Inhaling the city

Cherishing the scents of Sacramento

It was springtime in Massachusetts, and I was in kindergarten. We lived in Brookline, a suburb of Boston where there were many small rental houses, some with unkempt yards and some with no yards at all. My older sister was in charge of walking me about 10 blocks to school in the morning. We’d take the same path every time, and she held my hand on the way there. We passed by Zeke and Zeba’s house—the one with the crooked driveway and huge brown fence. We’d go by the sick-looking dog. And then we’d pass the house where the bearded guy lived; he was friendly, saying hello to me, always with a green bottle of beer in his hand, even in the morning. His wife was angry, and whenever I passed by she’d get a sour look on her face and go inside.

Next to their house was a place I remember the most. It was a brown house, nondescript, really: It had dark-brown trim, and the window shades were always drawn shut. I never saw anyone come out, and I would have sworn the house was vacant had it not been for their brilliantly decorated front yard; it had a garden of small, wild plants, and hundreds of tulips. The flowers were yellow, red and orange, and they were visually the most stunning things about our neighborhood. There wasn’t much flair in suburban Massachusetts, so when I saw a patch of tulips, each with a thick green stem and colorful head reaching up toward the sun, I had to stop. When I looked at them I felt big, like I was watching another world from above. For some reason I had an overwhelming urge to sniff each flower starting from the left side, going all the way to the right. So I did. Hundreds of them. My sister was nice about it, mostly. I’d sniff a flower, then wiggle my nose around a bit, then sniff another one. She held my hand until she probably felt the nagging tingle of responsibility, ringing in her head like a rusty bell.

“We’re late for school,” she’d say, squirming around, still holding my hand.

It didn’t matter to me how late we were to class. I hated Mrs. Clark, and school was nothing compared to flowers. After all, they each smelled different; every one with a unique personality. The red one on the middle-left was joyful, because he smelled sweet and loud. The yellow, angry one to the right made me sneeze with his bitter, poisonous stench.

After 10 minutes, my sister would let go of my hand, finger by finger. Then she would leave me there. She didn’t yell, she just went to school. And when she did, I wouldn’t leave until each flower was properly sniffed. It wasn’t a good recipe for academic success. But it did teach me other things.

For the next eight years, I would become very sensitive to smell. Every place I went I made sure to inhale the memory. On my last day in Boston, before we moved to California, I stood in the middle of my street and took a huge breath of air through my nose. What I registered was an overwhelming smell that I would recognize as sweet, slightly citrusy, rich and chestnutty.

To this day, in Sacramento, the wind will blow a certain way and I’ll catch a whiff of that exact scent. It’ll transport me right back to childhood on the East Coast, my sister holding my little hand with that impatient look in her eye.

And I’ve smelled it recently, right on my block on 17th and Q streets in Midtown, usually in the springtime. It’s a combination of California sycamore trees, grass, specks of sprinkler water hitting the pavement, breeze and a bit of luck. But it’s definitely that same sweet, chestnut smell. And while it’s not always available, the wind has a way of blowing it in just at the right times.

But I’ve also noticed that Sacramento also has a smell unto its own. Whenever I travel out of town, I begin to miss it. I always know what it is, but I can never fully describe it. My goal now is to figure it out and document it.

So, from my apartment, I head down the block to 23rd and K streets, where there’s a mural project in the works; it’s an acrylic painting by Jeff Musser that depicts a tattooed girl praying. I stand right by the painting and breathe in deeply. The first inhalation registers an intense stench of urine, which isn’t surprising, considering an alley wall in the middle of dozens of bars pretty much doubles as a urinal on the weekends. But when I close my eyes, taking another deep breath, I can smell a thick, chalky odor that has the light sweetness of a lemon behind it. A slight breeze brings in a rusted, metallic tone that you might get when digging in an old toolbox. But it’s the earthy, lemon scent that interests me, because it’s the most recognizable. It reminds me a bit of my last day in Boston.

Heading over to Broadway, I settle in the parking lot of Willie’s Burgers. Of course, I expect to smell french fries, chili and smoke, which I do—but I’m looking for the scents underneath all that. When I breathe, there’s a definite smell of the sun hitting the pavement, which is also expected; it’s both light and heavy, like somebody smacking a tin pan hard with a wooden spoon. The smell of gasoline and exhaust is powerful, but there’s also a weightless smell—like when detergent companies try to encapsulate “light” into a fragrance. It’s slightly sweet, and there’s just the tiniest bit of citrus. In fact, it’s the same lemonlike smell I’ve smelled in front of my apartment, and also by the mural in Midtown.

I’m beginning to think that lightness, sweetness and citrus are a major part of my olfactory association with Sacramento. Pleased, I take this information to Oak Park, right past the “Welcome to Oak Park” sign at around 32nd and Broadway. I get out of my car, and right as I step out I’m overwhelmed by how different this area smells compared to the stretch of Broadway I was at only minutes ago. It reminds me instantly of a picnic, being outdoors under the shade of trees. It’s thick, with an oaky, firelike aroma that’s heavily rooted in dirt, and in the earth. And, of course, when I close my eyes, there’s a sharp, sweet cutting smell of lemon.

It’s exciting to think that whatever the citrus smell is—whether it solely exists in my mind or whether it’s actually some kind of atomic makeup of our region’s atmosphere—is contributing to my recognition of Sacramento.

So, as a challenge, I go to a place that I think couldn’t possibly smell natural. I head to an area in south Sacramento over by Bobby T’s, where I used to get my haircut. It’s a portion of city that’s mostly strip malls and concrete; in the summer you can watch wisps of heat curling up from the pavement. I stop in a parking lot by Lindale Drive and Florin Road and get out. There’s an Indian restaurant and a liquor store nearby, and I stand in the center of the lot and breathe deeply. Initially, there’s a smell of heat and pavement, then of chalk and smoke, fried food and laundry detergent, and then an electric smell of burnt water, then a breeze comes in and blows something sweet toward me. And it’s there: the sweetness, the fresh citrus, like your first breath of air after a hard night in jail.

There’s no science to my findings at all. In fact, it makes me feel a little crazy even to talk about them—and I’m sure a doctor of any kind would send me to therapy upon reading this.

But still, here I am, standing right in the garden at McKinley Park, closing my eyes, sure that everything I smell will send me back to my childhood. And I’m right: The roses, the grass, the evergreen trees and the faint breeze lift me up gently and set me right back down into the softness of youth.

It’s the evening, and I’m standing in the middle of the park, watching the garden with my eyes fully closed. My sister let go of my hand 27 years ago, but I can still see her holding onto my last finger with that impatient look in her eyes. She lets go to leave me with my tulips.

She lives in Sacramento now—very close to me, actually. But she doesn’t talk to the family much. We’re not kids anymore. The last time I saw her, she had wine-purple teeth. Her eyes darted around and she looked unhealthy and nervous. Things are different now, but the smells are still there—that light scent is inherent to our city, and probably to our world. I’d like to tell her about that, but I’m not sure at this point that she’d even want to hear it. From what I’ve gathered, though, the smell of the world isn’t going anywhere soon. And just knowing that, I guess, is comforting.

Standing in the garden—joggers running by, people walking their dogs—my eyes are squeezed shut. My sister can’t be far away now—somewhere in Midtown, probably. I don’t even want to imagine what she’s doing. I breathe in and get a chestnut scent, and there’s an unmistakable sweetness, like when you squeeze a lemon into a glass jar.

I stand among the roses, eyes clenched, and it looks so beautiful, so clear, I’m afraid to breathe out again.