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.
I’ve recently been watching old MTV 120 Minutes videos on YouTube, and just last night watched their 10th Anniversary show which was advertised as a “best of”. I’d argue it was not. But it was hosted by Henry Rollins. Very cool. Very sort of strange. And you can bet there was a song performed by his band.
I woke up this morning to the song that Nirvana performed, noisily working its way around my brain, and lying in bed allowed myself nostalgically to be transported back to middle school, when I first heard the music and saw the t-shirts of such bands as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Metallica, Alice in Chains, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Helmet, etc. I wanted to go back to that time and observe myself and others around me and relive that period of my life again, but as a sort of third-party. I wanted an experience deeper than my memories. I wanted to stand out on the corner on a frosty morning across the from the house I grew up in while waiting for the school bus to pick the group of us up. I wanted to sit in the never-warm-enough bus on the too-firm seats that were a bit like sitting on a pice of styrofoam and which sometimes had rips and tears in the green, pebbled vinyl that wrapped the yellow “cushion” as we drove around my neighborhood picking up still more groups of kids or the occasional one standing alone, or perhaps with this mother (though probably not in middle school), before bouncing our way eventually to school. There is one boy who I associate most closely with these memories of grunge and the route which our bus would take. I don’t remember his name, and I only think my memories of him are so strong because of the peculiar place where he lived, which was a smallish house with a dirt and gravel drive on Ritchie Highway—a busy, extremely so nowadays, road which runs from Annapolis to Brooklyn Park. The bus would drive all this way and do a U-turn to get to this boy’s home, seemingly so out-of-the-way. He had long, stringy, often dirty and oily looking blonde hair, a la Kurt Cobain, and wore the standard grunge uniform day in and day out: Airwalks or Vans, baggy jeans or long shorts, a t-shirt of some sort of 90’s alt rock band (Nirvana, Pearl Jam et.al.), and a plaid flannel left unbuttoned over that. To be sure, there were plenty of other kids dressed the same, but the remoteness of his location in this single solitary home on the side of a busy highway, and the fact that it was he and he alone who got on and off the bus there is what makes him such a memorable character to me.