Long Beach, California in my childhood was a beach town, an oil town, and a sailor town. The memory of odors is very rich.
We lived a few blocks from the beach, within easy walking distance for a child, and the smell of the ocean is like perfume to me. The Pike was an esplanade with rollercoaster, merry-go-round, and all sorts of shops, etc. which led onto the beach, and the smells of hamburgers, cotton candy and salt water taffy beckoned a hungry kid with a dime in her pocket. It was the time of the Great Depression, and if you couldn’t scrape up a dime, you took a tuna sandwich made with lots of pickle relish in your pocket.
Oil had been discovered on Signal Hill and aside from the oil derricks decorating the top of the hill, it gave off an unmistakeable scent.
The Port of Long Beach has always been an important one, and home to the Navy, and the place from which my father departed and returned frequently. On the occasions when we dined aboard my father’s ship on a Sunday afternoon, I was allowed to steer the shore boat.
In our small neighborhood the ice man delivered, and the man who tarred the many cracks in the street came with his smelly hot oil, which if you waited till it hardened, you might steal a piece to chew on. The Red train ran straight up the middle of American Ave. where we lived, and took you to Los Angeles, where my Great-Aunt picked us up. In their great wisdom, someone tore it out some years ago. I always thought it had a distinctive and exciting odor. Maybe it was the smell of anticipation.
There were always fresh fragrant oranges, ripe figs off the tree, and a penny candy store which smelled divine. A nickel bought a lot of candy, and there was a dentist right there who gave out sample tubes of Ipana toothpaste, which if you never smelled it, consider yourself lucky.
Each morning after my mother tortured my straight hair into Shirley Temple curls with a curling iron heated on the gas stove, and with the smell of hot hair still in my nostrils, I ate breakfast alone and went off to school. My only friend in the neighborhood was Gail Hollandsteiner, whose father was a banker, and who I thought must have been rich because her mother slept late every day, thus allowing Gail to trick the maid into thinking she had actually eaten her breakfast. I tried it at home, but my mother got up early, so it didn’t work.
Larraine Day was an early movie star who lived next door to Gail, and we always hoped she could get us jobs in the movies. That didn’t work either.
The Long Beach of today has nearly half a million people in its confines, the neighborhood I grew up in is mostly industrial now, and the Pike has been replaced by the Queen Mary as a tourist attraction. Whoever coined the phrase “You can’t go back” was right.