Humans have very strong scent memory. Tell us about a smell that transports you.
Yesterday, I traveled 30 years back in time to a place that I had never really wanted to revisit…
There’s nothing particularly special or unusual about what I do during the week. It’s just your average blue collar job giving painted facelifts to aging and abused apartments. It was just your average Thursday morning, and I was in my average lazy mood.
After a fifteen minute commute, I arrived at the run-down property that my husband manages. It’s not his fault that it’s in such disrepair; he does his best with what he has. The outside of place hasn’t been painted in over fifteen years, and though I offered to do the job for much less than any of the other commercial painters, the economy still won’t allow for any major renovations right now. The wooden privacy fence surrounding the property has either been pulled down in several places by the local class-cutting high school students looking for a place to hide out, or it has simply rotted away. The pool fence is being eaten away by rust. Most of the fenced in enclosures that house the air conditioning units have been destroyed by the local kids on their summer vacation. Many of the window screens have been torn up or ripped out. Several of the decorative shutters have fallen off. The parking lot needs to be resurfaced. The list goes on and on, but there’s just no money to have any of it repaired or replaced. I tell my husband that he’s been demoted from property manager to slum lord, but he’s just too optimistic to accept it.
The insides of the places aren’t much better. I’ve come to realize that because of the deteriorating conditions outside, most of the residents aren’t motivated enough to take care of the inside, either. The apartment that I’m currently working in has a thick layer of nicotine on everything, torn up carpets with thick greasy stains all over them, and roaches as abundant as the stars.
I sat on the couch in my husband’s office for awhile, taking my sweet time nibbling at a microwaved breakfast sandwich, and trying to devise new ways to stall the inevitable. Eventually, though, I had to face the facts; 402 wasn’t going to paint itself, and I needed the money. So, I summoned up enough energy to haul my lazy rear end up of the sofa, grabbed my roller and brushes out of the refrigerator (that’s a nice little painter trick so that you don’t have to rinse them out at the end of every day), and toddled off to earn my dollar fifty and a small fry.
After fighting with the door for a moment because it’s one of those that you have to pull on in order for the key to properly turn in the lock, I finally managed to work it open and step inside. That same familiar nicotine smell ran to the threshold and greeted me, though it was admittedly not as strong as before due to the fresh coat of paint on several of the walls. I had already seen enough of this particular apartment to last a lifetime, though, so I decided to waste no more time getting started. I set my painting paraphernalia on the kitchen counter, grabbed my angled trim brush, popped open the 5 gallon bucket of white, and knelt down in a far corner of the living room to get started.
I had been avoiding that particular corner with good reason. I knew what those thick brown and yellow stains covering that matted patch of carpet were from. Sure enough, as I squatted down, my nasal passages were instantly assaulted by an all too familiar odor. Ooo, that smell. Can’t you smell that smell?
That memory smell. The one that sent a cold chill up my spine the second that my nostrils caught the first pungent whiff.
I was instantly transported out of the ‘now’ to find myself gazing into the ‘way back when’.
Christmas time and a week or two of summer vacation in which I went with my parents to “The Cabin up North”, were really the only times of the year that I was made to visit my grandfather as a child. I couldn’t have been more thankful for that fact.
He was a crotchety old man. The kind that you see in the movies or on TV, waving a fist in the air on his front porch yelling “stay off my lawn!” at the neighborhood kids playing outside. I never saw him smile; at least, not in any of my childhood memories.
I was admittedly afraid of him, as would be any happy-go lucky, pig-tailed little girl whose attempts at fun were met with stern and foreboding glares and admonitions that little girls don’t behave in such a manner. Don’t run around the dogs. Don’t play around the dogs. Don’t raise your voice around the dogs. Don’t have fun around the dogs. Don’t be a child around the dogs…
My grandfather had 4 of them. Four Daschunds. These were NOT your average cute, cuddly little sausage dogs, either. No, these dogs were spawned directly out of the 10th pit of hell. They could not have been scarier had they had multiple heads and breathed fire. You could not make any sudden movements around these dogs, like running, or they’d tear into you faster than you could scream. You could not be loud around these dogs, for loud noises set them off and you could possibly lose a limb. There was one in particular, Schnapps, that was the meanest one of the bunch. You couldn’t even look at him, or he would growl and lunge at your face.
They behaved that way due mostly in part to the fact that they were spoiled rotten. They were the kings and queens of their castle. So much so, that they weren’t even made to go outside to go to the bathroom. There was a dog door in the kitchen that they NEVER used. They had corners of certain rooms that they had claimed as their toilets, and because of this, my grandfather’s house always smelled very strongly of animal urine. You really didn’t want to play in any of the rooms, either, unless you had to, because you’d have to dodge doggy land mines.
I remember the Christmas it happened. The Christmas that I first broke the rules. I was 8 years old. Perhaps even younger, but for some reason, my mind always reverts back to that particular age when I travel once again to the long ago and far away.
We were gathered at my grandfather’s house to exchange gifts and enjoy a holiday meal. I was “playing” in the guestroom, if you could even call it playing, with my grandfather’s wife’s grandson, Joey. In truth, it was more like we were sitting on the sofa watching TV and trying not to draw attention to ourselves.
We were kids, though, and boring TV quickly turned into some childish game that resulted in me running down the hallway. My feet had barely hit the cold, hard floor before Schnapps was hard on my heels and had his teeth sunk into the leg of my pants and the flesh within. He tore my corduroys, the ones that my beloved grandma had made for me. They were tan and had a monkey patch on the back pocket. The tears immediately started flowing, and to make matters worse, here came the grandwarden around the corner. He surveyed the scene. He didn’t really care whether or not I was hurt, he just started yelling at me because I had upset his precious dog.
He then wanted me to try to calm the vicious beast and make friends with it. “Just talk to him, just talk to him…” He’d say. I didn’t want to come within talking distance of that dog. I wanted nothing to do with Schnapps, or my grandfather, who seemingly cared nothing for me.
Every Christmas trip to grandpa’s house thereafter was just some nightmare that I had to live through. At least during the summer trips to the cabin I could hideout in the loft where my grandfather and his evil beasts wouldn’t venture, or I’d spend my time outside on the dock watching the ships roll through the channel, highlighting each new ship that I saw in my special book.
Gramps is long gone, and so is Schnapps. This still doesn’t change the fact that a filthy carpet ripe with animal urine takes me back. Back to a place that I’d never otherwise go.