Saturday, February 14, 2015

`Fierce, Ineradicable Tastes for the Plebian'

Years ago I read a novel by D. Keith Mano with the Desmond-esque title of Take Five (1982). I remember little but narrative shenanigans, compulsive wordplay and humor charitably described as “Rabelaisian.” In it, the main character, Simon Lynxx, progressively loses his five senses, a regression I’ve come to identify with in recent years following two cataract removals, a rebuilt eardrum and implantation of a prosthetic bone in my left ear. Touch seems unimpaired, fortunately, as do my taste buds. So too, my favorite sense, the olfactory, remains robust. I still relish the obviously pleasant scents – baking bread, a freshly opened can of coffee, new-mown grass, burning leaves, a discreetly non-cloying perfume on a woman. As a newspaper reporter, when visiting the homes of sources, I would smell their surroundings, just as I would read the titles of the books on their shelves, looking for revelations of character and taste. It could be a risky wager. If a pot of homemade sauce simmering on the stove was heavenly, boiled cabbage or forty years of cigarette smoke could prove hellish. 

In “Dog’s Name in Vain and Other Vulgar Matters” (Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70’s, 1975), L.E. Sissman confesses to his lowbrow, unsophisticated pleasures, including foods (Franco-American Spaghetti, “roadside fried clams” and Bisco Sugar Wafers) and reading matter (comic strips, “almost any Hearst column” and “the small ads for piles remedies”). Then the poet shares a “list of favorite vulgar smells.” Nothing kinky, but Sissman’s prose evoked each scent for me, confirming again that smells are reliably effective at stimulating memories: 

“Yes, I admit, I love the mingled smells of peanuts roasting and dusty floorboards in an old-fashioned five-and-ten-cent store…" 

[That brought back the Kresge’s and Woolworth’s of youth, with plank floors, the peanut stand with the rotating roaster, and the long soda fountain along the wall to the right. You could hear the twittering of the nearby caged canaries and parakeets.] 

“…the odor of deep-fat-fried egg rolls drifting from a cheesy Chinese restaurant…” 

[That brought back ChiAm’s in Cleveland. The owner, Tarzan, was a Taiwanese mysteriously associated with my father. My brother worked there briefly. The memory of that non-P.C. smell made my mouth water.] 

“…the whiff of fresh-ground Bokar in a thousand A&P’s...” 

[My family used only canned coffee but I remember the delicious scent of the grinding machine on the grocery aisle and the shape of the coffee-stained scoop where you held the bag to catch the grounds.] 

“…the attar of patent and ethical medicines and soda-fountain syrups in any good drugstore…” 

[That would be Avellone’s Pharmacy. The pharmacist, Chuck, wore a bleached white shirt, buttoned in the back, the kind then worn by dentists. The fragrance mingled the medicinal and confectionary.] 

“…and, horrors, the reek of raw 100-octane gasoline in any service station, a pleasure I may soon be bereft of.” 

[I hate cars and driving but admit to loving the smell of gasoline and even such verboten scents as paint thinner and nail polish-remover. I’ve never been tempted to get seriously high on the stuff, but understand the attraction of huffing.]     

“In my depravity, I have even been known to savor the smell of beer from a workman’s tavern at eight o’clock in the morning and the smell of a crowded movie house (hot buttered popcorn, mostly) at eight o’clock at night. And I am curiously moved by that old (and doubtless deleterious) city smell of soft-coal smoke bellying upward from apartment buildings on a snowy morning.” 

His mention of a tavern reminds of a bar in my university town, the first dive I considered mine, and the funk of old beer and stale popcorn, and the three songs that played on an endless loop on the jukebox: “Black Magic Woman,” “Green-Eyed Lady” and Ike and Tina Turner’s cover of “Proud Mary.” Sissman writes: “So there you have it: for all my fine pretensions, I’m just an ordinary guy, replete to the gunwales with fierce, ineradicable tastes for the plebeian.”

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