By today’s standards, what I believe to be exceptional isn’t at all.
Comparisons tend to pale in comparison from one generation to the next.
What I once felt was a stellar moment wouldn’t even move the needle for today’s youth. That doesn’t change my level of delight when I recall a simple joy. Not even for a moment.
In this case, my brief moment of happiness was brought on by the aroma provided by a warm paper bag.
I was out of town during a recent road trip. The coldly decorated hotel room brought me zero delight. The room was designed and furnished with today’s more youthful traveler in mind:
- Minimal uncomfortable furniture. All items were hard-surfaced, easily cleaned, and finished in primary colors.
- A frigid bare floor.
- A multitude of power ports to charge my devices.
- A flat-screen television that took up an entire wall.
- Pillows that needed the support of other pillows if there was any hope of finding a position that could hold up your head.
I sent photos to my Significant One. I told her it felt like I had landed in the future, but only if the future sucked. She explained that I was in a ’boutique’ hotel and that she hated them too.
I went out for pizza. I needed a walk to get out of what felt to be Austin Power’s modern-day shagless palace.
I found a place that felt right. The cold air around the brick pizzeria smelled of ovens venting outside what was cooking within, but I wasn’t confident that the pizza would bring me the comfort I sought.
Let me be upfront with you; it wasn’t the pizza that gave me the fix I needed. It was the nostalgia of the round cardboard pizza container haphazardly stapled so that one browned edge of the pie peeked out through the waxed paper liner. When the clerk handed it to me in a sturdy brown paper bag—folded tightly on the business end—my mind began to produce the memories.
The perfume of brown paper warmed by an inner core of off-white cardboard holding sauce, cheese, and crust recently cooked at seven hundred degrees Fahrenheit gave me flashbacks to 1972.
In what I can only describe as an out-of-body experience found myself standing beside my father at the counter of Tri-City Pizza on Broadway in Bangor. It was a Sunday night in the early winter, and we were picking five similar-smelling pies wrapped in brown paper bags. I cannot describe the perfume that permeates from warmed brown paper, but if you know, you know.
Immediately, I was fresh out of Sunday night services, and dad had been paid—by check—as he always was on Sunday nights.
Pastor’s salaries are meager, probably to this day, but our family tradition was that my three sisters and I would get our own pizzas on at least one Sunday night each month.
Dad would cash his deacon-written blue paper check at the register while paying for four or five pizzas. He would take the remainder and put it in his wallet for life’s expenses, but tonight, we were kings.
I don’t think my littlest sister got a pizza, as she was right around three or four years old, but the rest of us were blessed with whatever pizza we wanted.
Being eight or nine, I was plenty responsible enough to carry the stack of pizzas, two to a bag. The cold night air and slippery parking lot demanded I hold the pies close. Close to my chest and just below my chin. I used my chin to stabilize the substitute manna, which put it awfully close to my nose. I remember that smell.
Hot mozzarella cheese, basil, and oregano-infused tomato sauce marry well within the stapled round pizza plate. For some reason, the most crucial component was that brown paper sack holding back all those odors and being heated to the point that it could add its earthy scent.
After entering the backseat of the light blue Chevrolet Impala wagon, I carefully placed the paper-sacked stack on my lap. Now enclosed in the warm car, the brown paper bags were free to release the magical odor throughout the darkened interior. If you asked my sisters today if they remember, they would.
If I recall clearly, we took the short drive to the parsonage to sit—three across—on a worn green tweed couch— as we watched Sunday night variety shows. In the early years, Andy Williams. Later, I think, Donnie and Marie. Skits were silly, songs were splendid, and hot pizza warmed our innards. I think we felt loved.
That must be what I smelled as I walked back to my boutique hotel with plenty of open storage under the bed and an ugly red table that fits in no home decor in modern-day America. Sure, there were plenty of charging ports, but I kept the ripped brown paper bag on the bed as I ate, trying to keep the stack of pillows advantageously angled so I could find something to watch on the enormous television. The odor of the brown bag lingered; I set it on the light-colored bedside stand as if it were a recently won trophy, but more so for its magical, nostalgic, and odiferous properties.
The pizza was adequate, but the room smelled like 1972. I slept like a nine-year-old.
December 12, 2022
*Thanks for reading my stuff this year. Make sure you check out my books; there are three. Find them on Amazon or at your favorite independent bookstore. I’d name them here, but you have Google; she knows everything. Purchasing the books helps solidify the chance that I am asked to write another, but your library probably carries all of them, so check them out often.
From the Jagged Edge, I remain,