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.