Saturday, February 27, 2010

Holding My Breath

In a previous incarnation I remember how we could smell Igor coming from six caves away. Caesar didn't have a lot of friends till he got his toga out of the dry cleaners. And I must tell you that Ivan the Terrible earned that name a month before his annual bath.

Ah, but now we live in a virtually deodorized society except for the new car smell and "medical" marijuana. It's as if we have opened the windows and all the warm and fuzzy fumes went with the wind along with the stenches and stinks.

Fortunately room sprays can’t erase what has been imprinted within. To the extent we are walking computers many gigabytes of memory must be lodged in our nose. One deep breath and I'm ten years old back in Gishkin's candy store, the air thick with his cigar smoke and bubble gum.

Think of Staples, Big Five and the magazine section of Borders compressed into a large closet of a place jammed with baseball mitts, football needles, roller skates and skate keys, colored chalk, hockey pucks and model airplane kits along with that hallucinogenic glue. There was a section of school supplies including three-hole notebooks and such relics as reinforcements and ink eradicator.

Did these objects emit some strange odor? I say, Yes, just as the comic books and newspapers thrown from the truck left a vapor trail which found roomn a previous incarnation I remember how we could smell Igor coming from six caves away. Caesar didn't  for pipe tobacco and the ever-present egg-cream famous for containing neither egg nor cream.

My second inhalation brings me to my father's drug store with its mingling of three incongruous scents and an overhead fan to triturate the mix like a mortar and pestle. First was the twelve-seat soda fountain with accompanying sandwich board. So we had tuna fish and egg salad wafting over to the Evening In Paris perfume. Into this add the breath of crude drugs such as Cocilana syrup, wild cherry extract, smelling salts and acacia from the glue bottle.

Tincture of benzoin and oil of eucalyptus last whiffed in the vaporizer, spirit of camphor and Cheracol are now gone or fallen into disrepute. Several of these may be unknown today but were staples back then. Some were pungent, some near rancid or sulfurous; they all cling to my nostrils.

This is the arcane fragrance I associate with my father. He brought it home with himself every night. Arpege and Aqua Velva are still with us and even marshmallow frappes but many of the botanicals have vanished and that special confluence of drug store air has been gone for over half a century.

I doubt we will ever smell it again. Those of us over sixty have it warehoused in our olfactory where it never grows stale. It's safe there and easily retrieved. But how can we pass this on to our children? It’s part of the trade-off called progress.

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