The smell of memory

This week’s #ThrowbackThursday is brought to you by Colombia. I was supposed to be at my home-away-from-home when COVID-19 really ramped up, and I’ve been following news of Colombia more frequently lately, trying to get my fix in any way I can. This has me thinking about this piece of journaling from 2009.

San Francisco

As we round the rocky tumble of mountain struggling to meet up with the Andes, the buildings of San Francisco come poking up into view. Orange and vibrant among the greenery of banana trees and coffee farms, the rough ceramic roofs are scattered like tile chips abandoned and alone. As the chips become streets and homes and tiendas, I feel the rush of excitement that sometimes comes when reconnecting with the past. San Francisco is just 30 minutes (by car or an hour by bus) from Bogotá, Colombia’s capital.  It’s a farm town, and it is just as much a part of me as the rural Nebraska farm town I once called home.

Even though the town is surrounded by mountains and is sinking into a riverbed somewhere below, it is hot here. Tropical, one could say.   The old road has been washed away by torrential rainfall several times, and even this road, paved and “new” is cracking and yawning in several places along the way.  I roll down my window get a better view of the first waterfall, and before I even see its streets, I can smell the town — and my childhood.

The memory is wet and fragrant, all sun-dappled green leaves and wet black earth. In contrast to the wind-beaten grit of sand and dirt blown dry and rough during summers in Nebraska, everything here is on the verge of molding. It’s a gentle, underlying hint of decay, like something rotting in the garden, but the beauty of what’s still living pushes  past this mossy atmosphere.

As we come out of the tree cover and pull into town, edging tires around gaps in the road that eat boulders like candy, the scent all but disappears. On rough roads cobbled and dry, the scent is replaced by arepas baking on the street and chicharrónes cooling on a table. These warm scents also have a place in my past, but it’s a place that feels like not-quite-home. That first whiff…the memory floods in once, and then the moment is gone, like  all the people I once knew that made this place feel like home.

A girl sits in the town plaza in San Francisco, Colombia.

A girl sits in the town plaza in San Francisco, Colombia.

But that scent, and the memories — the moldy smell of my abuelo’s blankets as he lay dying in his bed, or the  sweet, light hint of flowers blossoming out of sight — they put my in the past again in that moment, if only for a fleeting second.

A garden of memories

I think of my abuelita and her garden, the garden that took up half the home’s space INSIDE the walls of the home and was both backyard and living room; the garden that sprung up where the final wall of the house had crumbled away; the garden in the home  that missing a section of roof. I remember how the house always smelled like orange peels and roses, but after a heavy rain, it would take on the additional scent of ground coffee.

I used to tell my friends stories about the banana trees growing in my grandma’s house, stories too great for their their little  seven- and eight-year-old minds. A garden IN a house? A banana tree growing from the ground next to the kitchen? No way.

I didn’t need to embellish things because my adventures were always otherworldy. Nothing like abuelita’s house existed in Nebraska; there, there was nothing like Colombia and its charms.

It’s almost haunting how a place I visit every few years retains such visceral memories. Some of these are fainter than others, much like the once vivid decorative patterns etched into the limestone of cobbled streets. There were rose vines and arabesque mosaics blasted into the sidewalks outside the houses I played in in San Francisco, but now, it takes a special eye (and maybe a bit of imagination?) to see them.

Some of these faded sidewalks include chips of memory too, like playing in front of that building for entire mornings then sharing Colombiana and bread with the kids inside. I barely remember that one of the girls was even named Colombia, a memory that comes only because I remember thinking as a child it would be weird to be named “America.”

These memories, the ones of playing with friends on the street, or watching my uncle play soccer until a sweat-soaked jersey was flung up into the stands at me, have their own odors. There’s the bread and chocolate of Colombia’s house, which was also a panaderia. Tio Jose’s sweaty, smelly hugs have only be duplicated a few times, after hugging a high school boyfriend stained and tired from chasing an American football up and down a field.

This journal entry ends abruptly; did I get sidetracked? Did I get up to get an arepa? Where was I as I wrote it? I can’t remember these things lost to the 11 years since I wrote this, but I’m OK with them being gone. What’s more important are the older memories. Today, as I long for family and familiarity — in Colombia or in my Minnesota home — I’m grateful I have those older memories to return to. 

What memories sustain you right now?

Hungry, hungry hoboes

photo of railway track

Photo by Zhanzat Mamytova on Pexels.com

The floor and my laptop meet in a crushing embrace a few weeks ago, so I’ve been pulling old stuff off of it. It’s Thursday, and I thought, “what the hell, I’ll do a #ThrowbackThursday post. This piece is from 2008.

***

The kids talk to me before I talk to them.

“Her name is Jazz,” says the one in a faded purple shirt, right after the white puppy trots after me. She’s got a bandana around her neck and a brown spot over her left eye, and when she hears her name, her forehead wrinkles into a story of puppy love and recognition.

The boy who speaks her name is slouched against an old building in Uptown, the one right around the corner from the Lawrence ‘L’ stop. Without shoes, his feet are cut and dirty, blackened like tar on the bottom. I saw them as I came around the corner onto Broadway, noticing the sign before the sprawl of legs and cardboard cushions.

“Hungry, Hungry Hobos,” crawls across the back of a notebook, black sharpie on creased yellow paper.

I pause, look at it, but without cash or snacks, I walk on. What can I do?

“She just loves people,” the boy adds as I walk away, and that’s all it takes for me to turn around.

***

 Matt tells me his story as I sit, folding my legs underneath me. He’s a carpenter, he and his woman split a while back, and he misses his tools, god how he misses coming home from work and working the rough grain of knotty wood into the curved lines of chairs  and other art.

At 25, Matt is the oldest of the group, but he has the boyish good looks of Huck Finn, a real-life story in front of me. Hair curled and messy from a week on the road, he is cute, but looks so young, especially when pairing the curls with the rolled up jean bottoms and bare feet.

I talk with Matt about his travels, warming the sidewalk opposite the Green Mill, and for a couple of hours, I watch the world pass by with these dirty children of the road.

They are going to California, going to work in “the fields” and take part in the grand pot harvest that approaches.

“We’re going to make 20 bucks an hour, make some money, man,” says the other boy around a mouthful of bottle.

At 22, Chris has already been out to California for the harvest once before, and this adventure isn’t the first one taking him cross-country on the free ticket found in the back of a freight train.

“I don’t have any work lined up, not yet,” he tells me, pulling thoughtfully on the cigarette his girlfriend   rolled moments before. “But I’ve been out there in the past, and I hope to get some carpentry work too, get in with the locals, you know.”

Jillian nods her head at this idea, nubby brown pigtails bouncing in agreement. She has been silent, plucking absently at a ukulele, but once she joins the conversation, her quick chirp clips along with youthful enthusiasm.

“Have you been out there before?” she asks me, eager to hear my take on it. “I hear it’s supposed to be really great.”

I tell her that I haven’t, but yes, I, too, have heard good things. At 20, Jill is the youngest member on this adventure, and I can see why she’s drawn to Chris.

He wears his scruff in a way that becomes him: a shadow of the road spreading across his face whether he intends it to or not.  He’s tall and lanky, and as she leans into him, his arms wrap around her, white and bare against the gray fabric of her sweater.  I know exactly how she feels, a short little girl taken care of by her tall hippie boy, but I can’t say that I really miss that feeling. Not tonight, not anymore.

But it’s more than this outward physical thing that draws her to him. This too, I know. It’s his life.

Chris has lived. He’s hopped trains before, he’s harvested illegal crops and stories with others in Cali, and because he is all the things that a career in dental hygiene is not, she is enamored and brought to life by this.

I can see it in her face as she calls a friend on her phone and squeals out the story of the day in Chicago. She is young and in love, and I remember what that feels like, at 20.  I remember how my own tall lanky boy made me feel back then, and I remember my most recent “Chris.” I like Jill because her sense of adventure runs deep, and I imagine that’s what Chris likes about her too. He’s teaching her about the world, his world, and she’s eager to hear it all.

When I tell her about my recent trip to Thailand, her eyes open as wide as her mouth, perfect circles of awe and excitement, and I hope that she is as eager to embrace calamity as she sounds, should it befall her on this trip. She has considered at least one possibility—that any of them could be arrested— but she is most afraid of what will happen if the cops take Chris away from her. They almost did that at Union Station today, but when I ask her if they’ve discussed a strategy for that, I see disbelief and fear color her face more than the streetlight illumination from above.

“God, what would I do? We haven’t even talked about it, no.”

She stares down at Jazz for a minute, and then snuggles into Chris’ side, feeling the emptiness of a life on the road without her man.

What would she do?

I would like to think she’d figure it out, maybe late, but better then than never. That’s what I did.

***

Up until Monday, I had planned on going to California, too. Not so much to take part in the harvest, exactly, but to be part of that culture of people who pass the seasons waiting for it like my family waits for the first spring-time sprout of life to color the fields.

A mess since my return to the states from Thailand, three months ago, I had been unhappy in Chicago, ill-at-ease among the skyscrapers and dull sheen of life in the US. Thailand had been too much, too much fun, too much happiness, too much… everything, and life in Chicago had been boring and flat, a watercolor wash of grey day after grey day.

So when I hooked up with a friend in California and he suggested I move out there, first I thought “no, what a terrible idea.” And then as the weeks passed each other with the slow monotony of spring in the Midwest, it sounded better and better, almost perfect. Not because I anticipated any sort of real life out there, but because it wasn’t Chicago, which wasn’t Thailand.

I looked at apartments here, evaded the real world and sought refuge from it in my books and my writing. The night before I found the perfect artists’ loft building, my friend assured me yes, if I went to California, everything would work out. For a few days I even believed it, and then, after posting my few possessions on Craigslist, the reality of the situation came to pass, taking with it the charm and illusion of sandy shores and a life of stoned simplicity in the sun. I put a deposit on a new studio apartment and vowed to work on my craft among the other poor, dirty and disillusioned writers, painters and musicianssharing the building. But my body ached for something else. Something different.

***

What is it about going West that reaches for the American spirit like stalks to the sky? How was this story started, and who perpetuates it to this day, that the American Dream lives in the West? These kids grew up together, friends in Baltimore, East Coast elites gone organic, escaping the hum of existence by hopping trains and sleeping on sidewalks. I wanted to do that once, around the same time I thought living like a broke writer would move me to be the next Nin or Hemingway.

How very ‘beat’ I’d be, I cleverly thought to myself, imagining all of the scenes from a Ginsberg or Kerouac epic in my own bedroom. How very perfect for the storyteller in me, all of those bodies and lives and sorrows crashing against the stable shoreline of my being. It would be the life to end all lives, the adventure and chaos of a life lived to its fullest that I’ve always sought.

And then as quickly and randomly as the idea of attempting a life in California was proposed, the allure of it rubbed off like some dollar-store trinket gone brassy in the setting sun. The dream, or the illusion of the dream imagined by someone else, someone I’m not, fell from the sky.

***

By 1 am Jill, was fighting sleep, and I could see a fight in her shoulders, if the crew didn’t get to going where ever it was that they could sleep safely until morning.

“If my doorman isn’t around, you can stay at my place,” I offered, sparking a flame in Jill’s eyes and a glance upward from Matt, who was buried in his journal, Sharpie in hand. Chris smiled, busy chatting with the homeless and probably schizophrenic man laughing crazily at our feet.

“But with Jazz, the lobby has to be completely empty or else it won’t work,” I continued, hoping the man would go away before we headed to my place. The idea of showers and food had garnered their attention, and I felt bad for bringing it up, knowing that the doorman was probably around.

“I’ll go home and check, then call you if it’ll work.”

My block came up quickly, lit up and alive, even at 1 am. The neighborhood has gentrified, and instead of my own neighborhood schizophrenic, it is my maintenance man, his wife and their baby, I run into at this late hour. We wave, cross paths, and I enter the lobby.

How different our lives are, all of them. That small family of three, neat and tidy at 1 am; me, sweaty and dirty in running gear and puppy tracks offering my home to another family of sorts. Am I crazier than the man laughing outside?

I think of the kids I’ve just met as I pack crackers and fruit and granola bars into a plastic bag. I can’t get them in, not tonight, but if I make it back there before they seek shelter, maybe I can feed them. Maybe I can take care of them in the only way I can at this hour.

***

My train rattles along the track, past Argyle, past Berwyn, back into Bryn Mawr. I get off slowly, letting the drunks stagger warm, boozy circles around me. The night has cooled down, and I wonder where the hobos will sleep tonight, how far their train will take them tomorrow. I wonder if Chris will get caught and separated from his “mamma,” and what Jill will do if he does.

“I didn’t get much sleep last night,” Jill says as we part ways. “So I’ve got to get some tonight. Sleeping on the train is hard, and with Jazz, if I have to hold her… my arms…oh, it’s just so hard.”

I nod my head in agreement, imagining that it is indeed, a challenge. But what do I know of hopping trains and holding sleeping puppies and chasing someone across the country because “that’s what you do for love”?

What do I know of trains and harvests and feet as black as the midnight tar on the street outside?

What I know is Chicago, and my own sense of adventure, my own heart and the things that I love: words and stories, not people, or at least, not just one person. I know the way the right ones seem to find me—words and humans — and that stories make whole my life in a way that  the living of it never does.

What I know is that in another lifetime, I might have hopped a train and rattled off to California to chase some dream and some adventure. But not now. Not tonight. Not anymore.

Instead, I will return to my apartment, sit on my couch, legs once again folded and firm beneath me, and capture the essence of this night, to live on forever in my words.

Leaving Thailand

It has taken me two years, but earlier this week, I was finally able to leave Thailand. I found myself  able to think of the papaya,  the fresh seafood and the majesty of the country without feeling eagerness and longing for all that the country represented.  It was 4  a.m. on the first day of summer, and for the first time  that I can remember, I felt like Thailand was just as common a memory as any trip to Nebraska or Colombia. A grand adventure, but a distant one.

I remember the long bus trip– eight hours– from Ko Samui to Bangkok, and the long wait at the US Embassy and then the Thai consulate; I remember the long waits at the airport before I got a new passport and arrived home.  The time spent in between losing my passport, getting a new one and getting back to Chicago felt enormous  while I was caught in it, but I had no idea then that it would take me two years to separate myself from the beauty and disaster that was my past and would be my future if I were to spend it with  Kyle.

There  will probably always be moments in my life when I escape to my memories and find myself sweating, swearing and climbing uphill on our trek through the north country. Or rafting down a river. Or sleeping under the stars, Kyle under my arm.  That’s life, I think. We go back to the good times, even the bad because they are familiar. But the trick is to  keep moving forward.

For the longest time I couldn’t imaging giving up my thoughts of Thailand. Forget the shitty chicken balls that I almost died on after pulling a half-chewed feather from my mouth?  Or the opulence of the temples? Or the craziness of the Red Light District and the Thai mafia? 
No, I can’t forget these things. They mean something! I would think to myself. Now  I know that each of these things while beautiful and charming, each of these things were just stand-ins for what I really wanted. I wanted the beauty and charm and amazement of this life in my every day living. I wanted to have it all– our relationship included.

But that trip for all its amazement was not without self-inflicted disaster. I knew it then like I know it now, but today I finally know it with a stronger sense of conviction.  It’s not that I can’t handle the chaos and the bumps and the sense of baffled wonder (which is unlike grace-inspired wonder) that I was exposed to on that trip, because I can. I enjoy a certain amount of it. But I have learned to think more seriously about my future and what it is I am doing in this moment. And with that comes a sense of understanding.  Understanding that reminds me that  very little in life in in my control, but what I can control, such as my own actions,  is worth it. 

The last time I spent the night with Kyle he told me that he dreamt we were going to  “make babies,” but I added a bunch of stipulations,  specifically that he could no longer do drugs.  First, I thought, ahh, resistance to giving up drugs. That’s a problem now, so it would be a bigger one with a new lifestyle.  I don’t want to have to deal with that- I want my partner to make his own choices becuase he wants to.

Then I thought, oh the occasional joint would be fine, as long as it wasn’t around the children.  

 And then I thought aak! babies! At the heart of my anxiety at his dream, however, was that he would leave, be irresponsible, bind me to another potentially challenging decision.  Well, since I have the power to make a decision now that will prevent his dream from becoming my reality, I guess I’m acting on it.  I can deal with chaos and unpredictability fine on my own, but… not with a child.   And I shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of irresponsibility when I’m trying to move forward with my career and my goals.

So in the end, I  left Thailand tucked behind another whole shelf of memories. And  I’m not sure what you call visions of the future that you leave behind, but I’m working on letting go of these things too.  I left Thailand because as much as I can feel happy about that trip and how it ended now, that’s not the lifestyle I want for my future. Even without children.  And with or without Kyle.