The Journal of Provincial Thought
jptArchives Issue 17
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Ye Olde Nostalgick Essay Korner-iss17
Odoronospacer Smellsby Ronaldo Odorono

I have written and thought long about the sheer, ineffable, ineluctable strangeness of childhood—not just my childhood but any childhood.  Childhood is another country, and they do things differently there.  It is a province like Jesus’s maddening descriptions of the Kingdom of Heaven—it is near and far, at hand, all around us but impossible to reach except by heroic feats of faith and memory.  One sensation that returns to me mysteriously, without summoning, a faint breeze from Cytherea, is the world of smells I inhabited as I grew away from the blank innocence of childhood.
            As much as any vagabond dog, I wandered in a cosmos of exciting odors, with far more to discover than with (say) colors.  After we learned about colors, the spectrum and color-coordinating at school I felt cheated:  Is this all? I asked myself.  No other, new, unfound colors and hues?  It was like first learning that the world is a finite sphere, bounded by itself and impossible to escape, not a flat, endless plain that could be traversed forever.  The bleak house of reality, gray shades of the prison-house.
            I roamed my small town freely, because parental paranoia and terror had not yet been invented and imposed on helpless families.  From kin to kain’t, I wandered the streets, the city parks, meandering down paths and creeksides out into the undefined country.  My senses were as wide open as a sunflower, and I gazed at everything, tracked down interesting noises (a steam shovel eating a ditch, one of those barrage-balloon-sized furnace vacuum cleaners roaring and quivering in front of a house, maybe about to explode and fling soot over hapless passersby), and I always followed my nose.
            An old cross-stitch sampler hung in our vestibule stating in colored threads:

click for text

As I exited the front door, I took this as my expeditionary motto and emblem.  I wanted to find, catalog and calculate endless numbers of things, to see, hear, taste and smell them all.  Had anyone shown me Whitman’s Leaves of Grass I would have both understood it and dismissed it as unremarkable—didn’t everyone exist in a permanent state of ecstatic love for this physical world that impinges on us so relentlessly?
            While I roamed through town, I dodged in and out of stores, randomly cruising them without agenda or objective.  Each store was instantly and certainly identifiable by scent.  Had I been blind, I would have known each place by the distinctive aura of odor it projected like an ectoplasmic emanation.  Dime stores were smell festivals, carnivals of exotic odors—an underlying base of floor polish and cleaner on the worn, polished hardwood, multiple animal smells from the pet department, sugary candy smells, stale peanuts, soupçons of cheap colognes with faraway names (Evening in Paris!), starchy clothing smells, wafting nuances of hardware and unnamable bric-a-brac.  Seasonally, dime store odors shifted—odd smells of pâpier maché Halloween masks, Christmas smells of pine needles and Santa’s wet furs, summer smells of rubber beach balls, toxic suntan lotion and horsy leathern odors of baseballs and mitts.
            A favorite visit was to Western Auto, which reeked strongly of rubber—new tires, inner tubes, floor mats—and tools, steel, wood, faint overlays of pungent 3-in-one oil on sharpened blades.  It smelled of bicycles in summer and Flexible Fliers in winter, or unrusted tire chains and lawnmowers still innocent of grass.  A few doors further was a jewelry store, as subdued and meditative as a Christian Science reading room, with indirect lighting, rows of glass cases, little artsy stands to exhibit one wrist watch or a necklace set with strange blue stones.  The only odor was a faint tingle of rare metal and money, an echo in the nose of Daisy Buchanan’s sad laughter.
            Further up Main Street was a Karmel Korn stand, tucked next to the State Theater, and while I did not go in, it wafted out its indescribable aroma of butter, popped corn, sugar and maple, with overtones of bubblegum, jujubes and Necco wafers.  Likewise, it was unnecessary to enter Hooks’ Drugs to smell the soda fountain, the perfume counter, the rows of medicaments tinctured with mint and sugar-coatings.  Beyond this scent was a hint of alcohol, witch hazel and sour liniment.  It was like a candy store crossbred to a mortuary or a dentist’s waiting room—the stealthy odor of pain lurked in the antiseptic store.
            When I traversed a clothing store, it exuded subtle odors of wool and cotton, a faint singed smell, like a hot iron, the sanctity of cleanliness.  The newsstand smelled of cut paper and printer’s ink, the 3-color smell of comic books printed on newsprint, the slithery odor of slick magazines like Life, Look and Colliers, meant to grace your coffee table and harmonize with your Johnson-waxed living room.  I could whiff the deckled edges on fancy greeting cards.
            Other galaxies of smell impinged on me as I walked the town—rank diesel fumes from buses, dog shit in gutters, sickly sweet scents of rotting garbage from alleyway mouths, sweeter bouquets from fresh fruits on sidewalk stands, a general smell of human bodies, old clothes, people at work.  If I stopped an ice cream man on his tintinnabulating tricycle, his wedge-shaped freezer breathed the metallic death of dried ice and faint blushes of ice cream flavors.  Taverns, which I was forbidden to enter, emanated sour odors of stale beer, old food and sweat, heavy grease from rudimentary kitchens.  Sometimes the sidewalks displayed multihued vomit stains from the wild night before.
            In the industrial districts were weird smells—the asbestos insulation factory, the wire and cord plant, forges and foundries with mephitic odors of burning and melting metals, a welding shop that exhaled raw ozone.  Lumber yards were sweet with the scent of new-sawed wood and horse glue, yards with recently mowed grass smelled like meadows and wild ponies.  On the edge of town was a broad sward where circuses and carnivals set up, always exhaling ghostly smells of popcorn and hotdogs and spun sugar, along with variegated animal shit and rotting sawdust.
            Also on the edge of town loomed huge greenhouses of commercial rose growers (our town sign read pridefully “The Rose City”), and from these and the florists shops breathed the air of Eden—all manner of flowers, the heavy wetness of greenery, the solid brownness of earth.  And further into the country were raw smells of wildness and farms—growing vegetables, fertilizers, hog yards and cow shit, feathery chaos of poultry farms.  On the wind, deep woods, ancient creeks, fields of weeds and wildflowers blew at us in town, as if to remind us there was freedom somewhere.  As the seasons cycled, the odors changed, from green growth to decay, the iron stillness of winter, the spicy rebirth of spring.  There was always a smell of life, incipient, new, aging, dying but life nonetheless.  It was a genie’s breath blowing back rancid smokestack and incinerator smells from town.
            As a child I never thought or calculated this way.  Smells were just there, like faint movie background music, keeping up a mood, underscoring events.  I was taught at home and in school about good smells vs. bad smells, but the dichotomy meant little to me.  I inhabited a universe of random smells, with all scents created equal.  When I watched dogs eagerly snuffling at excrement, at dead carcasses, at rotting plants, I understood that all odors existed for themselves and for creatures more sensitive and appreciative than I.  Only with age, with loss of feeling, did I forget the contiguous cosmos of smells that define the world around us as vividly as sight or sound or taste or touch.  Wordsworth, after all, got it right about the world, the rainbow and the innocent knowledge of childhood. ###

jptARCHIVE Issue 17
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