I’m jealous of your lilacs. Every spring, the flowering shrubs set up their little perfume shops in every other yard across town — even more plentiful than garage sales — and I follow my nose across the neighborhood. It’s one of the many smells of Winona I love.
Down by the silos on West Third Street, the scent of malt fills the air. Like molasses, it’s syrupy and out on the roasted edge of being burnt, mixed with the ferment of corn silage. It’s not so different from the fragrance of Malt-O-Meal that would drift across Northfield, Minn., when my sister lived there.
When I lived on the West End, the gummy bear factory on West Fifth Street flooded the neighborhood with the candy-fruit aroma of gummy bears. For me, it’s evocative of last-minute impulse purchases in the checkout aisle. The plant now makes pet supplements in gummy form, and I like to imagine it’s setting all the neighborhood canines to salivating.
I live on the East End now and sometimes swing past the Watkins building on evening walks. From the front, the chiseled Bedford stone, domed roof, and marble interior of the Watkins headquarters is stately as can be, but I love equally well the factory behind it, with its rabbit’s warren of narrow entrances disappearing into brick ramparts. On the sidewalk below, wafts of vanilla pour out, full of warm spice that reminds me of baking cookies with my mom as a child. On another day, cinnamon drifts out onto the street, making my stomach grumble and my feet turn for home.
In June, under the creak of carnival rides and the delighted shrieks of children, Steamboat Days exudes an unctuous aroma — cheese curds, funnel cakes, and sweaty, blissful festival goers — later mixed with the sulphur of fireworks.
There are, of course, unpleasant smells in Winona. Some factories are less sweet-scented neighbors, and the sputtering black exhaust of old diesel trucks can make me hold my breath while crossing Second Street on foot. The sewer lift station by Bud King Ice Arena smells like — well, you know.
The smell of the river — that backwaters funk that rises from the Mississippi — is not a bad smell, but not an entirely pleasant one either. It’s pungent, like mud and muck and algae and the burps of a million frogs. The scent has an undeniable methane edge to it, but it’s also strangely comforting and familiar. It’s the smell of hot days on the water, fishing, and swimming at my favorite beach. It peaks with summer, when there is a profusion of plants, fish, ducks, and every organism growing, dying, and digesting each other. It’s the smell of life, and it’s a little unsettling, beyond our control and a little stronger than we might like.
My favorite smell of all is fast approaching. It can’t be bottled or infused in candle wax. It’s the smell of fall, that change in air that signals the end of summer’s wild growth and the coming cold. “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” and summer’s end is exquisite.