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Over 50 years ago

Loves Me All the Time

A sailboat slides by on the bay. The smell of oily Sea and Ski suntan lotion fills the air. It’s a hot summer day and the Kona Kai Club bustles with adults, teens and tots. I’m in trouble. My brother hit me and I had to chase him around the pool and my dad yelled at me to sit down. I knew running was against the rules, but I couldn’t help it. I cried and said I wanted to go home but Dad said no. Now I’m glued to my towel, it’s too noisy and too hot to sleep and I just want to escape. 

My stupid brother does a cannonball into the pool and splashes me. He bobs up, sticks out his tongue and crosses his eyes. I don’t take the bait and he finally swims away. I check Dad who’s lighting a cigarette, sneak away and tiptoe along the concrete over to the deserted Children’s Pool in a shady corner. 

The sun sparkles off the turquoise circle through tall palm trees. My small feet wade down the steps to the center of the pool and I bend my knees so that the cool water comes almost up to my chin. The sharp chlorine smell tickles my nose and I know if I dunk my head under and swim around for a while my blonde hair will turn icky green again. 
I clap my hands twice and swish them through the shiny blue water. Then close my eyes and begin to sing one of my father’s favorite songs. 

Sugar in the morning. Sugar in the evening. Sugar at suppertime. 
Be my little sugar and love me all the time.

As I turn in slow circles, the metal drain massages my bare feet and my voice echoes off the edge of the pool. When he sings that song to me, I know he’s happy. If he hasn’t had too many beers and isn’t slurring his words, I believe that he really does love me all the time.

I repeat the song again and continue in circles until I hear his voice call, “Jilliebeaner, it’s time to go!” I look up and see he’s smiling at me holding my towel open and I know then the words to the song are true.

- Jill G. Hall


Window Shades and Linoleum

From 1934 until the 1960’s, my parents owned Harry Smith Shade and Linoleum Company in North Park at 2912 University, where Off the Record is now. At the front half of our shop, six-foot-high rolls of linoleum lined up in rows. I had favorites like the Armstrong abstracts with pieces of shine in them that caught the light. Or a pattern called Tessera made of tiny mosaic squares. (You can sometimes still see Tessera on the bathroom floors of old restaurants.) All of the linoleum smelled like its white asbestos fiber backing: A businesslike, chemical scent something like asphalt, sharp and unmistakable.


But down in the basement, the big nine-foot rolls of linoleum lay lengthwise on the floor like felled trees. After my father died in 1956, the work of unrolling and slicing lengths off those giants fell to my mom and her new helper, a young single mother named Carol Arnold. That linoleum got its scent from its dark gray tarpaper backing. You could pick up its tar smell as soon as you came down the wooden stairs.


During World War II, because the government was afraid of bombing raids, San Diegans were ordered to buy regulation window shades to black out the city at night. Lines formed around the block leading into our window shade store. After the war, people were glad to switch out their dark green shades for eggshell, white, and cream, and later on, pale blue, sunshiny yellow, and a soft green. In the fifties, when customers were starting to feel expansive from having a little extra cash, they wanted the ends of their window shades cut into fancy designs like scallops. They wanted them trimmed in rickrack or fringe. 


The ten-by-ten-foot shade-making table stood on six-by-six-inch square wooden legs. A soft dusty scent came from underneath where shelves stored cutting tools and scraps of window shade material.


We sewed a casement across the bottom of each window shade for a wooden slat. So, from time to time, a light odor of sawdust and fresh pinewood would puff out in the back of the store when somebody pushed a long slat into the cutter and smashed down the heavy handle to cut it to length. 


Twenty-foot ceilings in the store kept the place cool, and the scent that drifted through that coolness was the signature smell of our shop: the soft, oily, painty odor of window shade fabric. 


Today, I go into Off the Record in North Park once in a while so that I can press the metal thumb tab on the old door handle and hear it click. The same heavy front door closes behind me with its familiar chonk. But the new owners have installed an acoustic tile ceiling nine feet up, so you can no longer see the mark my dad put on the wall at 12’ 11 7/8”, which was his world pole-vaulting record. The old scents of our shop are gone too, replaced now by the 1950’s vintage smell of vinyl records.

- Anitra Carol Smith


A Desert Morning: One for the Nose

In the summer of 1950, we lived on Poppy St. Neighborhood kids rode bikes past bright patches of California poppies that proud neighbors had planted. In the August fog, poppies smelled like cut cucumbers on newly cut grass, the same scent as wet afternoons in Houghton Park, our bike destination. The park, over 30 acres and just outside the Long Beach central district, was scratched by miles of bike trails into the bush.


Sandstone channels cut through the night-blooming perfume-rich jasmine. Bike rides through the flowering bushes meant well-scented eight and nine year old boys who reeked of perfume, but who hadn't the faintest idea what that suggested to their mothers.


My mom said: "Son, who have you been seeing at the park?" Then, she smiled. "The smell on your shirt is a sure give-away. You better throw it in the wash."


"Yuck," I said.


In early October that year I would leave the jasmine of Houghton Park. Sadly, Mom had lost a two-year baby boy to leukemia two years before. Dad wanted to get relief for her from the city and its memories. He looked at property in the desert: abundant, cheap and far away. We ended up with an old fruit and date shop in a distant desert town, Cathedral City. He said we would like it, though it would take a little getting used to. 


Here, Mom would be able to empty herself of grief.


About 100 miles from the perfumed bushes of Houghton Park was a desert hole, our new home. It was October and it smelled dry to the bone. While my city park began its mornings in fog, the desert would only now begin to shake off the residual heat of sun-embedded stone. It would be a month before I could smell the moisture in the fall air. 


Our new home, ten miles and twenty years south of Palm Springs sat in a settlement called Tramview, a 100 yard stretch of asphalt called Highway 111, a mile west of Cathedral City and the Whitewater River wash. In late September when we arrived with our 25-foot trailer, the asphalt began to scream heat as early as mid-morning. Early on, I stood out on the asphalt highway at high noon and looked toward Cathedral City. I saw a shimmering mirage past the wash on the edge of town. I imagined a hot steam iron rose in the air, the smell of Highway 111 at noon on a September day.


I brought my bike from Long Beach. I did dry wheelies behind dad's shop, but didn't dare ride into the snake-filled hills behind us. In the city my buddies and I used to chase squirrels up trees with our bikes. In the desert by myself, I chased jackrabbits into holes that pocketed the desert floor. In the city, a squirrel might mess up and lose the chase. Not a chance with Jack, the Rabbit, as I called him. He was sleek and quick. 


Often, Jack came to sniff around the shop where dad sold an odd mix of grapefruit and nuts. That October afternoon, I saw Jack snooping around the date crates. The sweet, sticky residue of the Deglet Noors had captured him, lured him out of his hole, teased him into making the big dare. He glanced at me. I grabbed a branch from the creosote bush. 


"Catch me if you can, Mr. Boy”, Jack sniffed. 


I flailed the branch. He hightailed it past a creosote bush, past the ocotillo, past the smoke tree, past the tumbleweed that suddenly snapped its roots and rolled toward Highway 111. Fat chance the weed would make it intact across the road. This was October, the beginning of tourist season and the cars steadied into a stream from mid-morning on. 


Jack was long gone into the bush. 


It was late afternoon now. He'd be back at night but by then, Dad would have secured the date crates in the shop. No dessert for Jack.


The sun slipped behind Mt. San Jacinto, the peak that rose from the desert floor to crest on a razor precipice. The sun abandoned the place completely about seven o'clock and left little moisture to reconstitute itself. By morning the dry, vacant air of the previous afternoon would become cool again to emerge as a catalyst for the aromas imbedded in the desert floor. 


In yesterday's heat, Jack's scat dried odorless but regained its pungency through the night. 


At sunrise, the prickly pear flowers perked up, suggesting how seductively sweet its bulbous fruit would be. The purple verbena became freshly cut daisies sprouting from a vase on the dining room table. The sagebrush, not really sage, smelled of Thanksgiving dressing.


But the morning air also brought a stench, a definite stench that pervaded the desert, stretching from our 1940s trailer house to the sand hills across the valley. A visitor might have pointed to our outhouse, just behind the shop. But, no, the morning dew securely contained that odor and left it to bloom in the late afternoon sun. 


The odor of distinction came from the gangly creosote, its branches and shiny leaves, which were the size of fly's wings. Its glistening, olive-green leaves stuck to my fingers and left a strongly scented resin that permeated the air, always in the morning hours, but especially after rain. The gnarled, gray, sparsely foliated offshoots branched out like lightening from a plasma ball. I had used one of its branches to threaten Jack, long-gone.


The creosote bulb produced yellow flowers almost all year round, but primarily in spring, followed by a silver-furred round berry, easy to pick and adventurous to chew. The silver fuzz ball, dainty and cute, was nothing but a beast that harmed. Jackrabbits survived its sting when eaten, but, strangely, mountain goats and sheep did not. Sheep died; mountain goats staggered off to find a place of rest to relieve the pain. Dumb cows, however, were smart enough to ignore it. 


When planted in a garden with abundant water, the creosote bush reached twelve feet in height, but why would anyone want to unleash this noxious beast? 


The creosote was a bad neighbor. Root the creosote next to a healthy plant at its peril. The foul-smelling greasewood, another of its names, does not tolerate company and, if the company overstays its welcome, pain and suffering, if not death, followed. I knew a man up in Cathedral Canyon who grew large creosote, near which thrived his treasured boxwood hedge. The creosote suffered the hedge for five years. Then, the once healthy boxwood became yellow and sickly. Its neighbor, the creosote, remained green and triumphant.


Desert rains pumped up the pungency of the resin. Rain was so rare that anything associated with it was memorable. Get close to an old telephone pole and smell the real creosote: acrid, a little gassy, like melting tar. The pole won't evoke memories. But creosote forges indelible ones. They pervade the desert landscape and, as all noxious creatures, call attention to themselves: the smell of burnt resin, the hard sticky touch of their leaves or their gangly body, branches electrified.


For some, the desert is nature in its purest state. The primeval forest, however, reeks of decay in its fecundity. Dead fish and seaweed putrefy the beach. The desert, by contrast, is pristine, clean, and brisk in the winter, white hot in summer. It is nature in its Edenic state without the sin of human flesh, a place where human flesh does not survive the summer, anyway. 


But that is not our Eden; it is Satan's and his viper's.


At first whiff after a rain, the smells of the desert seem pure, then fall into an aroma of decay. The scent attacks nostrils with hot resin irritation. The creosote deadens feeling, yet makes vulnerable the sinuses and stings them with a scorpion's hook.


The purity of a summer morning breeze, hot, pristine, skin boiling is cast against the acrid bitterness of a bush. 


As a Boy Scout, I encamped one night under the stars next to large creosote. I could not sleep. While the jackrabbits foraged on the desert floor for crickets, I fidgeted. I inched my sleeping bag north a few feet, then east, then west to escape the smell. 


I could not rest. 


Creosote was everywhere. 


I could not find a place to hide. Jack's hole was too narrow.

When I returned home, my mother thought I was sick.

- Don Mayfield


Night-blooming Jasmine

It made people want to make love. Or jump in the Ford and drive all night to Albuquerque with the top down, listening to Johnny Hodges’ play “Harlem Nocturne.” Except that we were too languid and indecisive from the heat.


In my East San Diego neighborhood, jasmine bloomed in deep summer. On nights too clear and hot for sleep, its heavysweet scent crept across yards and down alleys, over fences, into open windows, touching everything with a knowing hand. 


The jasmine wasn’t ours. Our family knew better. Even gardening books warn, “Do not plant cestrum nocturnum under your bedroom window because the powerful fragrance may keep you awake.” No. Someone else had been incautious.


It was the aroma that led me on my only nighttime escapade. I was 14. One night, Johnny, a neighbor kid who smoked and was 15, threw pebbles against my bedroom window. I slid off my bed and pulled on some jeans and a shirt. I lifted the screen off the side window and skidded over the windowsill into the fragrance of the night. 


“Come on,” Johnny whispered. “Let’s go to Franklin.”


On the school playground, I grabbed the high bar, walked my feet up the pole and threw my leg over to sit on top. I could smell the cold metallic odor on my hands from gripping the bars. The jasmine seemed fainter here, and the playground gave off its usual dry smell of sand. 


On the next bar over, Johnny hung by his knees, smoking upside down. We talked. After a while, we held hands and walked home into the fury of my mother’s wrath.


As escapades go, it was pretty tame. But after a summer in the backyard glider reading “Lassie Come Home,” and “The Three Musketeers,” it was odd. Jasmine-struck.

- Anitra Carol Smith


George Washington School, circa 1960

Sawdust, waxy crayons, and sweaty boys with Brylcreemed hair
A dank cloak room full of cubbies and hooks, battered metal lunch boxes all in a line
Sturdy clunky saddle shoes protect busy feet, sagging thin socks rimmed in lace
Legs cross Indian style on sleek waxed linoleum, hands fold, eyes straight, lips purse
Squeaky bottoms slip on polished wood chairs, teddy bear name plates taped to each desk
Peppermint paste sticks to chubby fingers
Cinnamon graham crackers dunk in miniature cartons of warm milk
Thick graphite pencils scribble on dittoed worksheets, the odor fading as they pass down the rows, pages still damp with a chemical smell
Slight whiff of teacher’s floral-scented perfume as she bends down to correct “borrows” and “carries”
Fat clumsy hands clutch stubby dull scissors jaggedly cutting stiff bright paper
Dusty chalk on an old green board, piles of yellow flakes billow out
Freshly mixed paint drips, powder and water bubbling thick in used cottage cheese containers
Flimsy pastel paper clipped to a towering easel awaits the first stroke from a clean brush
Stale chlorine rises as water leaks out of a rusted faucet, white powdered baking soda soap wet, hardens as it dries in lumps
Rough brown paper towels like compressed bark stick and tear as they wipe wet hands
Rainbow colors swirl into brown as they suck down the moldy drain
Smooth pages of glossy books, the plastic odor of a new doll
Dick, Jane and little Sally, baffling book people with their stilted dialogue and perfect mommy
George Washington Elementary School, a universe of possibilities

- Carol Schnaubelt