I had a conversation with a seventh-grader this morning, in the midst of a field trip bus ride, that caused a long-forgotten fragment of memory to break loose and float around in the forefront of my mind.
The bus was careening eastbound on the Massachusetts Turnpike, and passed the exit interchange that as a little guy I always associated with home. I pointed out a set of office buildings on either side of the Pike that hadn’t even been built when I was small. My seventh-grade colleague, whose father works in the town we were passing through and so is probably more familiar with the area than most of his schoolmates, asked if the Mall had been there.
Oh yes, I said; the Natick Mall was indeed there during my youth. My mind flashed back to the indoor fountain; the Woolworth’s store dead in the middle of the place; the Spencer Gifts store which contained gifts a bit too adult for my grade-school self to look at; the rather poorly-lit York Steak House restaurant which featured cafeteria-line-style service, which somehow engaged this elementary-school kid’s imagination like no other fast food joint of the time; and the Sears and Filene’s department stores anchoring the mall at opposite ends.
Not the current Natick Collection, mind you. Not the overgrown, overengineered, over-upscaled, under-parking-lot-laden monstrosity that dominates Route 9 in Natick, then and now among the most densely-populated commercial zones in America.
Time was, you could pull off Speen Street, making a sharp right turn off the road, park your car in an actual parking lot, and get out and walk straight into that Woolworth’s – rather efficiently, in fact, without needing to negotiate labyrinthine patterns of access lanes into the current carpark which mysteriously doesn’t seem to actually park many more cars than did its gently-rolling asphalt predecessor.
And then I got remembering what was on the other side of the parking lot from the Woolworth’s entrance, and the entrance to the Sears hardware department, and the set of double doors that led into the mall (and past my childhood barber of choice).
It was a low-lying, probably-not-more-than-two-story-tall brick building, probably at least two football fields long. It was knocked over many years ago now, in order that a glitzy luxury-apartment complex could be built as an enticement to businesses to join up with the new and improved Natick Collection. Or was it that the Collection was being built to entice people to go live in the new apartments? I lost track. Either way, there are still big ol’ signs saying “Apartments Available”, even now. A good effort, I guess.
The building they knocked over was the Wonder Bread manufacturing plant.
On the Speen Street, mall-parking-lot-entrance end of the building was in essence a bakery outlet store; but the remainder of the building was, honest to heaven, where they made the bread that then was sent out to supermarkets in those clear plastic bags with the cheerful blue and red and yellow dots all over them.
If you timed it right, and if the wind was blowing from the right direction, the aroma of freshly-baked (often freshly-baking!) bread could pick you up and carry you from your car into Woolworth’s.
It was in that building that I smelled the strongest smell of my life, then and now.
When you’re a Cub Scout, you take all kinds of predictable field trips with your Cub Scout den. Ballgames, bowling, birthday parties, hikes, all of that. Whoever was the Den Leader during this particular school year (I was probably in the third grade) came up with an alternative field trip idea: let’s go tour the Wonder Bread plant.
I will admit that I don’t remember a whole lot of specific details from that tour, other than the behind-the-scenes, pull-back-the-curtain excitement, for which even now I am a complete sucker. But this I do recall: we were led from one rather typically vast, factory-floor-looking space toward a smaller chamber which exuded a golden-yellow glow, visible through the small square windows two-thirds of the way up each of the double doors. Our tour guide said, “get ready,” and the doors opened, and we walked in.
If an aroma is capable of pile-driving its way through your nostrils and straight into your cerebral cortex, then that’s exactly what this aroma did. The smell that was generated by literally tons of bread dough, sitting in Volkswagen-sized troughs, being treated with industrial-intensity yeast (or at least that’s what I think our tour guide was saying, as we passed through the doors) … would have stopped a charging herd of buffalo in its tracks.
A complete Den of Cub Scouts suddenly could hardly take a breath, the aroma was so intense. We wanted to, because it was Bread Smell! And Bread Smell is good! But perhaps the Cub Scout lesson of that day was that there actually can be too much of a good thing.
When we emerged, holding our collective and individual breath, from the doubledoors at the opposite end of that Chamber of Golden Glow and Olfactory Smackdown, it was with mixed feelings, I think: the smell of clear air was a decided relief … and yet not nearly as interesting as the almost-terminal-intensity wheat processing.
We earned our All Things In Moderation badge, that afternoon.