I spent the summer when I was 9 years old bumping down to the city from our home in Lutherville in the back of my mother’s navy blue Volvo. It was a sad and uncertain time. My grandfather was being treated for throat cancer at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
On each visit, he disappeared into the bed a little more, his body increasingly frail. Each day brought a new indignity: a nurse hunting for a vein for 45 minutes, another chiding him that his urine was the color of apple juice, a sign he needed to drink more water. I buried myself in a Nancy Drew book, uncertain of how to handle it all.
But the trip to and from the hospital was a revelation. My parents were strict and had me later in life; I rarely traveled anywhere besides school, church, the library and the nearby Mars Supermarket. The ride into the city was a thrilling change of pace.
My mind full of Nancy Drew plots, I scrutinized the scenery for clues — a sign, perhaps, that one day I would become a journalist. As my mother drove well below the speed limit (and never took highways), the county and city unspooled before me one block at a time. The fancy mansions in the northern part of the city. The steeples of the universities. People in all sorts of work clothes, walking. A store called the Big Top, with a cheerful circus-tent awning, that I would often ask my mom about. “If it’s a circus store, why does it say ‘Adults Only?’”
The Volvo did not have air conditioning, so the scents of the journey wound through the open windows: fresh-cut grass, wet bark, cooking oil, dust, hot asphalt, bus exhaust. For some reason, it was that last one that most encapsulated the shimmering excitement of summer in the city for me.
Years later, as an undergrad at Johns Hopkins University, I would savor that same smell when I would hop on a city bus to go shopping or travel to my student jobs at the Hopkins medical institutions. I felt again the excitement of the city, this time as someone who lived and worked there. It was also as a psychology major at Hopkins that I learned why this scent — and so many others — awaken emotions. The brain’s olfactory bulbs, which process smells, are closely connected to the amygdala and the hippocampus, which control emotion and memory.
I encounter these smells each day again as a reporter covering the region for The Baltimore Banner. Now when I pass through the city and surrounding counties, after having lived here for most of my 43 years, each neighborhood — and, in some areas, each building — call to mind a lattice of stories: things that have happened to me, stories about my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, and stories I have written in my 16 years as a journalist. The scents create a map of sorts of the region, rooting me in the past and guiding me to new adventures.
Here is a list of scents that conjure strong memories for me:
The Inner Harbor
The harbor is surrounded by neat brick walkways and some of Baltimore’s biggest attractions (the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center, the offices of the Baltimore Banner!), but when you see a fish flash in the murky water you are reminded that it is inherently wild. What lurks in its depths? It smells vaguely like the ocean, tangy and fertile, a scent that to me recalls the very essence of life.
There are certain streets in Harbor East and Fells Point that I cannot picture without smelling the yeasty, bready, comforting smell that emanates from H&S Bakery, which has been in operation for 99 years. The scent reminds me of heading to the long-gone Haussner’s restaurant in Highlandtown to see the world’s largest ball of string when I was a kid. It makes me think of wandering through Fell’s Point bars with friends as a young woman. And, of course, it brings to mind the complicated legacy of the Paterakis family, who built the bakery into an empire.
The Pratt Library, Central Branch
Like any reader or writer, I love the clean smell of new books, so full of promise. I inhale deeply when I walk into The Ivy Bookshop, or Atomic Books, or Greedy Reads or Red Emma’s, all some of my favorite spots to buy books. But the Pratt’s Central Branch might have the most delicious smell of all. There is a smooth scent of paper and book-binding glue, the powdery musk of old books, a richness of wood from the historic building and a faint whiff of all the people who pass through, seeking wisdom or simply a place to rest.
The McCormick Spice Factory
My family and I live in Cockeysville, a few miles from the headquarters of McCormick & Company. Often when I step outside in the evening, scents from the spice factory have settled over the neighborhood. I’ve always felt that these fragrances pass over the land like moods pass over a person, intense yet transient. Sometimes I smell cinnamon or cumin, sometimes a mix of garlic and other spices. My favorite is celery seed with a peppery kick, the unmistakable base of Old Bay.
The Maryland Woods after a Rain
Druid Hill Park, Lake Roland, Patapsco State Park, the NCR trail, Oregon Ridge, Loch Raven. These are the places you are most likely to find me on a summer afternoon (but also at any time of year). I love the humid greenness of the Maryland woods in early summer, but I love them best just after a rainstorm. Songbirds swoop over the path, eyeing earthworms sidling along the damp soil. A fox flashes into the brush at the edge of the path. A crisp, herbaceous, almost citrusy scent rises up from the trees and brush. The fragrances of summer flowers — honeysuckle, mimosa, linden — intensify. Above all, the air is exuberantly, abundantly green, as if the plants are soaking it all in and saying yes.