Scent of Home

Scent of Home

The air is like no other. As I reach the edge of San Pedro after years away, a perfume yet to be named thrills my nose, an eclectic brew of aluminum and salt, tar and eucalyptus. My response is automatic, layers of memory connecting with a long-gone day, making me want to grab my books and charge through the door of Seventh Street School. Any moment now, the air raid siren will shrill and we will line up on the playground, inhaling hot tar and practicing futile drills for nuclear disaster.

I drive a little farther into town. My nose shrieks, " Spearmint gum baking on the dashboard! Seaweed on sand, split loquats, potato pancakes, anchovy pizza, gasoline fumes at Chuck's Shell Station!" Sense-syllables rattle through my nose and come out a hole in time, pulling me backward with a force as powerful as any atom bomb. I have read that the salmon's spine encases a magnetic homing device that turns him into this river and that stream, until he reaches the place of his origin. Humans must have a similar sense that operates through the nose, bringing us back to first things.

Have you had the experience of scent-homing? An exile is required, staying away from your hometown for a long enough stretch that scent- and sense-memories become an almost tactile assault.

Of course, the San Pedro of my youth is gone. Every town moves on, faster and faster these days. The tar they use on the streets, the whole tuna fishing industry, even the ocean has changed in those forty years. In a sense – in my senses -- the San Pedro I know lives only in me.

This is what San Pedro used to smell like:

A salt tang dominates. The town sits on a thumb of land pointing into the Pacific Ocean southwest of Los Angeles. In the 1950s, when I was growing up there, the town was redolent of maritime industry. It was impossible to live here and avoid the smell of the ocean. Over the new streets that rickracked up the hill, over Pacific Avenue, where cholos rode in their low-slung Chevys, drifted the smell of brine and tuna.

Our block, Fourth Street, was halfway up San Pedro Hill. Perched at the breast of a hill that was once an island, we were sheltered from the northwest gales, yet our breezes were still salted. The wind had traveled from the ocean over the hill and down Palos Verdes Drive, past hundred-year-old eucalyptus trees and yards full of bougainvillea, jasmine and juniper.

When the air reached Fourth Street, it had grazed on affluent estates and horse paddocks. It rushed down the terraced hill and acquired a patina of frying tortillas. Down on Harbor Boulevard the wind picked up sardines, a whiff of bait tanks and the jazzy smell of oil. San Pedro's scent was unique and complex.

I grew up with ocean-buffeted senses, in a California now paved under, beside a sea now depleted, among hard-laboring, tradition-loving immigrants. Our family and town gave me the gift of living with contradictions. In San Pedro scents' I sense the path that grew me up and out of San Pedro, a Hungarian goulash whose main ingredients are to lead with the heart, follow your nose and trust the inspiration that comes.

[More from Rocket Lessons next week. ]