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Friday, January 6, 2006

The smells of North Jersey

Funny story in the Times yesterday about a sickly sweet, maple syrup-like smell that's been wafting into Manhattan, apparently from nearby New Jersey. The working theory is that it's from a factory that's extracting flavors from foodstuffs, but diligent detective work has been unable to pinpoint the location.

Over the first 21 years of my life, I experienced all the odors that North Jersey had to offer -- some foul, but many surprisingly pleasant. Our grammar school in the Down Neck section of Newark was surrounded on three sides by the Ballantine brewery, which regularly emitted wonderful aromas of hops and grain and yeast. The high school I attended in Jersey City was just around the corner from the Colgate factory, where they made toothpaste, soap, and who knows what all else. There were a couple of wicked-looking smokestacks that sent all sorts of stuff up into the air. If it rained hard on a Tuesday, the puddles had soap bubbles in them and the neighbors' cars got washed for free. Sometimes Colgate's smelled like fish, and I don't mean that in a good way.

The field where we used to play organized Little League ball in Newark was over near Ruppert Stadium, and to get there we walked quite a ways through some serious factory territory over by the railroad yards. The odors there were generally unpleasant, but some of our dads and uncles worked in those places all day long. They were noble guys, the greatest generation, and they were putting clothes on our backs and food in our stomachs.

The neighborhood also generated some beautiful smells, from street trees and the landscaping that our grandparents scratched out in the postage-stamp yards that adjoined the multiplex houses. There was a species of small tree, which we used to call a monkey tree, that was particularly resilient. It was so tough that it would grow right up out of the wreckage of a ruined chemical plant, and it could penetrate blacktop if you weren't careful about fully removing it before attempting to pave over it.

When the monkey trees and bigger street trees and little lawns and flowers were all in bloom, their fragrances would mix in with the Ballantine hops and the toxic stuff from the factories and whatever was coming out of the car and truck tailpipes in those days. Together they made quite a bouquet.

They say that many writers have tried and failed to write the definitive book about Down Neck. One of these years, I'd love to get the chance to try. The first factor that I would consult to gauge how I was doing would be to see if I could get the olfactory essences down into words -- what it smelled like when we walked over to the ballfield by the stadium with Petey and Louie and Oswald for a game against kids from another neighborhood.

Perhaps the funniest part of the most recent story was a complaint from a commuter who noticed the maple syrup odor as he emerged from the Hoboken PATH station. As a former denizen of Hoboken PATH, I can tell you that maple syrup was the least of our problems. That place smelled like rotten eggs, 24/7. We would have taken maple syrup any day.

Comments (3)

What does Down Neck smell like? This is a hard topic to tackle. There is no one easy answer. It still smells, but different from when we were growing up there.

From time to time, the odor could be dominated by one thing or another depending on what street you lived on. A few were pleasant, some distinctive, and many foul. It was changeable. Sometimes, for a few days a big smell took over, such as when the tire reclamation place on South Street burned. Rubber burning, - a great stench and clouds of very black smoke.

Some of the big smells near my home that made a special impression on me were:

The Flockhart Foundry, on Polk Street near Riverbank Park. Their smell was a sulfurous one from a furnace that produced molten iron to pour into molds for sewer plates and manhole covers.

Farmers Feed, Chapel St. Here they processed spent brewers' grains. The smell was a blend of grain, rice, and hops in stages from wet to dry to rotten. I and many of the male members of my family worked long and short tenures there. I actually got used to the smell.

The Celanese, Magazine St, producer of many types of early generation cellulose and plastics, and all of the smells that went with them. I worked there for three college summers, and never got used to the smells. It was hot and noisy too.

Pit-Consol Chemical, an ill smelling plant on Avenue P.

Arkansas Chemical, Roanoke Ave. I remember at least one sensational explosion there.

Englehorn's slaughterhouse, Avenue L, where piggies went in and ham and bacon came out. This was a hard place to handle. My father worked there for a while as a truck mechanic until their repair garage burnt down.

The NBC bakery on Ferry Street between Oxford and Freeman, a big place. When I was small, this place smelled nice until the Ballantine Brewery took over the building.

All of the above are now gone. I should mention that the Passaic River had a polluted fragrance back then but they say it's better now. However, the Passaic Valley Sewage Commission's facility, at Doremus and Wilson Ave, is going strong and still filling barges of sludge and hauling them out to the Atlantic off Sandy Hook. Add to this unambiguous smell the one from the chemical alley that ran for miles along Doremus Ave, and boy did it stink.

For a car nut like me, the end of Wilson Ave had a great resource, a dozen or two junkyards. They had a special smell that I first experienced when my dad took me there as a small child on his quests for car parts, like a '55 Nash radiator or a '57 Plymouth oil pan. I remember the sight and smell of pools of oil separated by the grease-impregnated mud.

And let me not forget the relatively new Essex County Garbage incinerator on Blanchard Street.

I can close my eyes and smell the Italian hot dogs coming from that place near the Jackson Street Bridge. Damn.

Jim and Jean's Pizza after the CYO dances. The raging hormones gave us all the munchies.

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