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El Cajon CA

The Rare Woods Room

Summer in El Cajon blisters the bougainvillea and scares lizards into hiding. Birds go silent. In the forties, before air conditioning, women sat in front of electric fans, their dresses drawn up to their thighs, and maybe a secret glass of Jack Daniels in their hand. Men swore in the heat and mopped their necks with a kerchief. 

Back then, acres of raisin grape vineyards lined East Main Street. In summer, the vines twisted on their wooden crosses, stunned by the heat. Down Main Street to the west sat W.D. Hall Lumberyard. On the way to our cabin in La Cresta, my parents and I sometimes stopped there for nails or some board lengths for doing repairs. 

Out in the open lumberyard, in summer, the heat liquefied the sap in stacks of pine two by fours, two by eights, two by tens. It oozed down the sides, creating a sweet mountain smell that mixed with the dry dirt scent of the decomposed granite underfoot. 

But that was only a preview. We weren’t always invited to go into the rare woods room since we weren’t in the market for those spendy boards, but sometimes an employee would invite us there, out of the heat, for a quick look. 

The long, narrow room stretched upward almost into darkness. It felt cool. Against the walls leaned boards that must have been ten or twelve feet tall. The clean, heady smell that saturated the air was a mix of teak’s spicy, paved-road scent with a tang of sweet and peppery, walnut’s odor so much like the nut, only moist like a forest floor, and cherrywood, actually smelling like cherries crossed with bark. And there was maple, a woodish version of maple syrup. Mahogany like nothing so much as a country dirt road. Alder faintly smelling like rubber; and oak smelling like a faraway swamp. There would also have been some woods that can’t be imported today like flowery Brazilian rosewood and Hawaiian koa, which smells like a warm bakery. 

When the thermometer hit triple digits in El Cajon, we were often tempted to go by W.D. Hall less for wood and nails than for the rare woods room. You could close your eyes there and let the scents of those hardwoods take you somewhere else. Somewhere cool. Sweet. Unforgettable.

- Anitra Carol Smith

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

The Smell of Religion

When I was a kid, our family belonged to East San Diego Presbyterian Church. Going to Sunday services made me admire my shoes. Black patent Mary Janes. There wasn’t much else to look at. Sometimes I gazed at the tall brass pipes of the organ, but I soon wore them out as a topic. 

I smoothed my dress over my knees and felt like a frog in taffeta. I entertained myself by watching dust motes drop in slo mo from the high ceiling. Halfway down, they disappeared and reappeared through bands of red, green, and blue sunlight churched by the stained glass windows. The specks fell softly with the cachet of a secret in plain sight, and they explained the dry scent that sighed through the sanctuary. 

The highbacked, dark-wood pews smelled of corners: right angles harboring mites and must. Their cousins, the hymnals, smelled the same. This fit the songs. We mouthed the words, verse after verse, wishing for salvation.

Flowers were laid out in tall vases on either side of the altar. Sprays of pink gladioli, yellow-orange alstromeria, white carnations, magenta stargazer lilies backed by ferns. Outside, in the world, blossoms typically opened and spilled their sweet scent like wanton barmaids. But in church, flowers stalled out and festered, drowning in their own water. 

Since ceremonial food had been promised, I hoped that delicious smells were on the way. But at communion, the wafer erased itself. We had been told that it was Christ’s body showing up as bread, but where was the loafy smell -- that scent of yeast that made a person feel expansive and worthy of butter and jam? Likewise, the odor of the little tippance of communion wine danced for an instant and then evaporated too. 

From the parishioners rose the faint smell of humans scrubbed presentable: Lifebuoy soap, Brilliantine hair pomade, Aqua Net hairspray. A nip of Old Spice. Sometimes a wisp of perfume slid by that was more Saturday night than Sunday morning: White Shoulders, Hypnotique, Primitif. 

But in the summer, since air-conditioning was not, we suffered. Most people didn’t trouble themselves with that newfangled antiperspirant stuff. So we smelled. But being Presbyterians, no one spoke of it. At the end of the service, we stepped out into superheated air with the scent of abraded iron. Families drove straight home, where parents threw off their shoes and put their feet up on the hassock, fanning themselves with a pleated section of last night’s Evening Tribune. Kids kicked up a wet grass and mud smell in the backyard by chasing each other with the hose. 

But except for hot-weather sweat, Presbyterianism didn’t smell much. Scent felt excessive. Foreign. Papist.

In a short romance with the Catholic Church, I attended mass with a circle of black lace bobbypinned to the top of my head. But Catholic-smell shocked me. Ecclesiastic candles swooned everywhere, waxing the air -- a thousand tiny fires burning like Saint Teresa. Incense smoked down the aisle in steaming metal pots swung by altar boys. This was not democracy. It was a monarchy of scent and everyone knelt to it. 

And, whenever we smell something, we feel it before we can think about it. Maybe that’s why smell tells us where we belong. I eventually found my sanctuary in the piney Sierras, and most of all, in the fresh scent of the sea.

- Anitra Carol Smith