Friday, February 19, 2010

Smell-O-Vision


Smell-O-Vision

Several years ago the kids started hanging out with a girl named Evelyn. She is the same age as the seventeen year old, about 14 when I first meet her. She lives not far away in a little green clapboard house in Cypress Park but we never go inside. The story is that Evelyn’s mother is severely handicapped and that her father is in prison. She is pretty much on her own and when the seventeen year old gets into some post curfew mischief with another boy, his mother subjects me to an angry rant blaming Evelyn and her lack of supervision for the corruption of her son. Evelyn spends a lot of time with us and there is never any discussion about her family or any force of authority in her life. Once in a while her cellphone rings, she reports her whereabouts matter-of-factly and signs off.

I read a lovely piece The Dime Store Floor by David Owen in the New Yorker about the poignancy of scent.
http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/01/25/100125fa_fact_owen
Our house always smells like food but recently the ailing poodle Fido exudes a noxiousness that defies description and overpowers the aroma of muffins baking or onions sautéing. We burn a lot of incense, purchased mainly from the funerary supply aisle at the Chinese market. I splurge on some of the pricier white sage stuff from a local hipster shop which gives the dying dog a bit more run for the money. All three immediate family members note that it smells like Uncle Bob’s, which is the je ne sais quoi of aromatherapeutic locales for all four of us. But, until the dog starts to reek, I like the mosaic of food smells, meal layered on meal, at my house. Garlic. Onions. Ginger. Cinnamon. Marjoram. More onions. Evelyn comes in after not having visited for a while, crosses the threshold and inhales deeply, “I love the way your house smells, and I missed it.”

She is a striking girl with an unusual face, sweet, sly and sad. She carries a handsome knitted Mexican bag and has a sense of style unsullied by teenage girl trends. We pick her up often from her home or at various bus stops. I take her and the boys bicycle riding at Venice Beach. She speeds down the bike path, wild haired and exhilarated but still vaguely sad and so much older than my boys. We stop at a restaurant and suddenly she becomes squirmy. My kids discreetly coach her through ordering from a menu and restaurant protocol that none of us remember ever not knowing. It is a British pub style restaurant in Santa Monica and not very good. Still part of me thinks she’ll say, “That was the best thing I ever ate in my life and I aspire now to eat at other restaurants and see the world,” but she seems to reach no such epiphany and eats very tentatively and remains spooked until we are out the door. She moves abruptly to Utah about a year ago.

The boys have pretty much forgotten her and find it weird that I ask if they’ve heard anything. I remember her waiting alone, poised and dignified, at the bus stop. I do not know about her circumstances in Utah or even if she is still there. If I had an extra bedroom and the unlikely consent of Himself I would have been happy to take her to live with me. I am haunted by her sadness and it puts my own in perspective. I rode the bus by myself for miles and miles when I was her age. I was getting away from many of the same things she is getting away from when we pick her up at nine p.m. from an Echo Park bus stop, but never in my life did I ever feel that I wasn’t good enough to go anywhere I wanted to go.

My kids have eaten in tons of restaurants and have done a fair amount of travelling. I remember a trip to San Francisco for a Bar Mitzvah when I was five. It was in our brand new sky blue ’63 Impala and I got carsick on 101 and puked in the backseat. We stayed at the Jack Tar Hotel and I was astonished by a glass elevator. I was gifted a stuffed cat with green glass eyes and real jet black animal fur, which was probably rabbit, that I loved more than any other toy. I loved it so much that I rubbed off areas of fur, leaving bald suedey patches. My dad took some movies which reveal lots of high heels and big hair. There are photos in the album of trips to Palm Springs with cousins but all I remember was being the only kid brave enough to jump off a high diving board and being caught in the deep end by dad. These are the only trips I took with both of my parents. My father, with the two wives to come, visited most of Europe, Asia and South America. I never travelled with him again although untouched in his office remain dozens of travel scrapbooks, reels of film and crates of Kodachrome slides.

After the divorce there were very few trips. Once my mother and I ventured all the way to Orange County and spent a weekend at the Newporter Inn. We rode a pedal boat briefly on the bay and uncharacteristically, given her thrifty nature, did not make use of the full hour of the rental because the ocean breeze wreaked havoc on her hair. I met a rather dull girl on the beach, the only child in sight. Out of boredom I regaled her with a story about my mother being an heiress and my father being dead by mysterious circumstances. We were up in the room watching television and my mother said something about my father. The girl said, “I thought your father was dead,” and that took care of that. My mother was nonplused by my falsification.

When I was fourteen wealthy relatives condescended to take me with two cousins on a trip to Monterey. I was enchanted to stay in a hotel and thrilled by the scenery. I sat in the middle of the backseat of a huge brand new white Cadillac for my first experience of the 17 Mile Drive through Pebble Beach. I was between two travel jaded cousins who read books during the hour we spent traversing one of the most beautiful coastal stretches in the world. They’d seen it before.

My mother had a boyfriend who took her to a high end restaurant and paid for a babysitter every Saturday night but he would not marry her and she was condemned to continue working which she resented up until the day years later when she took early retirement from the postal service. She called him Jose with affectation and for some reason I don’t think I ever knew. His real name was Sumner and he was a Jew from Boston. She claimed frequently that he would not marry her because of me and as sullen, miserable and unpresentable as I was, there was probably a lot of truth to this.

My mother, in the face of her boyfriend’s determination not to rescue her from her undeserved life of drudgery, continued to date him but also played the field. She met Jack Warner at a party. He took her to a fancy Beverly Hills Mexican restaurant with a boutique and bought me an embroidered blouse. He bought her a sewing machine. If she’d had a brain she would have taken this as an indication that ensconcing her in a life of luxury was not on his agenda.

One afternoon when I was in the eighth grade I was called to the office during seventh period. My aunt was there waiting. I thought there’d been a catastrophe but it turned out that Jack Warner had invited my mother on a spur of the moment trip to New York. My aunt took me home and waited impatiently while I packed to spend a week with her family in Encino. When we arrived at their home it was determined that my clothing was too wild, too short and too worn. My mother, while happy to dump me on her at the last minute so she could jet off to New York, had disparaged this aunt by noting that she had dozens of blouses with peter pan collars folded in drawers. I didn’t understand that this diss meant that my aunt had the fashion sense of a school marm until she took me to Fairyland and bought me some below knee length dresses to replace my unacceptable wardrobe while I was a guest in their home. I shortened them all as soon as I returned to Fulton Avenue.

I was mortified and disgraced to be plomped mid school week in the staid home of my cousins. I pretended I had a boyfriend just to not seem like such a loser whose mother would abandon her without notice to run off with a famous producer. The phones in those days would buzz if left off the hook for too long. I would call my home number, where I knew no one would answer and always in earshot of my cousins, fake a whispery, giggly conversation with some dashing long haired fantasy boy who was wild about me while the phone rang and rang at my empty house. Finally a neighbor with a key became concerned about the constantly ringing phone and entered to answer it right in the middle of my cooing adoration. I hung up immediately and told my cousin that my boyfriend was on a trip and not available to call for a few days.

After a week in a household where my favorite show Laugh In was considered too risqué and there was no t.v. on school night’s anyway, I began to crack. I managed to get through to the Sherry Netherland hotel in New York. The operator said there was no room in my mother’s name so I begged to speak with Jack Warner. The operator refused but I said that my mother was staying with him and that it was an emergency. It was about ten in Los Angeles and when she finally relented and put my call through, it was obvious that I’d awakened Warner. He was furious and screamed that my mother wasn’t there. She returned the next day. I’m not sure if his disgust at my phone call was the catalyst for her return. She never heard from him again and we never spoke about it except she raged for days at having to repay my aunt for the long distance call I’d made to New York.

David Owen writes in the New Yorker piece that he buys Old Spice deodorant from the online purveyor he uses for personal and hygiene items because he remembers that his dad had used it. He applies it but the scent is not evocative. Forgetting to pack deodorant for a trip, he wanders into a drugstore and sees that the retailer, unlike the Internet supplier, carries Old Spice in a number of different scents. There is a variety labeled “classic scent” and he buys it. He applies it for the first time. It is the same scent his father used and it arouses a powerful sweet rush of memory and creates a dilemma about whether to continue using it and risk that the potency be subsumed by new memories.

When I think about my cousin’s house I remember a carbolic, vaguely suggesting nasty medicine, smell but I suspect this is a trick of memory. Given the character of the residents I cannot imagine their home spelling anything but extremely clean. My mother came out of the shower once with tears pouring down her cheeks. A new bath gel had reminded her of a childhood family trip to a field of lavender. I try to summon a smell that evokes her to me. Now her scent is of whatever brands of body wash and lotion I bring her. I think my most lingering scent memory is of her hairspray. She used a brand with a French name. It had the consistency of epoxy. It was not available in drugstores, only beauty supply shops. I vaguely remember the label being orange and yellow stripes with black woodcut illustrations, perhaps of fishnet stockings and stiletto heels. I wrack my brain but I cannot remember the brand name. I look online at advertising archives and blogs devoted to fifties femininity but nothing jogs my memory. I engage in live chat with a nice lady in Vancouver Washington via “Ask a Librarian” but she has no clue about locating collections of old beauty supply catalogs.

Fido is spaced out and just stands around, often being boinked by the refrigerator door but she eats voraciously, wags her tail when she sees Himself and except for fur loss and the aforementioned stinkiness shows no signs of terminality. She has exceeded the vet’s life expectation by several months and we have even been relieved of having to decide whether to purchase her expensive prescription in quantities of 30, 90 or 120. Himself mentions the poodle’s sad diagnosis to a colleague who happens to have his own liver cancer stricken dog. A few weeks later at a meeting he hands over to Himself five boxes of the same medication prescribed for Fido, having been overoptimistic when ordering for his own pet. I keep telling myself that it’s not ok to have a dog put down just because she smells. Plus it would be a shame for all those pricey pills to go to waste.

I’m sure though it won’t be that long until we’re liberated from eau de fading Fido and return to the usual whirl of food aromas. I am resigned that my mother’s hairspray brand is lost to me forever but maybe some day they’ll be a whiff of something that will transport me back to Fulton Avenue and mother’s love. I doubt too that I will ever see Evelyn again but maybe one day she’ll walk into a warm room with smells of cooking and remember me.

7 comments:

Fionnchú said...

I wonder if the Jack Tar Motel was the same as the Ace? How many Palm Springs places circa the '60s could have had a nautical theme? Why any did's beyond me.

Old Spice doesn't smell that bad, maybe? I have not had a whiff of it in years, but Aqua Velva reminds me of my dad as does Aqua Net my mom. There was a great picture on the label of the latter with a blonde with flips in her hair, an early Fedco memory.

Funny how we as kids traversed the hot, smoggy, glaring, dusty (always so in my recollection) Valley with its asphalt and concrete vistas There was but one mall then (Valley Plaza with its ice rink I gazed at but never went on), and Sears nearby with Ontra Cafeteria, my favorite.

There was also a dim colonial woodsy diner near Chandler at the NoHo-Burbank border. I recall seeing the Muriel White Owl cigarillos on display in the vending machine ads in a dusky corner of what always seemed a very dark interior. At the checkout register, there were for a nickel sold orange-chocolate mint patties I loved as well as York peppermint ones in silver foil.

Sometimes my dad would stop at a nearby store to get us Caravelle bars, Reed's Sour Lemon candy rolls, or best of all Rolos, which I devoured.

Thanks for the olfactory and other memories conjured up here. xxx me

Chris Berry said...

You've outdone yourself (again) Layne...Beautiful post...And no, it's not ok to put down a mutt cuz she stinks. Go Fido.

Chris Berry said...

You've outdone yourself (again) Layne...Beautiful post...And no, it's not ok to put down a mutt cuz she stinks. Go Fido.

harry said...

It's become a Friday night ritual we look forward to at our house... "did you read Layne's blog." Sitting on the sofa with large bowls of pasta, the animals settled in their regular spots... "I didn't know Fido was a girl." "Interesting... missing Evelyn."

天氣晴朗 said...

快樂與滿足的秘訣,就在全心全意投注於現在的每一分,每一秒上..................................................

Pat said...

I think those Chinese readers liked your entry!
Funny, you reminded me of the strange kind of sad weekend when my mom took me to the Balboa Bay club. I think we endured the identical odd single mom Orange Country beach weekend.

Fionnchú said...

Royal Crown Lemon Sours. Maybe Cherry ones. But Reed's were Root Beer, not a British import. Sorry.