Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Assaulting the senses

I've got a batch of rutabagas simmering on the stove. They stink when they're cooking but I love the earthy taste of rutabagas, served mashed with only butter, salt, and pepper. Perfect for a cold winter day. Like today. The human sense of smell cuts through the brain to some primary memory central. And in this case, the smell of rutabagas wafting through my house reminds me of the persistent cabbage odor in our old apartment in Silver Spring, sometime in the late 1960s.

In 1967 my new husband John and I moved into a swank apartment in a brand-new, elegant, contemporary high-rise building. At least it was swank to us, struggling young students. The day we were married we moved into a fifth floor apartment, bringing with us only a mattress, a second-hand dresser, a small table, and two chairs from Salvation Army. Soon we inherited a cheap motorcycle that John sometimes used to commute to classes. We were afraid someone would steal the motorcycle so we snuck it onto the elevator and into our apartment and kept it in our living room. Eventually we bought a green area rug that some guy was selling out of the back of his truck. I suspect it was stolen or maybe it was a remnant left over from carpeting the lounge of a second-rate country club. The rug shed horribly. Everything we owned was covered in green fuzz.

Picture our living room—beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows, parquet floors, a ratty parrot green area rug, a table barely big enough for two, and a motorcycle. We lived there rent-free because John was the building night porter, meaning he got the emergency calls in the middle of the night when Mrs. Lebowitz’s toilet wouldn’t flush. John knew nothing about plumbing but somehow he charmed himself into the job. From the rooftop of the building, in April 1968, we watched the fires burning in the city during the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

John was in law school and couldn’t be a night porter forever, so after a year in the swanky apartment, we moved to more modest quarters. The only apartment we could afford was a ground-level unit in a musty old World War II era garden apartment complex. It was sweltering. The building's furnace was directly under our apartment and we never, not once in two years, turned on the heat because heat just seeped up through the floors. We didn't need heat and there was no air conditioning until we installed a rusty old window unit in the living room window.

The building smelled like a combination of cabbage cooking with a hint of leaking natural gas. The only thing worse than the cabbage smell was the dead cat smell. There was a herd of feral cats on the property. In an effort to eradicate the cat problem, the property maintenance man closed off the cats' access to the utility room under the building. The cats got sealed ­in the utility room and died directly under our floor. The smell was so bad we had to move out for a week.

The apartment was ugly, it smelled bad, and it was noisy. It was on a major road, but the noise of the traffic was more tolerable than the music Herb and Linda, our next-door neighbors, played day and night until the walls shook—the theme song from the film, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. We survived. We were young, we were foolish, we were delirious from the odors and the incessant Western movie theme.

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