BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL
INDELIBLE: physically impossible to rub out, wash out, or alter; impossible to remove from the mind or memory and therefore remaining forever.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I got a part-time job at Visitation parish in Chicago. Then, in 1956, it had a kindergarten building, an elementary school of three stories, and a girls’ high school. For four years, I spent my days off from school and my summers working in the three large buildings, in addition to the auditorium and the basement bowling alley–cleaning, but mainly painting walls, floors, windows, and ceilings
I received much experience with paint in those days–and I admit that I got good at my job, especially doing window frames and baseboards. Of late, I have been painting stairs and porches of our old summer cottage. Nevertheless, I have not ever used as much paint as I did during my high school years.
Yet as I look back at all my experiences with paint, including decorating rooms and exteriors of our houses, none stands out more than that which took place one sunny afternoon when I was a boy growing up in the city. Perhaps the season was summer or spring; it wasn’t snowy or freezing, for I remember wearing a T-shirt.
My mother had sent me to the bakery to get some desserts for after supper. To get to our bakery, I went a half city block to Ashland Avenue, crossed, then to the bakery on the alley. On that particular afternoon, at the age of ten or eleven–I cannot be very specific–my first experience with closeness to death occurred.
Going into the bakery had always been a most pleasurable act. Then all was so fresh, with few preservatives, with so little concern for diets, cholesterol, or pimples. Heaps and heaps of calories and fats piled upon each other, whether in Napoleons, apple slices, cherry pies, sweet rolls/cheese Danishes, cookies, breads. From morning to closing, the bakery brought delight and delightful smells to the neighborhood–and to little boys. I tried to go as often as possible–as the family budget would allow.
That particular afternoon the smells of the bakery goods and the smells from the ovens would be overpowered by the smell of calcimine (“a white or tinted wash that consists of glue, whiting or zinc white, and water that is especially used on plastered surfaces”–I later found in the dictionary).
My purchase was completed; I left the store, carrying something for dessert. As soon as I got outside, still holding open the screen door, I was hit in the face with the smell of chalky paint, an odor that I had never before encountered: acrid, pungent, biting, yet with an underlying scent of paint.
I like–have liked–the smells of paint and painting. My model airplanes and boats were all painted–covered–with my many favorite shades from Testor’s. I enjoyed the odor–the fragrance–of brush cleaners, paint thinners, turpentine. That moment’s smells were unpleasant. I cannot forget the visual scene as my nose led me to the body of an old white-haired man lying in a pool–or what seemed like a small lake–of calcimine. I remember seeing a little red blood, perhaps from a cut head.
He was nearly covered; but I saw his worn brown shoes, white socks, and painter’s coveralls. He had on an old thin T-shirt, as I did. He was moving; the crowd gathered on the curb of the street, in the alley, in front of the bakery. I wanted to get out of the store, but a few people were in my way. I pushed them aside, and broke into what seemed to be a circle forming around the man.
He was trying to reach to his back pocket. I watched him motion. People around seemed to be doing nothing to comfort him–but shouting out: “He’s trying to tell us something!” I did nothing either. I didn’t know what to do. I only thought of the bakery dessert and getting home. Yet the smell and the scene fixed me there. “Help him, somebody! He needs help,” one onlooker called out. I heard the words “heart attack” and “stroke”; they made no real sense to me at that moment.
Then I was running home, to the corner, to the light, crossing the four lanes, another half block, turning the corner, running up the stairs to tell all that I had seen. I had to have told my mother. But I cannot recall what surely must have happened: the excitement, being breathless, the storytelling, the realization of the meaning of the event, then the tears that certainly had to come from an impressionable young boy.
I can tell about death and dying–grandparents, Dad, my Uncle Bill, young friends killed in accidents, a woman I saw who had fallen to her death from the fifth floor of our apartment building, deaths I attended while I worked at hospitals, students of mine, my brother’s dog, my cats.
But this alone man lying on the sidewalk with a broken-open empty gallon can of calcimine near his feet? I never found out whatever truly happened to him.
Supposedly, the smell of Crayolas or crayons brings most memories to the fore. And apple pie, for some. True, for me, but the smell of calcimine has not been one of favorite sensuous experiences. What remains now is simply the memory of the occasion, though the details are getting dim–except for the smell in my memory of that white spill on the concrete and on that white-haired man struggling for help.
© JAMES F. O’NEIL 2014