A Desert Morning: One for the Nose

In the summer of 1950, we lived on Poppy St. Neighborhood kids rode bikes past bright patches of California poppies that proud neighbors had planted. In the August fog, poppies smelled like cut cucumbers on newly cut grass, the same scent as wet afternoons in Houghton Park, our bike destination. The park, over 30 acres and just outside the Long Beach central district, was scratched by miles of bike trails into the bush.

Sandstone channels cut through the night-blooming perfume-rich jasmine. Bike rides through the flowering bushes meant well-scented eight and nine year old boys who reeked of perfume, but who hadn't the faintest idea what that suggested to their mothers.

My mom said: "Son, who have you been seeing at the park?" Then, she smiled. "The smell on your shirt is a sure give-away. You better throw it in the wash."

"Yuck," I said.

In early October that year I would leave the jasmine of Houghton Park. Sadly, Mom had lost a two-year baby boy to leukemia two years before. Dad wanted to get relief for her from the city and its memories. He looked at property in the desert: abundant, cheap and far away. We ended up with an old fruit and date shop in a distant desert town, Cathedral City. He said we would like it, though it would take a little getting used to. 

Here, Mom would be able to empty herself of grief.

About 100 miles from the perfumed bushes of Houghton Park was a desert hole, our new home. It was October and it smelled dry to the bone. While my city park began its mornings in fog, the desert would only now begin to shake off the residual heat of sun-embedded stone. It would be a month before I could smell the moisture in the fall air. 

Our new home, ten miles and twenty years south of Palm Springs sat in a settlement called Tramview, a 100 yard stretch of asphalt called Highway 111, a mile west of Cathedral City and the Whitewater River wash. In late September when we arrived with our 25-foot trailer, the asphalt began to scream heat as early as mid-morning. Early on, I stood out on the asphalt highway at high noon and looked toward Cathedral City. I saw a shimmering mirage past the wash on the edge of town. I imagined a hot steam iron rose in the air, the smell of Highway 111 at noon on a September day.

I brought my bike from Long Beach. I did dry wheelies behind dad's shop, but didn't dare ride into the snake-filled hills behind us. In the city my buddies and I used to chase squirrels up trees with our bikes. In the desert by myself, I chased jackrabbits into holes that pocketed the desert floor. In the city, a squirrel might mess up and lose the chase. Not a chance with Jack, the Rabbit, as I called him. He was sleek and quick. 

Often, Jack came to sniff around the shop where dad sold an odd mix of grapefruit and nuts. That October afternoon, I saw Jack snooping around the date crates. The sweet, sticky residue of the Deglet Noors had captured him, lured him out of his hole, teased him into making the big dare. He glanced at me. I grabbed a branch from the creosote bush. 

"Catch me if you can, Mr. Boy”, Jack sniffed. 

I flailed the branch. He hightailed it past a creosote bush, past the ocotillo, past the smoke tree, past the tumbleweed that suddenly snapped its roots and rolled toward Highway 111. Fat chance the weed would make it intact across the road. This was October, the beginning of tourist season and the cars steadied into a stream from mid-morning on. 

Jack was long gone into the bush. 

It was late afternoon now. He'd be back at night but by then, Dad would have secured the date crates in the shop. No dessert for Jack.

The sun slipped behind Mt. San Jacinto, the peak that rose from the desert floor to crest on a razor precipice. The sun abandoned the place completely about seven o'clock and left little moisture to reconstitute itself. By morning the dry, vacant air of the previous afternoon would become cool again to emerge as a catalyst for the aromas imbedded in the desert floor. 

In yesterday's heat, Jack's scat dried odorless but regained its pungency through the night. 

At sunrise, the prickly pear flowers perked up, suggesting how seductively sweet its bulbous fruit would be. The purple verbena became freshly cut daisies sprouting from a vase on the dining room table. The sagebrush, not really sage, smelled of Thanksgiving dressing.

But the morning air also brought a stench, a definite stench that pervaded the desert, stretching from our 1940s trailer house to the sand hills across the valley. A visitor might have pointed to our outhouse, just behind the shop. But, no, the morning dew securely contained that odor and left it to bloom in the late afternoon sun. 

The odor of distinction came from the gangly creosote, its branches and shiny leaves, which were the size of fly's wings. Its glistening, olive-green leaves stuck to my fingers and left a strongly scented resin that permeated the air, always in the morning hours, but especially after rain. The gnarled, gray, sparsely foliated offshoots branched out like lightening from a plasma ball. I had used one of its branches to threaten Jack, long-gone.

The creosote bulb produced yellow flowers almost all year round, but primarily in spring, followed by a silver-furred round berry, easy to pick and adventurous to chew. The silver fuzz ball, dainty and cute, was nothing but a beast that harmed. Jackrabbits survived its sting when eaten, but, strangely, mountain goats and sheep did not. Sheep died; mountain goats staggered off to find a place of rest to relieve the pain. Dumb cows, however, were smart enough to ignore it. 

When planted in a garden with abundant water, the creosote bush reached twelve feet in height, but why would anyone want to unleash this noxious beast? 

The creosote was a bad neighbor. Root the creosote next to a healthy plant at its peril. The foul-smelling greasewood, another of its names, does not tolerate company and, if the company overstays its welcome, pain and suffering, if not death, followed. I knew a man up in Cathedral Canyon who grew large creosote, near which thrived his treasured boxwood hedge. The creosote suffered the hedge for five years. Then, the once healthy boxwood became yellow and sickly. Its neighbor, the creosote, remained green and triumphant.

Desert rains pumped up the pungency of the resin. Rain was so rare that anything associated with it was memorable. Get close to an old telephone pole and smell the real creosote: acrid, a little gassy, like melting tar. The pole won't evoke memories. But creosote forges indelible ones. They pervade the desert landscape and, as all noxious creatures, call attention to themselves: the smell of burnt resin, the hard sticky touch of their leaves or their gangly body, branches electrified.

For some, the desert is nature in its purest state. The primeval forest, however, reeks of decay in its fecundity. Dead fish and seaweed putrefy the beach. The desert, by contrast, is pristine, clean, and brisk in the winter, white hot in summer. It is nature in its Edenic state without the sin of human flesh, a place where human flesh does not survive the summer, anyway. 

But that is not our Eden; it is Satan's and his viper's.

At first whiff after a rain, the smells of the desert seem pure, then fall into an aroma of decay. The scent attacks nostrils with hot resin irritation. The creosote deadens feeling, yet makes vulnerable the sinuses and stings them with a scorpion's hook.

The purity of a summer morning breeze, hot, pristine, skin boiling is cast against the acrid bitterness of a bush. 

As a Boy Scout, I encamped one night under the stars next to large creosote. I could not sleep. While the jackrabbits foraged on the desert floor for crickets, I fidgeted. I inched my sleeping bag north a few feet, then east, then west to escape the smell. 

I could not rest. 

Creosote was everywhere. 

I could not find a place to hide. Jack's hole was too narrow.

When I returned home, my mother thought I was sick.

- Don Mayfield

Lonely Bacon Sundays

Our tract house is in the Flowing Wells School district; our nickname is “Seeping Sewers.” You can drink delicious fresh water right out of the tap, but our streets are dirt roads that blow dust devils and tumbleweeds. On weekdays, the predominant scents are dust and horse shit, from the farm on the other side of the Del Norte City Park that faces my house.

Inside, it is Cream of Wheat with brown sugar, Malto-Meal, Special K with raisins, Product 19. On lucky Sundays, if my older sister is in the mood, she might make French toast. If Mom’s in the mood, it’s scrambled eggs with Roman meal toast and margarine. The only color on the Sunday table are the comics, which my Brooklyn-born parents call “the jokes.” Everyone else in our 1960’s Tucson suburb call them “the funnies.” 

And for everyone else, Sunday morning is all about pork: sausage, ham steaks, and bacon. Always bacon. We keep the thick, greasy scent out while the kitchen door is closed, but when I’ve scraped the last bit of molten brown sugar from the beige mass in my Corningware bowl, I step out in the front yard, and am assaulted by bacon.

White bread, hash browns, biscuits and gravy—all goyish delicacies which my parents have schooled me to scorn and abhor. And under and over and through all of it, thick steaming stink ribbons of bacon. I walk up and down the sidewalk looking to see if any kids are out and of course they’re not. As the Arizona sun heats up the morning, the sidewalk smells of bacon. Later it will smell like spray starch and church clothes. But now it is bacon.

For a Jewish kid, in one of two Jewish families in the entire school district, the smell of bacon triggers one thing: the loneliness of being the “other.” Bacon smells like playing alone all day. Bacon is getting into tiffs with your siblings out of pure boredom and simmering resentment. Bacon is everything closed except for church. Bacon is sweeping your room and mowing the lawn and doing your chores because what else is there to do? 

To this day, while I do enjoy a good BLT served on toast and slathered with delicious, goyish mayonnaise, I still feel waves of illness and alienation whenever I smell bacon frying.

- Judy Geraci

Night-blooming Jasmine

It made people want to make love. Or jump in the Ford and drive all night to Albuquerque with the top down, listening to Johnny Hodges’ play “Harlem Nocturne.” Except that we were too languid and indecisive from the heat.

In my East San Diego neighborhood, jasmine bloomed in deep summer. On nights too clear and hot for sleep, its heavysweet scent crept across yards and down alleys, over fences, into open windows, touching everything with a knowing hand. 

The jasmine wasn’t ours. Our family knew better. Even gardening books warn, “Do not plant cestrum nocturnum under your bedroom window because the powerful fragrance may keep you awake.” No. Someone else had been incautious.

It was the aroma that led me on my only nighttime escapade. I was 14. One night, Johnny, a neighbor kid who smoked and was 15, threw pebbles against my bedroom window. I slid off my bed and pulled on some jeans and a shirt. I lifted the screen off the side window and skidded over the windowsill into the fragrance of the night. 

“Come on,” Johnny whispered. “Let’s go to Franklin.”

On the school playground, I grabbed the high bar, walked my feet up the pole and threw my leg over to sit on top. I could smell the cold metallic odor on my hands from gripping the bars. The jasmine seemed fainter here, and the playground gave off its usual dry smell of sand. 

On the next bar over, Johnny hung by his knees, smoking upside down. We talked. After a while, we held hands and walked home into the fury of my mother’s wrath.

As escapades go, it was pretty tame. But after a summer in the backyard glider reading “Lassie Come Home,” and “The Three Musketeers,” it was odd. Jasmine-struck.

- Anitra Carol Smith

Paprika: Turning Outside In

Sunken down into the chair, beat down from the day, longingly awaiting the simmering to be done as fatigue slowly enclosed me in its grasp. The year had been simultaneously fast and long with learning to balance work and a new baby. The balance, organization, energy I had always had control over now ceased to exist. I was an outsider to this life, trying to climb my way back inside towards sense, sensibility, predictability. Though grateful and in love with this new baby that entered my life, I struggled to reconcile my former self and new self. The long sleepless nights had introduced a tiredness I had not experienced since college during the sleep deprived nights of endless paper writing, and even that paled in comparison. Bath done, dinner for the baby done, preparation for the next day done. My thoughts now floated into nothingness. Thank God for my husband who had graciously taken over the meals. His ode to perfection meant waiting…. He claimed “all good things come in time… or patience for goodness,” but it was always worth the wait. 

The dish gently placed on the table in front of me broke me from my reverie. Succulent chicken thighs nestled in dumplings and bathed in a thick, bold red and smoky sauce. The smoking dish wafted up towards my tired face and I was filled with an earthy smokiness that slowly began tinkering with long forgotten memories. My grandmother’s chicken simmering in oil and topped with paprika filled the background of the small house with its comforting blanket of old world spice as we visited my grandmother on Sunday afternoons for dinner. The molten red spice sprinkling traditional egg dishes of egg salad or deviled eggs at every Murphy-Matula (now adding Mason) gathering. I lifted the spoonful of warm liquid now parallel with every sense. I breathed in the goodness of the parikash csirke. The saucy delicacy filled my nostrils and tastebuds like a warm and comforting blanket. It was the rich, subtle earthiness that brought me back to an earlier struggle with turning outside in and the same one that then, and now filled be with a reinvigorated hope/energy. 

Paprika was perhaps my fourth Hungarian word I learned and gratefully so, for it was the same in English as it was in Hungarian (or Magyar) and easy to remember. Depending on where one put the emphasis of the syllable, it could mean pepper (as in the vegetable we ate on sandwiches with butter or cheese daily. pAPreeka) or the spice made from the crushed and ground peppers (Paaaaprika) that sprinkled the land that was Hungary. I soon learned Paprika was the heart of the land. Every person I encountered, from my roommate, her family, my colleagues to my 16-17 year old students all had a story or fact to share about Paprika. Strangely, it was not native to Hungary, but introduced by the Turks during the 16 and 17th centuries. It was discovered by herders and shepherds who had the most contact with the outsiders. They had begun to integrate the sometimes mild, sometimes fiery spice into the peasant dishes of the countryside. Ironically, it was adopted by the aristocrats in the 19th century and has become the dominant spice in most Hungarian dishes ever since. Festivals and holidays were devoted to this spice, school schedules were determined around paprika picking season, and Hungarians, a people proud of their history, had turned something from the outside, pushing and oppressing and turned it inside, reclaiming it as theirs, their culture, their heritage. 

As an outsider living in Hungary for two years, paprika became the doorway inside the culture. It gave me a sense of ownership and allowed me to contribute back to a land that had taught me balance, moderation, appreciation for the simple items I had taken for granted in life (dinner with family, talking on the phone, a TV to inform you of what was going on in the world, stores with every ingredient always on hand). I suppose one of my first transformations began in Hungary and with Paprika. Aside from crudely crushed avocado in a bowl, scrambled eggs and toast, and my innovative mustard and potato in a bowl, I had not learned to cook. After moving to Hungary, I realized this would be an essential for survival as there were no microwaves or frozen aisles, and few canned ingredients. Instead there were open markets on Saturdays with fresh vegetables piled in the back of wagons brought in from country towns and a multitude of dried beans and legumes and potatoes along with plenty of paprika. 

I slowly learned to cook with my roommate and friend, Zsuzsi, standing at my side. We began from scratch, chopping vegetables, simmering them in oil, then flour and paprika. Stirring quickly, watching for too much browning, adding in stock, potatoes, beans, vegetables and more paprika until the mild, spicy smell began to waft over the entire dish becoming familiar, becoming comfort, becoming home. Days on end, I would walk home in the bitter cold streets, before the snow fell, and start the pot, firing up the vegetables and paprika, stirring and simmering, staring into the pot. I felt the day’s triumphs, struggles, misunderstandings, laughter, and confusion slip off me into the pot simmering before me. It became a daily ritual to stir away the days of living as an outsider and beginning to sprinkle in myself into the pot, becoming part of the culture and the family. Paprikash reconciliation. 

Scraping the browned bits of paprika and chicken into my mouth, I realized my husband had brought me back to a time where paprika had become the heart of turning my outside inward. Now standing by his side, sprinkling in the paprika (of course playfully arguing over recipe vs. memory and instinct) we continue adding the paprika, providing a warm blanket in another phase and transformation into parents, Years later, we are still adding the paprika, especially on the days we need to turn the outside in.

- Jen Murphy

Olfactory Alarm Clock: Tucson Summer, 1965-1975

When the swamp cooler kicked at 7:00 in the morning it woke me with a dusty funk. Unlike the first ignition of the heater in winter when the hot air on the cold metal vent emits a choking burnt dust smell, the swamp cooler blows hot desert air through water-soaked hemp pads, creating a muddy, slightly fishy aroma.  Maybe the pads were doused in some kind of coolant or mold retardant back then, or maybe it was simply the mustiness of bacteria and mold spores that grew during winter, but hempish-chemical combination always reminded me of the inside of the Rexall pharmacy and the local hippie health food co-op at the same time.  Once the cooler got going awhile, the odor dissipated.  But despite the odd funk, the first burst of air in those ninety-degree Tucson mornings always smelled like a promise of relief.

That promise was always broken in the hundred-plus degree afternoons where we’d seek relief in the local pool.  I spent hours with the neighborhood kids, going in and out of the cool- chlorine-and-warm-pee water.  When our fingers got too pickled and pruny, we pressed our shivering bodies against our sun-warmed towels that were laid out on the concrete deck.  We inhaled the chlorinated steam rising from the cement, filtered through Tide-scented towels.   By the time we walked across the park to our cinder-block house across the street, we were hot and dry again.  I would plant myself directly under the hallway vent of the swamp cooler lifting my matted hair off my neck.  My dad invariably shooed me away, warning of catching coldor a stiff neck.”   Then Mom would pull me by the ponytail into the bathroom with a brush in her hand for a half-hour of tangled hair torture. 

Naturally, by the teenage years, I defied my parents.  Standing under the swamp cooler vent for as long as I wanted in my navy blue daisy bikini, I combed my own hair with a wide-tooth comb.  The perfumed spritz No More Tears conditioner in the swamp-cooled air created a new promise— one of peace, freedom, and independence.

- Judy Geraci