He ate Limburger cheese and smoked fat cigars. When Bruno tossed off his Hush Puppies, ready to pass out on the Lazy Boy, it wasn’t long before the room smelled like boiled cabbage. If he took off his socks, you could see fungus scaling his feet. Close up, his sweat smelled like semen. Not long ago, near Strawberry Fields in Central Park, I was assaulted with the memory of my father sweating shoeless in the recliner. I was passing under two flowering Bradford pears, whose blossoms smelled like dead fish. (To make sure I was right, I looked it up in The Hidden Life of Trees). We called it the Thursday Night Stench because the rest of the week, day and night, he wasn’t home. I’m twenty-eight, and I can’t get near a cigar or look at cabbage without wanting to gag, and the smell of semen, to my chagrin, always reminds me of Bruno.
“All my life I’ve been waiting,” says my father-in-law, through the stall door. We have stopped at a rest area along the interstate, halfway between our homes. I would meet him back in the car, if only he would stop waxing poetic.
“Frank?” I face the mirror, smoothing the hair over my thinning spot. “I’ll be—”
“First for school to end,” he interrupts. “Then for my twenties, then for success. Marriage, children, et cetera. For them to leave. For their children. Then the waiting became less conspicuous. Waiting for the cry of boiled water. For the paper. For spring. It took a mighty long time to understand that what I’d been waiting for wasn’t each thing, actually, but the chance to wait for whatever came next.”
On the last day of the conference, we take a short bus ride to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, a sleepy town in the Blackstone Valley, just south of the Massachusetts state line. Situated along the Blackstone River and close to the Eastern Seaboard, the area was at the forefront of early American industry, powered first by water and later by steam. Today, a bright winter afternoon in February, snow melting underneath a clear uncurtained sky, the town center of slow-moving traffic and brick storefronts fringed with weathered canvas awnings has the distilled reverie of an elegy.
Scents conjure up times, people, and places distant from the here and now. At the heart of Kate McLean’s Sensory Maps is the power of aromas, their ability to trigger and concretize emotion and memory. McLean, born and raised in Britain, was inspired by the idea that we form our experience of place through sensory perception. She has researched, recreated, and charted the dominant scents of several cities to paint urban portraits through smell. This ongoing cartographic project is partially intended as a corrective in a world that strongly favors visual and aural information. Through capturing and diagramming the defining smells of a place, McLean tells a city’s history and describes its character. Like postcards and souvenirs, the heightened awareness of scent can enhance a visitor’s memories; for the residents of a community, local scents are signifiers of history and identity.