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Age: 36-45

The Faint Scent Of Color

Color—all of it, all colors—has no smell except the smell of crayola wax because for me, it’s the very first time I remember pure color, a vivid color, one that I could work to my will, one that was part of my world and was something more than the phantasms of adulthood. The wax seemed to smell differently depending on the color; I mean of course it wouldn't, but somehow hot pink smelled different than burnt orange smelled different than plain purple. Or maybe, because it was always wax again, and because the colors were so pure, the wax was like a blank page, a blank screen with a blinking cursor, a photo film coated in silver waiting for an image to be exposed onto it; wax was the medium carrying the smells of memory, the smell of sharp lemon that went with the lemon crayon, the smell of rubber and dirt and grime that went with the dark greys, the smell of grape juice with the purple, the smell of flamingos, fishy and bird droppings, that went with the neon orange, the smell of fear that went with the dark browns, the dark greens, the grey brown murky colors.

Maybe the reason little kids scribble isn't because they're not aware of the lines, it's because they've got something more interesting than the lines, they've got a smell-picture in their heads, and the exact combination of colors in scribble perfectly conjurors up the smell they're thinking of.

Did I mention I used to jam crayons into the center of a box fan, to watch the wax melt into circles of blur and color? Wax and dust was the smell. Also when I was really young I used to smash crayons into the grill of the space heater, to smell the wax as it melted against the warm dust coating the inside of the heater. I wonder now why my mother would let me get away with something so messy, but I realize that she probably figured, in the grand scheme of odd things boys do to clean up after, that wasn't such a big deal. Maybe she also thought the colors were pretty, and didn't mind so much because of it. Or, maybe she too has some sacred memory of crayons, the wax trapping the scent and the memory as sure as it traps the color of the crayon. Maybe she couldn't bring herself to rebuke grade school—coloring in the flags of the world, the crayons she held in her hand, the crayon she broke when grandma cried out because the radio just announced President Kennedy had been shot, the sharp smell of wax every bit as deadly and grim as gunpowder, the plastic smell of childhood itself.

- Brian Thedell

Paprika: Turning Outside In

Sunken down into the chair, beat down from the day, longingly awaiting the simmering to be done as fatigue slowly enclosed me in its grasp. The year had been simultaneously fast and long with learning to balance work and a new baby. The balance, organization, energy I had always had control over now ceased to exist. I was an outsider to this life, trying to climb my way back inside towards sense, sensibility, predictability. Though grateful and in love with this new baby that entered my life, I struggled to reconcile my former self and new self. The long sleepless nights had introduced a tiredness I had not experienced since college during the sleep deprived nights of endless paper writing, and even that paled in comparison. Bath done, dinner for the baby done, preparation for the next day done. My thoughts now floated into nothingness. Thank God for my husband who had graciously taken over the meals. His ode to perfection meant waiting…. He claimed “all good things come in time… or patience for goodness,” but it was always worth the wait. 

The dish gently placed on the table in front of me broke me from my reverie. Succulent chicken thighs nestled in dumplings and bathed in a thick, bold red and smoky sauce. The smoking dish wafted up towards my tired face and I was filled with an earthy smokiness that slowly began tinkering with long forgotten memories. My grandmother’s chicken simmering in oil and topped with paprika filled the background of the small house with its comforting blanket of old world spice as we visited my grandmother on Sunday afternoons for dinner. The molten red spice sprinkling traditional egg dishes of egg salad or deviled eggs at every Murphy-Matula (now adding Mason) gathering. I lifted the spoonful of warm liquid now parallel with every sense. I breathed in the goodness of the parikash csirke. The saucy delicacy filled my nostrils and tastebuds like a warm and comforting blanket. It was the rich, subtle earthiness that brought me back to an earlier struggle with turning outside in and the same one that then, and now filled be with a reinvigorated hope/energy. 

Paprika was perhaps my fourth Hungarian word I learned and gratefully so, for it was the same in English as it was in Hungarian (or Magyar) and easy to remember. Depending on where one put the emphasis of the syllable, it could mean pepper (as in the vegetable we ate on sandwiches with butter or cheese daily. pAPreeka) or the spice made from the crushed and ground peppers (Paaaaprika) that sprinkled the land that was Hungary. I soon learned Paprika was the heart of the land. Every person I encountered, from my roommate, her family, my colleagues to my 16-17 year old students all had a story or fact to share about Paprika. Strangely, it was not native to Hungary, but introduced by the Turks during the 16 and 17th centuries. It was discovered by herders and shepherds who had the most contact with the outsiders. They had begun to integrate the sometimes mild, sometimes fiery spice into the peasant dishes of the countryside. Ironically, it was adopted by the aristocrats in the 19th century and has become the dominant spice in most Hungarian dishes ever since. Festivals and holidays were devoted to this spice, school schedules were determined around paprika picking season, and Hungarians, a people proud of their history, had turned something from the outside, pushing and oppressing and turned it inside, reclaiming it as theirs, their culture, their heritage. 

As an outsider living in Hungary for two years, paprika became the doorway inside the culture. It gave me a sense of ownership and allowed me to contribute back to a land that had taught me balance, moderation, appreciation for the simple items I had taken for granted in life (dinner with family, talking on the phone, a TV to inform you of what was going on in the world, stores with every ingredient always on hand). I suppose one of my first transformations began in Hungary and with Paprika. Aside from crudely crushed avocado in a bowl, scrambled eggs and toast, and my innovative mustard and potato in a bowl, I had not learned to cook. After moving to Hungary, I realized this would be an essential for survival as there were no microwaves or frozen aisles, and few canned ingredients. Instead there were open markets on Saturdays with fresh vegetables piled in the back of wagons brought in from country towns and a multitude of dried beans and legumes and potatoes along with plenty of paprika. 

I slowly learned to cook with my roommate and friend, Zsuzsi, standing at my side. We began from scratch, chopping vegetables, simmering them in oil, then flour and paprika. Stirring quickly, watching for too much browning, adding in stock, potatoes, beans, vegetables and more paprika until the mild, spicy smell began to waft over the entire dish becoming familiar, becoming comfort, becoming home. Days on end, I would walk home in the bitter cold streets, before the snow fell, and start the pot, firing up the vegetables and paprika, stirring and simmering, staring into the pot. I felt the day’s triumphs, struggles, misunderstandings, laughter, and confusion slip off me into the pot simmering before me. It became a daily ritual to stir away the days of living as an outsider and beginning to sprinkle in myself into the pot, becoming part of the culture and the family. Paprikash reconciliation. 

Scraping the browned bits of paprika and chicken into my mouth, I realized my husband had brought me back to a time where paprika had become the heart of turning my outside inward. Now standing by his side, sprinkling in the paprika (of course playfully arguing over recipe vs. memory and instinct) we continue adding the paprika, providing a warm blanket in another phase and transformation into parents, Years later, we are still adding the paprika, especially on the days we need to turn the outside in.

- Jen Murphy

The Smoky Back Room

Several years ago, my husband and I were spending the weekend out on Long Island, and stopped at a bakery to pick up croissants for my in-laws. I saw a sign for the small town of Sea Cliff, where I often visited my grandparents as a child. Their house was sold shortly after my grandfather died—I was thirteen back then. I hadn’t been there for more than twenty years, but was somehow able to get us there, without consulting a map. 

A man was mowing the front lawn (I suddenly had a vision of my grandfather raising the flagpole with both British and American flags. I’m told by my mother he would sometimes wake his five children up in the morning by blaring Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.) My husband encouraged me to get out of the car; the man invited me in and graciously shepherded me, room by room, through my grandparents’ old house—a place, I realize now, that was strangely dearer to me than my own childhood home.

What I most remember is a vague but real coziness: a feeling of autumn, warm shades of amber and gold, and the smell of my grandfather’s pipe. Now, whenever I smell fresh tobacco, I am with him in that house, before I even register the thought “tobacco.” I know little about my grandfather firsthand—my aunts and uncles have described him as eccentric and something of a Walter Mitty character. He was a salesman in Manhattan during the Mad Men era; my mother says he frequently entertained clients at home and managed a prominent account for Campbell Soup. According to her, he was a charming businessman but also a deep introvert. 

There were thirteen of us cousins, all boys except for me and my younger cousin Bridget. He hardly spoke to us, and always called me “sis” or “lass.” I got the feeling he saw us as a mess of grandkids and may not have known my name. We knew we weren’t allowed in his study—otherwise known as “the back room.” It was often locked, filled with treasures like an old typewriter and adding machine, and the strong smell of cigar smoke. He also sometimes smoked a pipe. Every once in a while, he’d let me in there, as long as I didn’t touch anything—perhaps he trusted me more than the boys. I always wished I were more like my daring cousins, who climbed trees and sat up on the roof of the garden shed. But I was quiet and cautious, and probably less likely to break something. I liked being there with him, without having to talk. It’s the same way I feel now at parties, when I can steal a few moments to study the host’s bookshelf or cabinet of curiosities, instead of having to strike up a conversation with a stranger over Cabernet.

When I got older, we’d drive up to see my grandfather every month or so; my mother may have felt compelled to check in on him. One Easter, he left us a pot of very spicy chili on the stove and a note saying he wouldn’t be back for a few days. These disappearances never bothered me much. He bought a motorcycle after my grandmother died and would take us on rides around Sea Cliff. Sometimes he’d get up in the middle of breakfast and say things like “let’s blow this popstand and go check out the old ladies at the post office with blue hair.” He once took me out to a beefalo burger joint, where they served hamburgers made out of buffalo. 

A few weeks before my grandfather died, we spent the better part of an afternoon laughing over a 1980s movie starring Burt Lancaster about a Texas oil executive who visits a small village in Scotland. We had never laughed together like that before. At his funeral, lots of people came from the bar next door to pay their respects—he’d obviously been a regular. A torn photo of him from World War II somehow came into my possession—he’s handsome and not quite thirty, in fatigues, smiling outside a tent. As it turns out, I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a few blocks from where he grew up, running gin back and forth as a kid during Prohibition, back when the neighborhood was Irish. My son, Henry, plays in McGolrick Park, where his great grandfather and namesake might have also played as a boy. My mother said he worked hard to get rid of his working class Irish accent and spoke like a Kennedy for much of his life; it never seemed odd to me. I barely knew him, but trust the silence I knew in that smoky back room.

- Rachel Safko

Dewy Grass

It was 12th grade. I was 17 years old and I dropped out of high school and like went on the run. I was couch surfing and stayin’ in my friend’s mom’s garage and stuff like that. Doing a lot of drugs. Basically like kind of a homeless person.

And I met this girl who lived across the hall from my mom. My mom lived downtown in a loft on 10th and E St. And I met this girl, this 21 or 22 year old woman who lived across the hall, and she was like an ecstasy dealer. For some reason we hit it off. I can’t explain it, but she liked me for some reason. I was only 17, but whatever. 

So we would hang out. And I didn’t know what ecstasy was - this was like 1986. I don’t know if it was illegal yet, or if it was semi-legal. But we took ecstasy and somehow wound up in Balboa Park. I don’t know how we got there. I just have these vivid memories of it being late, late night, early morning, maybe the sun just coming up, and us rolling around in dewy grass on a hill. It was a little bit south of the fountain. And we were like … It was like this hallucinatory ecstasy and this incredibly blissed out trip that you’re on, and there’s water and you can smell the grass and we were tangled up. We had our clothes on, but it was like we were semi making out. It was rad.

Of course, that experience in my life ended horribly. I ended up begging my parents for help, and went to rehab for a while and all this crazy stuff. So it was mostly shit that was punctuated by awesome moments like that. 

- Anonymous

The Basketball Story

Every good basketball player who has come out of San Diego has played at Muni Gym.  It’s like the oldest indoor court in San Diego. Or one of the oldest. At least it smells like its the oldest. The ventilation is bad and it gets really hot in the summertime. It reminds me of the way gyms smelled when I was a kid when all the balls were still made out of leather. Even now, I can go to Muni and the gym can be totally empty and it still smells like sweat and leather and wood. It takes me back twenty-five years.

Back in the day, depending on what time of day you’d go, the games could get pretty competitive. If you lost, you could easily wait an hour just to get another game. Forget the other team; your own teammates would get in your face if you did something wrong. That’s the other thing the gym smelled like: nervousness. It’s a different kind of sweaty smell. Sharper, more pungent. Everyone wanted to play their best at Muni.

I’m thinking about this one time—it had to be in ’99 or 2000. I caught a long rebound and turned to run the fast break. My teammate must have known I grabbed the ball, because he took off to start the fast break. I caught the ball, took one dribble, and passed it nearly the length of the court. I passed it so that all my man had to do was catch it, take one step and lay it in. No dribble. Well, he caught it alright. But as he planted his left foot to go up, his left knee popped out of socket, and the lower part of his leg snapped outward—the direction it’s not supposed to bend.  The kid let out a yelp and then just fell on the ground. I can still remember the sound of his yelp, because, it wasn’t, shall we say, commensurate with the injury he sustained. The gym went quiet. All the games stopped and people went looking for the facilities manager. The facilities manager sort of sauntered in, armed with a ghetto icepack—you know, like you fill up a dixie cup with water and put it in the freezer. Anyway, he walks in with this ice pack and sort of goes pale when he sees this guy quivering on the court with his leg broke in half.

The facility manager is dumbfounded. “You want me to call an ambulance?” 
“No man. No. It’s all good, just help me up. It’s all good.”

You need to remember that “It’s all good” was like a year or two old at that time. Everyone was saying, "It’s all good." 

Well here I am in this hot, leathery gym, looking down at this guy who looked like he just stepped on a land mine, and he’s saying “It’s all good” when clearly—CLEARLY—it is anything but good. 

But I wasn’t gonna argue with him. I might have overthrown it a little bit, so if it was all good with him, it was all good with me. 

- Brian Goeltzenleuchter