They don’t call them “newsagents” here, but that smell is the same – that shockingly dusky smell that is always tinged with cigars and nicotine and the promise of what is inside the cheerful wrapper pallette spread in front of too close fingers. It took me a moment to place, that smell, that bizarre odor that has gone away from modern life with conversation, a touch and a smile – all so rare now and of museum quality that once this is found, it is cherished, more precious than any Tiffany’s bracelet. But at first, I can’t place that smell, even though it calls to me across an ocean, mist and foggy past, blurred all too unfortunately by 10 years of circumstances better left veiled. It just feels familiar, this store, this random Indian or Pakistani-run bodega, which is yet another one of a million in a city that forgets your face the second you’ve said your name, and then forgets that too, five minutes later.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby :”At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.” Even today it’s the same – people laugh louder, more harshly, the splintered mirrors of their teeth reflecting back lost and broken others that are on every street, every train, in ever cafe. We are all others here, until grounded with some form of community, some sense of reality, or an experience that draws us, gasping from the whirlpool and back into what is truly, fundamentally us.
Sometimes all it takes is a smell.
I stopped to buy that golden ticket, blaring neon red numbers dictating what I could win, what I would win because “you never know,” when really, we do know. We want that better life because in this expansive same-yet-different land, we feel we are entitled, but we can’t be happy with the shining experiences we create for ourselves. I hand over the limp dollar, touched by a thousand fingers and ready to be moved to a thousand more. I barter it, this slimy thing, for a piece of waxy paper, meaningless black and white numbers that might provide comfort and security to friends, family, every random person on the street, or a pair of shoes. But this ticket will be nothing until Tuesday evening, and likely nothing more Wednesday, lost among the sea of refuse that collects under my desk as I chew artificial piece of gum after artificial piece of gum in a room with no authentic light, no fresh air and no discernible smell.
The newsprint scent swells up, stifling, and I need something to prolong this experience and remember more. But I do remember and know more, almost too much as I think back to my 13 year old self, proudly important, buying magazines and illicit chocolate bars from under the plexiglass counter, inhaling ink, cigars and that special kind of paper bought in the one-room shop from a man with a bark-like face and thick glasses, smoking. Always smoking. You can’t smoke inside anymore and my currently nonexistent children might never know this smell, what newsprint is, how it can stain, dry out soaked shoes and serve as hats, templates, something to dip in floury-thick glue and wrap around a balloon to make whatever construction the mind dreams up. There won’t be that smell, because plastic and metal, stark and odorless and unsympathetic will reign, as we destroy the planet in another way.
I swallow and step towards the open door. I don’t need to buy anything else. I put on sunglasses – it’s too bright again, surprisingly. Someone is smoking. Swinging out into the current of foot traffic and noise, I walk on, picking up my pace, not forgetting, only moving.
“I didn’t need these things. I didn’t need them.”