Scent Memory

This morning I found myself standing in the middle of the North Hollywood Post Office, closing my eyes and imagining myself in the most exotic locale of my youth.

The coat room in Watts.

My brother and I went to school in Manhattan Beach in the 70’s. We provided the diversity, my cousin likes to say that I was raised in a sea of blondes. Being Jewish in a lily white burb wasn’t all that difficult, but parts of it weren’t easy either.

Manhattan Beach and Los Angeles School Districts were on different schedules so periodically our mother would have to teach on days that we didn’t have classes and we would get to go to school with her.

The kids were behind, we knew that our classmates were ahead of them, but we didn’t know why until much later in life. The kids were sometimes a little dirty, not all of them had homes, my mother called them squatters. I thought they were incredibly mature and their incurious stares intrigued me. In retrospect I recognize it as hunger.

The school had a certain smell, the smell of wet wood and too many bodies. The ceilings were high and the colors were muted so that I imagined they’d taken bright yellow paint and magically added 15 years of cigarette stain and sun damage to provide the institutional blandness a school like this would require.

The windows were tinted, but unlike my school there were no fields, knolls or ponds to gaze upon, there were blacktops, chain link fences, and barbed wire topped it like cheap icing on a store bought cake.

In the mornings the children would go to the coatroom where they would put their jackets and sack lunches and bags away in milk crates that had their names written on them. Because the coat room provided privacy no adults would go in there, only children, and I’d stand white in a sea of dark faces listening to them laugh and talk, just eight miles from home but in a very different English.

The musty cramped coat room where boys and girls laughed and jostled each other where I wasn’t one of the kids, but we shared a fear of my mother. That’s what I smelled this morning.

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  1. Okay, I wasn’t there with you as a kid, obviously, but your description of this is so evocative that I thought I was: “The school had a certain smell, the smell of wet wood and too many bodies.” Kick-ass (and insightful) last paragraph, too. I think I once read that scent is the most powerful of the senses, mainly because of its ability to transport us to an exact moment. Do you detect scents when you dream? I do — it’s wild.

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