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What does the city smell like today? This is a question I have to ask every morning, out on the front porch. Is the air soupy with humidity with a languid sweetness coming up from the lawn. Is there a disturbing, meaty, dog-food pong emanating from the East Bottoms? Maybe there's dank smoke from a meth-lab fire, or cloying perfume from somebody's laundry day, started early.

I rode home from a group ride out at Blue River Parkway this past Wednesday. It was late at night, after 10:00 p.m., so the homey neighborhood smells of somebody's porkchops and potatoes frying, the last wafts of Downy from a basement dryer vent, the haze of lawnmower exhaust had all drifted away. The smells of new southern Kansas City neighborhoods were subtle…the cut grass was still fresh, and somebody had been painting in their house. Mostly, it was the smell of rampant urban vegetation, automotive exhaust, and hot pavement.

When I was a kid, the smells of roasted vegetation and hot asphalt signified California to me. That's where my grandparents and the majority of my aunts and uncles lived, and when we'd go out to visit in the summertime, the unfamiliar scents of city life impressed me as place-specific. The tarry scent of shopping mall parking lots, with the crisp topnotes of department store fabric starch were foreign, exotic, and (though mundane) exciting because they were not the scents I smelled daily.

There's a certain scent I associate with old encyclopedias, Sears catalogues, and dog-eared, foxed-leaved children's books which have done their time (30 years without parole) in somebody's grandma's basement. Books that have been dragged otu into the harsh light of day upon estate sale. The scent is quaint, slightly perfumey, slightly dusty, slightly mildewy, but perhaps with a defiant yet reticent tang of ink still hanging about. There was a day when little text decorations in the shapes of rockets, boomerangs, comets, and television screens were modern, clever, and fresh, not kitschy and nostalgaic. You can imagine that jostling alongside these bound time capsules there were Twister mats split along their fold lines, suitcase record players with dangerous handles, the detritus of basement “rumpus rooms” and of childhoods wrapped up a lifetime ago.

As I was riding home this past Wendesday night, as I came through the nebulous boundaries between Waldo and Brookside, I smelled that basement-books scent. Over a whole neighborhood, the scent of an older way of life put into storage permeated and hung in the air. The scent of 1967 World Book Encyclopedias, old highschool yearbooks (testament to the tonsurial excesses of the youth of a prior generation) tupperware containers of missing puzzle pieces, and ottoman footrests that outlived the armchairs they used to match–too good to throw away, too hideous to hobnob with the new living room suite.

Why did a whole neighborhood smell like an estate sale, I wondered. I rode for probably about three blocks, smelling this mysterious, heady scent. It was late in the night, in the middle of the week, when garage sales are thin on the ground. Moving house often waits for the weekend, too. Yet somehow, a neighborhood which (to me) embodies the spirit of the scent of encyclopedias seemed to be exhaling its very essence–the genteel swingset-in-the-backyard, two-cars-in-the drive, bar-b-que on the weekend, Mom-in-heels 1950s archetype. The neighborhood smelled like a Sally, Dick, & Jane book you might buy as a novelty in a secondhand bookshop, and it seemed all too appropriate.

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