[Patrick J. Sauer also has a website. –Ed.]
The sense of smell is the most powerful reminder of past events. It’s the hardest sense to pin down, the hardest to define. A smell is never described as it is, only in simile form.
It smells like burning leaves.
You know, it smells wet, like…like…like a wet dog.
That’s nasty, smells like grandpop’s farts.
Smell is elliptical, invisible, ethereal. Smell is understandable to us all, yet no two people would ever inhale it in the same way. Smell is an unbegotten force that gives us a sense of the universe in which we dwell, but it refuses to be subjugated by any obvious formulation of meaning. Much like bologna and white people.
* * *
In 1993-94, I spent a year doing volunteer work in New York City. I lived on Andrews Avenue, which is off Fordham Road in the University Heights section of the Bronx. I lived with four women. Outside of a few immigrant shut-ins who had lived on the block since the days when the Bronx was the middle-class Manhattan, we were the only white people who called Andrews Avenue home.
I always heard that The Bronx is the only borough/city/burb/town/burg in America that uses a definite article before its name. That’s because back in the day, when Gotham was still a forest, a nice white Danish family settled all the land north of the fancy island in service of the Dutch West India Company. The Dutch lived up to their company name; most of the Indians went West. The family farmed the land and made a fortune; they built an estate and invited all the white socialites from the city out to their lavish parties. The name of the nice Dutch family was the Broncks. Hence, everybody in Metropolis would say, “we’re going to visit the Broncks,” or “there’s an important cocktail soiree up at the Broncks.” I don’t know when it changed to an “X,” maybe when all those angry black men started setting stuff on fire.
* * *
My parents’ grocery bills must have been uglier than the Yankee Stadium crowds during a weekend set with the Red Sox. I counted recently, and with a margin of error of it’s been forever ago and things aren’t as clear in my mind as they once were, there were roughly thirty boys a week who would get their mitts on the contents of the refrigerator. We had it all, from your frozen goods to your pantry staples. Mom loved cookies, so we had two jars: one for Chips Ahoy and the other rotated among many varieties of delicious store-bought baked goods. She adored Breyer’s ice cream and pretzels: it took her from the serenity of Montana back to her old-school Irish neighborhood in Philly. She enjoyed sandwiches (or as she referred to them, hoagies) with sliced lunchmeat, rolls, pickles, fresh tomatoes, lettuce, mayo and mustard. She restocked the cereal shelf every time she went to Buttreys supermarket, mostly with nutritious fare.
My brothers and I only got the “junky” cereals on our respective birthdays (Daniel went with Cocoa Puffs, Brian with Boo Berries, Matthew with anything containing marshmallows and I alternated between flavors of Cookie Crisp.). She also hit the volume-discount store for: canned chili (usually cooked in conjunction with a package of Ballpark wieners), Chef-Boy-R-Dee raviolis, Top Ramen, Capri Suns, Campbell’s Chunky, Ruffles potato chips (she hates Doritos which has always been a sore spot with me), Popsicle variety packs, five-gallon vats of peanut butter (six family members split right down the middle, half creamy/half chunky, Mom likes creamy–guess what we ate ninety percent of the time?), jelly, homemade muffins, bagel bits, Jeno’s pizza rolls, and a hundred other things I’ve forgotten. The milkman came twice a week, all that testosterone guzzled down a gallon a day. The Schwann’s man also came twice a month; all of my and my brother’s friends knew what day to come over for first dibs.
The Schwann’s man delivered such cold treats as: Drumsticks, Creamsicles, Heath Crunch Bars, and Eskimo pies. And he brought hot (after two short minutes in the microwave) delicacies like: frozen calzones, bean-and-cheese and bean-and-green-chile burritos, sausage-and-egg biscuits, corn dogs, or breaded chicken patties. The food payments had to be astronomical, the aforementioned snacks were strictly for the boys’ afternoons and after-schools spent lounging by the pool or shooting hoops in the backyard. My father tithed to Joe’s Market, not the Catholic Church. Pediatrician’s salaries in Billings are good, but he tacked on years to his retirement in eats.
The one thing my Mother refused to buy was bologna. She never explained why. Possibly it took her back to the insular, unchallenging, blue-collar existence she had fought so hard to escape. Or maybe she didn’t like the taste. She said only, “I can’t even stand the smell of it.”
* * *
I worked at Pius XII, North Bronx Family Services, a neighborhood drop-in center. They provided all sorts of help: counseling single mothers and their children, sports programs, education programs, job placement, etc. You name it. We did it. I was the recreation supervisor. The kids would come to us afterschool, and we would try to give them something constructive to do until their parents picked them up. Ines ran a cooking class, Debbie covered arts and crafts, Terry had a theater group, Bervin, Chandra and Q worked with the older teens, and I did the rest. The “rest” in this case meant taking six-to-thirteen-year-old Puerto Rican and black kids around New York in hopes of helping them to see beyond the shelter of the ghetto. It was a great gig, one that only I could perform.
I was the only one with a driver’s license.
We would load up the brown, ’84 Chevy Suburban, break every legal passenger limit code in the books and hit the town. Most of the time we went to green, spacious parks in Yonkers, but we also went to the zoo, museums, concerts, FAO Schwarz, anywhere that didn’t charge very much. It was simply put, great fun. Unfortunately, it’s starting to blur now, one long glorious day with a group of kids whose faces are becoming more of a composite all the time.
* * *
There are, however, two days I remember vividly from my year in the Bronx. The day over Christmas break when my parents told me their marriage was over.
And the day Ronald asked me a question I will never forget.
* * *
The kids used to ask me all kinds of questions when we were driving around, some expected, some odd, way too many about sex. I got a taste of the ritual the first time I introduced myself.
Pat, that’s a girl’s name. Why you got a girl’s name?
Patrick, like…Patrick Ewing.
I never realized how quickly I could think on my feet. It was the first of many inquiries into my personal life. Other than the intimate details about what I had accomplished with members of the opposite sex (primarily queried by the girls, I might add), I would answer anything they wanted to know. I was learning from them, so why not let them learn from me.
They asked about Montana.
Did you ride a horse to school?
Do people there still fight Indians?
Did you live on a farm with chickens and cows?
Knicks is wack, right?
No, Bulls is wack, right?
Did you see Chuckie?
Chuckie’s dope, right?
Whose more scarier: Chuckie, Jason, or Freddy?
And a line of questioning I had no answers to.
How come all white people are rich?
How come all white people got big houses?
How come no white people live around here?
I should have expected the questions grounded in the half-realities from which stereotypes are hatched. To them, white people lived better lives somewhere else. I would try to explain I wasn’t the spokesman for all things white, but I suspect they ask the new white volunteer the same questions every year. I usually followed that up with the safe, wishy-washy, p.c. bullshit: “Not all white people are rich.” It wasn’t bullshit in the literal sense, but who lives in a literal world? Then I would proceed with an even bigger equivocation, that although they had an uphill battle anything was possible with hard work. The one response I never gave, though, is that white people have problems too…I didn’t think they would believe it.
I wasn’t even sure if I believed it myself.
* * *
It’s been ten odd years, now, but I remember the last time I was alone in our old house on Clark Street. I was setting up for a New Year’s Eve party. Mom had since moved to an apartment on the other side of town. She would leave Billings the following summer and move back to the old Irish neighborhood in Philly. Dad had already moved in with his soon-to-be new wife. The house sat quiet, waiting to be sold. The pool was drained; the bulk of the furniture was gone. I hung up some streamers and balloons to give the place a “festive” atmosphere. In reality, I wanted to get butt-stinking drunk in my own home as a “fuck-you farewell” to the way things were intended to be.
I remember filling up the empty fridge with beer. We had to bring our own food; the kitchen was empty. I looked in the cupboards, the downstairs freezer, the pantry shelves, and the lazy Susan. There was almost nothing left, save for a few signs of the newly separated male and some old canned goods that may still be there. I wanted to be righteously pissed off, but mainly I just wanted an answer to why these things happen.
* * *
Ronald was the type of kid the Bronx produces. He isn’t an overachiever, one to be demagogued by conservatives, to show how easily determination triumphs over adversity. He isn’t an underachiever, one to be exploited by liberals, to show how easily our society abandons good kids. He’s a neighborhood boy. A young, precocious, pain-in-the-ass skinny, little, black kid whose mother beat him when he lost his coat. Some days he was a funny, wide-eyed scamp who loved to throw the football, dance, and climb the jungle gym. Other days he was a hyper, petulant, uncontrollable realist who knew the more he messed up, the more it would come back to hurt him.
He didn’t have much; whenever Pius received donations of any kind, we always set aside items for Ronald. His manic energy could liven up the most boring of afternoons; he could virtually will the other children to laugh and have fun. It could also ruin the most special of days; he missed his share of events (movie trips, circuses, parties, etc.) because he adamantly refused to get along. He was an average kid defined by his surroundings. A kid the Bronx produces.
* * *
An upper middle-class white family. Husband hits his 50’s, leaves his wife and family for a younger woman. Wife is alone with twenty-six years and a lump sum. Children do not know what to think. A scrapbook of altered memories.
Don’t see this much in the Bronx.
Why is this so predictable?
Should this be expected?
What’s with white people who have money and big houses?
* * *
One day Ronald was stuck sitting in the office doing math problems because he had gotten into trouble again. I was working on the following week’s schedule, so I volunteered to sit with him. He walked over, sat on my lap, and asked me an amazing question.
Mr. Patrick, why do white people smell like bologna?
I was speechless. After a few minutes of uncontrollable laughter, I asked him to repeat the question.
I heard all white people smell like bologna, do they?
I said no.
And then I breathed on him.
Fortunately, I had eaten a tunafish sandwich for lunch.
He accepted my response and I excused him.
I wish I had a better answer.