bringing it back with us but it would have been confiscated. Jasmine grows here — I guess because it’s reasonably temperate and very humid. I recall the first time I smelled frangipane on some Caribbean island during a meh trip with ex-husband (ie, when he wasn’t ex). Smell of salt water in air is wonderful.

  • Portia says:

    WOW Cinnamon,
    Lucky you.
    I don’t seem to have the same kinds of olfactory memories tied to places. Sure there were smells and scents on the air but not in such a sophisticated or urban list. Well, maybe. I’ll need to ponder.
    Portia xx

    • cinnamon says:

      I think if I focused hard enough I could come up with olfactory memories for most places I’ve visited. Maybe not suburban Michigan, where my parents lived for a while, but certainly most others.

      • Portia says:

        So, you’re right.
        I do but they are more images I remember and then the scent attached. Our pool, different flowers, orange tree, local shops including bakery, roast chicken and burger joint, hairdresser, Chinese and Italian restaurants. The parkland near our home, an old quarry and creek running through. Living in different parts of London in the 1990s. Aunts houses, holiday houses, city shops, so bloody much. Yeah, I have a lot more than I thought. It’s been fun spending a day remembering these things because of your post. An avalanche of fragrant snapshots. Thanks Cinnamon.
        Portia xx