Recalling the smells of September


It happens every September. The weeks of summer vacation are fast becoming a blur and a memory.

I'm crossing the Kent Narrows Bridge and take a deep breath. I smell the marshes between Grasonville and Stevensville. It's one of those heady Chesapeake fragrances that will never be bottled.

The car moves toward Baltimore. All recollection of the Atlantic coast's clear skies and pounding surf evaporates.

There's a damnable hot and hazy cloud inevitably hanging over Baltimore during the ninth month of the year. It seems to be bulging with dry, itchy pollen. Hay fever is epidemic. Sufferers display blood red eyes even though they've never touched a Scotch bottle.

The yellow goldenrod plant is now exploding in profuse bloom throughout the Patapsco River drainage basin. Experts are adamant that this perennial should not be blamed for the crimson eyes and the sneezing, but there is an unmistakable temporal coincidence.

When I spot an arching goldenrod along the side of the Jones Falls Expressway or the Baltimore Beltway, I know to reach for a handkerchief and pray for the relief of an early frost. Dream on.

The first days of September always bring a return to school. With that comes the distinctive, unmistakable smell of a classroom that has been sealed all summer, then has its floors heavily waxed a few days before the children pour through the doors.

Though its been nearly 40 years since I first detected that September academic perfume, its memory is still vivid. It's difficult not to associate that vapor of paste wax with the wooden desks, the maple and oak floors and the wooden edging around the slate blackboards.

The smell of a newly opened school was even stronger than chalk dust. It would take a few weeks for a classroom to fill up with the powdery scent.

The first half of the month also brought another schoolhouse fragrance. Before the Xerox machine came into widespread use, the ditto machine, or mimeograph, seemed to own the first half of the month. Teachers typed up assignment sheets and pop quizzes on a master stencil backed with a thick purple ink.

The ditto machine used an alcohol-based elixir to make copies. Once printed, the papers were impregnated with that special smell. The purple printing ink was synonymous with a September schoolroom.

Only the most prepared of teachers ran off their assignment sheets before Labor Day, giving the alcohol odor a chance to evaporate. Most teachers waited until the last minute to crank out their papers on the hand-operated ditto machine.

Connoisseurs of this academic ambrosia delight in recalling the teachers who sailed into a classroom with a stack of papers still wet from their alcohol bath. This made for the absolutely best ditto paper sniffing.

The rise of the Xerox machine pretty much put the uncomplicated, unelectrified ditto out of business and rendered those devices as obsolete as a 1988 computer.

But there was one place in Baltimore where the ditto page survived nicely. The daily menu at the Maison Marconi Restaurant in the 100 block of W. Saratoga St. remained a ditto holdout until the early 1990s.

Then one day, the menu changed. Oysters Pauline and creamed spinach went from ditto purple ink to plain black Xerox.

Let us hope, however, that somewhere in deepest Gardenville or Edgewater, there is still a school where some die-hard principal has refused to junk the ditto machine. There the ink may still run purple.

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