The Scent Of Memories

Published on March 30th, 2009 in: Issues, Smell-O-Rama |

By Less Lee Moore


Music can evoke memories so intense that it can be painful to listen; the feelings linger long after the needle leaves the turntable. But scents are more primal, often both more and less specific. So what do memories smell like?

My paternal Grandmother, a.k.a. Maw Maw Alice, kept a bottle of Mentholatum next to my bed at all times. As a child, I was plagued with sinus problems and allergies and I didn’t fight swabbing this on my nostrils in quite the same way as I did with Triaminic cough syrup. I stayed at my grandparents’ house nearly every weekend until I hit my teens. Percolated coffee, stewed chicken, mashed potatoes, and apple tarts were popular items in her kitchen, and I’ll remember the way they smelled until the day I die.

coty powder

Maw Maw Alice had arthritis and would frequently use what she referred to as “the balm Ben-Gay.” She also used Camay soap and Coty Airspun powder and I still recall the aroma of her bathroom after she used both. In fact, I probably inherited my intense sense of smell from her. She had a violent aversion to vanilla perfume. When I lived with her in my twenties, I couldn’t use anything vanilla scented. It gave her migraines, though she didn’t call them that.

Strong odors bothered me frequently. My other grandma—nicknamed “Nutzie”—worked the snack bar at Paradise Lanes bowling alley. I couldn’t bowl, but I could play video games, so I spent many Friday nights there wasting quarters on Centipede and listening to my Walkman. One afternoon, they cleaned the bathrooms with a toxic blend of antiseptic and orange deodorant. It stunk like Napalm and gave me the first migraine of my life, only I didn’t know what those were. No one, except Nutzie of course, believed me when I said the orange stench made me sick. I was a nervous, imaginative child and “normal kids” didn’t act that way, said Nutzie’s friend and Scrabble partner Evelyn, who didn’t truck to kids with special problems.

vintage arcade by jon wiley
Vintage arcade photo © Jon Wiley

Paradise Lanes was one in name only. Like any bowling alley of the 70s and 80s, it reeked of cigarettes, of the peculiar grimy smell of bowling balls, fountain cokes, French fries, and jalapeno peppers. Though I’ve never picked up the smoking habit, my predisposition to lung cancer has probably been assured.

On Saturday nights, I’d go to my dad’s place, a dark wood-paneled house across the Mississippi river. Often we took camping trips with my half-brother and stepmom and the smell of cheap dishwashing liquid and lingering campfire embers remain strong in my nostrils to this day. No matter where we were though, the memories of my dad are connected by one thing: Old Spice and food. He’s lived in several different places since (thanks to Hurricane Katrina) but no matter which location, the scent remains the same.


One Mardi Gras, we went to a parade near his house. It was near a levee road, but the visuals are so fuzzy I couldn’t tell you where. One factor stands out more distinctly than all others: the smell of bagasse, or the “fibre remaining after the extraction of the sugar-bearing juice from sugarcane.” I could barely concentrate on anything around me, the sour-sweet stench was so bad.

Like many New Orleanians, I participated in Mardi Gras as a member of a carnival krewe with my family. The first year, I was so nervous, I barfed in the makeshift bathroom on the truck float (really just an ersatz closet with a wooden seat and a black garbage bag) and immediately felt better, though I avoided spaghetti and meatballs for at least a year afterwards. The second year was fun, so we tried for a third. Unfortunately, that year the truck exhaust pipe was pointed towards my face the entire day. So for at least eight hours, I inhaled odorless carbon monoxide in addition to gases which smelled just as deadly as they probably were. That was the last year I rode the floats.

truck float by john mccusker
Photo © John McCusker

Another family activity was dancing. I took dance lessons from the time I was a toddler to about age 13 and my sister started when she could barely walk. My mom taught at and was the general manager of my school, so I was there almost every day. Everyone recognizes the stench of a locker room, the studio smell was different somehow. The air was heavy with steam made of pure perspiration, which dampened the dust from the shoe rosin—which looked like crack cocaine—that lingered in every corner.

mk lipstick

After my sister’s father died, my mom also took on the role of being a consultant for Mary Kay cosmetics. She gave me a pink, plastic, mirrored compact with three pots of lipstick when I was about 14. Besides being the best tasting and longest lasting lipstick I’ve ever used, the scent of it was so distinctive and evocative that I kept the compact for over twenty years, just to remind myself of the times I used it most: Mardi Gras in Metairie, hanging out at the corner of Bonnabel and Vets, trying to impress the cool punk kids and prevent my friends from getting into trouble.

At that time I went to a Catholic, all-girls high school: Dominican, where my mom had gone. I hated the surly nuns and the forcing of God down my throat and I particularly hated the awful bathroom smells of stale sewer water and sulphur. No matter how much they cleaned them (and they did that frequently) they were still almost intolerable.

tujagues by jim gabour
Photo © Jim Gabour

Of course, all New Orleans teenagers eventually make their way down to the French Quarter, which has a plethora of odors to choose from, many of them unpleasant. There are good food smells, like the boiled crawfish at Tujague’s on Decatur Street or the coffee and beignets at Café Du Monde. But there is also the Lysol, piss, and puke combo—shot through with various kinds of alcoholic drinks—of the city’s oldest and grungiest bars. The worst offender is Bourbon Street, which ratchets up the stench to unbearable levels and truly smells both different and much, much worse than any other area in the Quarter.

Magnolia photo © Basden

The odors in New Orleans aren’t all bad. Yeah, the odd moldy tang of car air conditioners probably isn’t healthy, but it’s comforting when your face is soaking wet after the two-minute walk to your car on any day between May and October. The sweltering tropical climate is overwhelming during those months, but the sharp-yet-buttery scent of magnolia blossoms and night-blooming jasmine help tremendously. Although I don’t miss the humidity, the flying cockroaches, the hurricane evacuations, and a million other things from New Orleans, I miss those particular scents something fierce.

One Response to “The Scent Of Memories”

  1. JL:
    March 31st, 2009 at 10:53 am

    You know I adore “Nutzie” stories! YES!

Leave a Comment

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.