An hour-long lunchtime walk around downtown Minneapolis offers a diverse sensory experience at any time, but at no time more than in October, when the swirling winds of autumn provide an exceptionally rich experience for the olfactory nerves. Entirely blindfolded, from scent alone, a complete picture of Minneapolis emerges during an autumn lunchtime walk on a nice day in downtown.
A faint whiff of sewer gas. Minneapolis is an older city than many outsiders imagine, with elements of its infrastructure dating back almost 150 years. The cavernous storm drains often give you whiffs of fumes from deep in their depths when you pass by the curbside drain opening in front of my office building. A mysterious smell, slightly dangerous in bouquet.
Cigarette smoke and liquor, with a side order of cheap music. My walk takes me by the front door of a so-called "gentleman's club" on the way to nicer environs, and even this early in the day, seedy patrons of the strip club are on the sidewalk smoking and spilling beer on the sidewalk. Time was when Minneapolis was a kind of overgrown small town, but now it's really just a small version of a very large city, with all the virtues and vices of a New York or LA or Houston. In those cities, though, I doubt that a lunchtime walk can bring you from a strip club to a park where wild deer graze.
High-end perfume. I can't identify the name of this popular fragrance sometimes worn by business women I pass by on the Nicollet mall, but it must be expensive to match the stylish clothes and expensive shoes they wear as they scurry to and from lunch meetings. At least once a week, I recognize this scent somewhere in downtown. Today, it's on the corner of Nicollet and Fourth Street.
Reefer. Ironically, the smell of pot is often detected at the bus stop just half a block from the first precinct police station. Minneapolis rivals Denver or Boulder Colorado in liberal attitudes, and pot smokers are rarely arrested or ticketed here. This is no Des Moines or Oklahoma City where personal vice is heavily policed. Minneapolis bears more commonality with San Francisco in terms of urban mood.
Coffee shops (several). Would you be surprised to know that Starbucks, Caribou and Dunn brothers have distinctly different smells to them? I pass by at least one of each on my noon walk, and could identify them with my eyes closed.
Indian food (curry) with just a hint of diesel. Again contrary to outside knowledge, Minneapolis is rather cosmopolitan, with a pretty diverse range of ethnic eateries. This odor happens to originate with a sidewalk food truck, its generator putting a faint whiff of diesel in the air alongside the predominant smell of curried chicken. In other locations on my walk the food smells are more mysterious: a lot of Minneapolis restaurants are hidden up at the skyway level above the streets, and you often get a whiff of something delicious while being unable to spot any street-level entrance to the restaurant producing the fragrance.
Dead, decaying fish, distantly. Sounds unpleasant, but it's merely unexpected, really, a smell that would be entirely common in waterfront Boston or Baltimore, but which here in the midwest is at first surprising. Here, I happen to be passing by remnants of an old riverside flour mill, now converted to a cultural museum, as I make my way to the historic stone arch bridge leading to the north side of the Mississippi River. A high-pitched but faint roar comes out of the limestone bluff below the mill—it's what remains of the spillway that once diverted water from the main river stream into the channel that drove the massive turbines inside the factory. The waters still flow, though the mill has long since been shut down. In the pond below the spillway, a few decaying fish are floating; this is the faint earthy smell I am detecting.
Malty odor of wheat flour. As I start across the great arched bridge spanning the Mississippi in downtown, I swear I get whiffs of the ghostly smell of malt, the scent of wheat ground into flour. A few of these mills lining both sides of the river near St. Anthony falls, belonging to Pillsbury and General Mills, were still active until 40 years ago, or so, and sometimes the breezes can still give you hints of the lifeblood of those factories. Some of the mills are today converted into retail and residential space, and it's well known among the new tenants that the smell of ground wheat permeates these buildings even now.
Marine smells, waves and water. Midway across the stone arch bridge that once carried Burlington Northern train cars hauling wheat to the flour mills on the river banks, I detect a different aquatic smell, a lighter cleaner smell of frothing water. No surprise: 100 yards to the west, where the Mississippi begins a descent that totals about 150 feet, is St. Anthony Falls. This vertical drop in the great Mississippi River is what first caused aboriginal North Americans to pitch tents and villages here (a mystical spot to them); it's what caused early fur trappers to camp here as they portaged their way around the falls as they traveled north and south; and it's what eventually caused lumber and wheat mills to spring up to make use of water descending under the force of gravity to power factories. In short, these falls are responsible for Minneapolis itself existing exactly where it does. What I smell here is the oxygenated water pounding over the spillway onto rocks below, particularly pungent today due the high water level this October.
Sweat from laborers. At several points along my walk, I come across various workers taking their lunchtime break on park benches along the water front. Construction workers and city road crews and a variety of other working men, emitting the sweaty smell of muscular labor. Minneapolis is in a development boom again, and its evident in the sheer number of laborers seen everywhere. They remind me of many of the people I knew (and smelled) as a boy—farmers and their hired help, including my grandfather; the smell common in the farming families of my boyhood friends. It's the entirely pleasant smell of people who sweat for their living.
Dry leaves and vegetation. It's the smell of the deep woods in autumn, but with discordant sound of the city accompanying it. The banks of the Mississippi in downtown are blessedly lined with trees and woods, some of it heavy enough to shelter fox, raccoons, deer. It's an unusual downtown environment for a recognizably urban city. The smell of woodlands in autumn is the smell of vegetative death, really, though it's not a depressing odor at all. Mostly it hints at the start of the fecund cycle that will soon enough flow through winter dormancy and emerge on the other side in the eruption of life again in April. In the smell of death, there's the hint of new life.
Sweat from athletes, mixed with sunscreen. Along the lunchtime streets of Minneapolis—which is well known as a health and fitness mecca—you frequently smell the odor of athletic sweat. Joggers, runners, skateboarders, roller-bladers, bicyclists—all manner of lunchtime athlete can be seen (and smelled) on a lunchtime walk. This is the smell of people who sweat through recreational choice, a different thing entirely from sweat broken through labor.
Arriving back at the office, I pass by the burping storm drain once again, and take a deep pleasurable breath of the slightly noxious oder while looking at the front door—where an afternoon spent in front of computers and notepads awaits me....offering no entertaining odors at all....
.....unless I just keep walking.