BACK home from summer camp in New Hampshire. Back from the scents of balsam, sun on lakewater, mushroom mold, burnt and blistered marshmallow skin. Sweat, sunlotion, horsedung.
Back to Riker’s, Nedick’s, White Tower. Sutter’s. Chock Full O’Nuts. Howard Johnson’s. Nathan’s.
Home cooking? Canned Hormel Chili. SPAM omelettes. Corned beef hash (fried crispy) with a sunny-side-up egg in the middle. Tamales in a can, wrapped in corn husks, pickled lamb’s tongue in small glass jars. Salty chipped beef, peeling like birch bark. French toast with Log Cabin maple syrup. The cheapest ground beef, burnt on the outside, pink in the middle, with sliced tomatoes and boiled potatoes with plenty of margarine.
Dining out? The vegetarian special at Riker’s in Sheridan Square: canned peas and carrots, pickled beets, canned string beans, mashed potatoes, a slab of iceberg lettuce with “Russian dressing.” Hot dog and an orange drink. Toasted Almond Good Humor bars. Shrimp egg foo yong with extra gravy. Hot chocolate and a whole wheat donut smothered in powdered sugar. Chicken croquettes, cole slaw and pistachio ice cream. Pizza with extra red pepper flakes at Wollman Memorial Skating Rink in Central Park.
And the smells! Roomfuls, cathedrals full of smoke from my mother’s cigarettes, lungs full of truck, car and bus exhausts (leaded, diesel and every other kind) from the streets of Manhattan, the thick, creosote-spiced air of the subway stations (at 42nd Street, add cotton candy and roasting peanuts); unfiltered tap water, shared rooming-house bathrooms, chipping leaded paint in furnished rooms, under-ventilated and moldy, a thin coating of cockroach spray over everything; the acrid tang of ancient perfume on used clothes purchased at the Salvation Army and not yet (or maybe never) dry-cleaned. Urine-soaked doorways, feces-smeared sidewalks, garbage burning in trash barrels on vacant lots, smokestacks belching the residue of coal-fired boilers, school bathrooms reeking of disinfectant.
Home from summer camp. September. Manhattan. Hooray.