Hanoi continues to surprise. The juxtaposition of old and new, aged and modern is more remarkable here than anywhere I’ve ever been. Perhaps that is because I’ve never traveled to a “developing country” before, or perhaps because I’ve never been to one with an economy growing at such terrific speed—~7% annually, which is absolutely stupendous. I’ve written before how everyday I see the beginnings of a new building; whether it’s the destruction of an old one, a hole in the ground for a new foundation, the skeleton of a new building and the sounds of the laborers ringing out from the depths of the hollow structure; or the renovation of an older one, concrete patios and balconies being chiseled away by jack hammers.
I’m sitting in Hanoi Sandwich House thinking about all this, and just now I am struck by a smell in the air that is drawing me back into the life of a past self: my high school years and those couple of years after graduating as I floundered about confused, with no direction, and without purpose (some things never change!). It is not just a particular time that I am brought back to, but a very specific place that I spent many hours of my life in during this period, also: Pedal Pushers Bike Shop. It is a smell I smelled so often as a teen, and a boy in my earliest 20’s from spending so much time in the repair station of that shop. It is a chemical smell, like a cleaner or a lubricant, and a not unpleasant one at that. And so I’m drifting back in time twenty years or so, and I see the tires—some old, some new, some hanging from hooks on walls, others littering the floor or propped up against a wall, and still more protruding from the open mouth of a trashcan. I see the brake and shifter cables and their housings, the assortment of tools used for repairs, cardboard bits strewn around the floor, empty boxes leaning against the walls, the repair stand in the middle of the floor—the hub that everything and everyone must move around—the faces of friends, their voices joking, laughing, shit-talking; music that I no longer listen to or enjoy on the stereo; cheese-steaks from Jeno’s atop their paper bags that they were picked up in on the work surfaces; old chains dangling from the lip of the trashcan; inner tubes hanging from the ceiling… All of this from one peculiar smell in this sandwich shop. A smell that is no longer. A smell that came and went like a dream, like the memory of a past life that seems so much like a dream, but which unlike a dream I remember so vividly.