Friday, April 18, 2014

What adventure smells like

So I'm on another Epic Late-Night Grocery Run, cruising the aisles of Safeway in the middle of the night on a quest for frosted flakes, and suddenly I catch the scent of something familiar. And a split second before I can mentally identify the scent, a specific pleasure center in my brain pipes up with the thought, You're going to have an adventure.

Well, that's odd.

I turn around. Directly across the aisle from the cold cereal boxes are the plastic push-to-vend dispensers filled with bulk coffee beans. Rows and rows and rows of dispensers (Seattleites are particular about their coffee, even the home-brewed kind), and I see them and start to smile. Because, for once, I know exactly why my brain reacted as it did, priming me for an adventure just because I smelled coffee.

If you know me, you might find this mental connection a little silly; after all, I'm a member of a church that advises its members not to drink coffee or tea. (The first and only time I drank coffee in my life was as a demanding toddler. I was whining for some of my paternal grandma's morning coffee because it smelled so good, like a really exotic kind of hot chocolate. Grandma, knowing it was against my religion, kept telling me no, but then my mom -- no doubt realizing that anything forbidden becomes more tantalizing -- said, "Oh, go ahead, let her have some." After one big sip of hot, strong, acrid black coffee that tasted NOTHING like hot chocolate, I had zero interest in trying it again.) But for me, the scent of coffee figures into a lot of pleasant memories. It's part of the memory of my Aunt Marcia and Uncle John's home in the early morning, along with the other scents of breakfast cooking. It's part of the memory of going to the big Cost Plus flagship store in Oakland and wandering around looking at burlap bags of coffee, Asian teapots, scented votive candles, articulated wooden snake toys, whirligigs, alien antennae, Bee & Flower sandalwood soap, and little round chocolate-covered apricot brandy cordials. It's part of the memory of being 20 years old and having my first full-time adult job at an appraisal company, where the scent of coffee was always wafting from the break room.

Mostly, though, I remember summer days and Saturdays in childhood, piling into the orange VW microbus, and driving nearly an hour from our house in Concord through the East Bay towns of Walnut Creek and Orinda, through the long tiled stretch of the Caldecott Tunnel (the weather was always different on the other side), and a quick stop to pay toll before we headed over the Bay Bridge, with a quick dip into Yerba Buena Island -- and then the city vista of San Francisco stretched out before us, glittering and urbane and punctuated by the Transamerica and Coit Towers. And with that sight came a very specific scent: the strong, rich, unmistakable tang of roasting coffee from the Hills Bros. roasting plant on the Embarcadero.

That scent was a sign and a promise -- a sign that adventures were coming, and a promise that they would be memorable. Going into San Francisco meant visiting Ocean Beach, playing in the surf and finding fragile grey sand dollars to take home. It meant watching monkeys swing and play and hoot in their enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo. It meant walking between the stately columns and through the front doors of the old Steinhart Aquarium, or wandering through the Japanese Tea Garden, or getting a peek at the bison in Golden Gate Park. It meant visiting the ACT to watch plays with my junior high English class. It meant the Doggie Diner and Union Square and Green Apple Books. It meant the Exploratorium and the Palace of Fine Arts. It meant walking across the Golden Gate Bridge and getting a sweet sample of fresh-made chocolate at Ghirardelli Square, or running loose in Macy's. It meant getting a fresh loaf of Boudin sourdough and riding a cable car from Powell & Market to wherever it was going, or shopping for beautiful lacy dresses in the Gunne Sax outlet. Later, it meant catching a glimpse of a flock of wild parrots in flight, or walking into Rincon Center and seeing the "Rain Column" water feature for the first time, pouring 85 feet down from a ring in the center of the building's atrium.

But before any of that, there was the scent of coffee to usher us into whatever amazing event the day had to offer. And now, standing in the grocery store some 800 miles and thirty-odd years away, I close my eyes and take a slow, deep breath through the nose, and I can't help but smile again at what it does to me. No, I don't drink coffee, but I don't need to. In my mind the smell of roasting coffee will always be the incense of some great adventure yet to come, the promise of the unexpected, and the scent of wonder. And really, what more could you ask from one little bean?


djole said...

The smell of coffee always takes me back to my grandmother's house. My grandfather smoked a pipe occasionally, so the sweet richness of pipe tobacco immediately reminds me of him. (If I ever decided I need to smoke tobacco, the pipe varieties would come first.) And the sharp tang of juniper and take me to the high desert country of central Oregon where I lived once.

Soozcat said...

Oh, hey, my grandpa was a pipe-smoker too! Pipe smoke is a completely different animal from the smell of cigarette smoke -- frankly, it makes me wonder what people see in cigarettes.