The moment I stepped on the train, I caught a whiff of it. My sense of smell, in general, is pretty abysmal, but this was unmistakable, and it drilled right through both nostrils into my subconscious: the musty, vaguely perfumed smell that I always associated with my grandmother's old house in Hammond, WI. Everything in that house smelled that way, and even after she died, the things we removed from the house and brought home with us held tight to that odor, exuding it like a cloud, an aura, which became attached to anything those objects touched. It couldn't be washed away. And here it was again. It was the smell of age, of rural decay struggling to maintain a sense of dignity. I'd been running into that smell with greater and greater frequency around New York these days, usually on the train. I didn't know why.
This time it was rolling in great waves off the man (I think it was a man, I couldn't really tell) seated next to me. As soon as I smelled it, the brain kicked into high gear, pulling up the childhood memories I didn't care to remember.
They weren't bad memories, not at all?just things I was privately embarrassed to think about. Little shows I used to put on in the basement during summer afternoons. Road trips with my family. Visits to restaurants. The way I used to speak with the other kids in the neighborhood. There was nothing depressing about any of it, but still I felt myself sinking, and fast. It probably had something to do with not feeling so well, coupled with memory's return to a purer time, a time before everything went wrong. Especially with so much looming in front of me.
So instead, I willed myself to stop thinking about these things, and searched frantically for something else to let my brain latch on to?a stupid, repetitive song, maybe. The day beforehand, "In the Hall of the Mountain King" had gotten me through the day without too much fuss.
Then I remembered another one of those half-baked theories I'd been working on without too much effort for the past week. It went a little something like this:
People?especially those in various branches of the media?spend a good deal of time talking about the state of the nation, the mind-set of the nation, in gross, generalized terms. It's something people have always done, from the beginning. These days, much of the talk seems to be centered on our attitudes toward guns and violence and sex?especially as they relate to the youngsters.
Of course it's pretty much always been that way, too.
And it's not peculiar to hear people talk about how "young" the nation is, when compared with other countries around the world?England, China, India, what have you.
But I can't remember anyone ever putting the two together. Of course, I might be wrong about that, and it's all very undergrad smarty-pants, but it's interesting nonetheless to try to measure and judge the growth and development of America in terms of the various stages of individual human emotional growth?infancy, childhood, puberty, adolescence?sure the terms have been used before, but I've never known anyone to draw the parallels out.
For instance, the First and Second World Wars could almost be seen as the traumatic Freudian conflicts. The 50s were like that point around 10 or 11, when we've finally gained control over our bodies, and the world is, for the most part, a place to have fun in. Nothing is expected of us, and everything's okay. The 60s were like puberty?we first discovered what sex was all about and did everything we could to experience it. We also started learning how much fun rebellion could be, and we started playing around with that, too. The 80s and 90s are like early adolescence?we still love our toys and video games, and though we're obsessed with sex, and although it's almost a real possibility, we're still kind of afraid of it. I don't know, maybe it's just me?but early adolescence?the stage we're in now?was hyperviolent, was punk rock, was extremely nihilistic. It all makes sense to me, and could explain a lot of things?especially the level of honest, empty violence expressed by our young people.
I'm not bringing any of this up as some grand critique?it's no critique at all?just an observation. And if there's anything to it, well, there may be no escaping our current slew of national anxieties and public slaughters until we grow out of them?until we get overweight and cranky and bitter. Just like England.
On the flipside, look at those brand-new nations?all those South American countries, and those former members of the Soviet bloc who, now that they've been left to their lonesome, spend their days slaughtering each other. They're like toddlers, who have yet to learn that sticking pins in the hind leg causes extreme pain in the puppy.
Yes, it certainly would explain at lot, this theory of mine, if I were to take the time to think it through at all.
Like I've said before, though, I'm completely full of shit. And I have another theory?just as valid, too?which directly contradicts the one above. But maybe I'll go on about that one at another time. That first one got me all the way from the subway to the office without emitting a single shriek. Once I sat down and got to work, though, the day slowly tore me apart like a pack of rabid, but sleepy, hyenas.
The next morning, I was in even uglier shape. And to make things worse, someone else, carrying with them a haze of that same grandmotherly odor, sat next to me again.
This time, in order to fight off the bad flood of memory, I thought back to what Morgan and I had been discussing the night before: Germans.
Is it just us, or has there been a very slow, very quiet and insidious flood of Germans into the city these past few months? And I mean more so than the usual October influx. There are Germans everywhere. On the subways, in restaurant bathrooms, in video outlet stores. There are Germans in Brooklyn, for godsakes! All whispering amongst themselves in such a way that only the occasional word can be picked up. Never anything incriminating, either?only innocent words, like etwas or Danke.
Maybe it's the new German stratagem for world conquest in the coming century, Morgan and I surmised. A silent invasion. A gentle invasion with no fuss. Less a Blitzkrieg than a böige Schattenkrieg or a Morgengrauenkrieg.
Wave after wave of tourists flooding innocently, not only into New York, but into cities all over the country. And because they're doing it so quietly, nobody notices, and nobody says a word. And while the German government remains in the news, that's even more reason to ignore the Germans pausing briefly on your front doorstep in the morning. Soon they'll be buying up the businesses (well, more of them) and moving in next door, and across the street and down the block.
And as soon as someone?another quiet man, I'm sure?probably looking more like Peter Lorre than Klaus Kinski?gives the word, they'll just do what they need to do, take that one last quiet step, and America will be theirs.
Don't say I didn't warn you when it happens.
Naturally, I'm not all that worried?ha! Look at that last name of mine! I'm all set! Ha ha!
Ha ha ha ha ha!
Yes, well, that theory got me in to work with a bit of a spring in my step that morning. But still, as soon as I sat down, the day was at my throat, and things turned bad.
The next day, Saturday, I was talking to Morgan, and telling her about this strange and ancient odor that kept setting things off in my head.
As I described the musty emanation to her, she pointed out, quite logically, that it was probably just mothballs I was smelling. She was undoubtedly right?all those years, it was nothing more than mothballs I was smelling in my grandma's house. The possibility had never occurred to me before.
Somehow, finally knowing that seems to have taken care of the flashback problem once and for all.