Roach: The Essence of Youth
from may 2001, issue#15
You know how it is. Something
you cant put your finger on. Its all in your head.But
suddenly there it is. The unmistakable smell of fresh, warm bread.
And I find myself slipping backward down that long tunnel of memory.
To the late 1930s. And
a group of boys standing at the doorway of the local bakery (now
long gone) imbibing the delicious odour of the tasty loaves just
removed from the smoke-blackened jaws of the oval brick ovens.
I see youve joined me.
Since youre here, lets wander through some of the scenes
and breathe again some of those scents of our childhood.
Lets sit on the curb here
and enjoy the pungency of hot tar as the road crews repair cracks
in the concrete along Wyandotte Street. There again, pouring shining
tar from large, spouted tar-covered cans, are the workers in tar-splattered
overalls. (These are the days before the Levis craze, and people
in overalls work.)
Again we stroll a few blocks
down the street to the corner hotel. We stand wide-eyed, staring
innocently through windows opened to the warm summer breeze. We
watch unshaven men of the Depression quaffing guiltily. And the
stink of stale beer reaches our sensitive nostrils.
The waiter, in black bow-tie,
shirt sleeves and elastic armbands, sees our open-mouthed visages
beneath the flowing, flowered curtains and shoos us away like so
many frightened chickens.
No matter. Over to the local
field and watch the boys preparing their soap-box racers. Why do
they call them that? They are not made of soap-boxes but of orange
crates nailed onto two-by-fours with humming metal roller-skate
wheels fore and aft and tincan lids for headlights.
And here we catch a whiff of
the thick blobs of congealing red paint on the racers before Bulldog-running-shoed
lads, leaning into broom handles shoved into slots at the rear of
the "crates," roar away around the well-worn dusty oval track through
the burdock bushes.
Again we climb the ubiquitous
Up-to-Heaven trees at the back of the field where Fat performs his
death-defying high-wire act, swinging and leaping in the upper branches
to the amazement and ringing applause of 10,000 patrons jammed into
the Barnum and Bailey main tent.
Our hands and clothing reek
of the strong bark as we drop to the ground from the lower limbs
and dash ("Last one theres a monkeys uncle!") to the
nearby railway freight sheds.
We scramble across the couplings
between sidelined railway freight cars, scarcely aware of the familiar
odours from oil-soaked rags in the wheel caps and the heavy brown
grease on the axles.
The tang of rusty metal is on
our hands and knees as we climb the ladders and race along the tops
of old wooden boxcars to the roof of the freight shed to scoop up
handfuls of small pebbles and shower them on unsuspecting citizens
on the sidewalk below.
Down the drainpipe and across
the alley to rummage through the nearby factorys garbage bins,
redolent of its discarded products: cold cream jars, toothpaste
tubes and shampoo bottles.
A bloated rat scuttles away
as we dig for valuable treasures: used stamps, empty boxes and bits
of flexible wire, just the ticket for binding stacks of baseball
cards. ("Ill trade ya two Goose Goslins for one Mickey Cochran.")
The olfactory pleasures of childhood.
Airplane glue, your older sisters nail polish, steak and kidney
pie cooking in the high black Empire oven, shoe polish on the basement
stairway, ashes being sifted in the alley on Saturday morning
Fondly remembered essences of
boyhood linger on. And we think of Thomas Moores lines:
You may break,
you may shatter the vase if you will,
but the scent of the roses
will hand round it still.
Life and Times