We were talking of the early school-starts yesterday morning, Chris and I, speaking loudly from adjoining rooms, after he'd read me a line in his book which perfectly captured the scent of penned-up humanity, and both those subjects segued us into our own memories of those echoing halls and all the sounds and scents and colors. He mentioned the floor cleaner that we both remember so well---the canful of crumbly, rubbery stuff scattered before the janitor’s broom to quell the dust from all those playground feet.
His words in blue; the rest are mine.
It came in a big paper/cardboard barrel, with a metal lid that fit around the edges with a levered cammed strap that popped into place to hold the lid on.
It was the scent of looking down the cool-shaded hall, where the smell rose from the wooden floors and enveloped your senses in an invisible pink---almost a pepto-bismol---aura, like that pink coin candy that came in a wrapped stack like a roll of quarters. The flavors were not exactly like any real flavors, but there was a pink coin in there that was a cross between pepto-bismol and the smell of that floor cleaner.
He was speaking of Necco wafers, long-lived Edsels of the candy-world---crinkly-tubed flat things, with none of their dusty pastels flavored as they looked, but rather like succeeding pale whiffs of the mysterious nostrum bottles behind
’s drugstore counter. Leon
The crumbly red compound with the consistency of slightly wet sawdust had the smell of that pink candy rising from it like heat.
The janitor was a person of consequence at the school---not like a teacher or an administrator, but a person with power of unspoken things. You could look over into the can, and see the gallon can he’d gone to the lunchroom and got---the label was still on, from the cut green beans or peach halves. He used the can to scoop out a canful, and then grabbed handfuls of it and strewed it down the halls like a farmer throwing crack-corn to his chickens. He would cover a length of the hall with a good dusting of this stuff, then start the sweeping, manning a big wide push-broom.
He’d start pushing, leaning into the broom, sweeping always toward the door in the hall, sweeping into the light, and as the little grains like coffee grounds gathered the dust in upon themselves, the floor was magically clean in those just-swept rows, like the tracks of a very close lawnmower.
Mr. Book was erasing all the scuff-marks and tracks and spills, with all those old erasers, eradicating those traces for one more day.
Then when he got to the end of the hall, he’d take a big flat piece of cardboard he’d cut from a box, and scoop it up onto the cardboard, and when he’d picked up everything he could trap, he’d wide-sweep all the rest out the big doors, giving a big hard swack or two on the threshold to dislodge the last of the crumbs.
On some days, especially hot ones, you’d approach the school doors and get a big whiff of the rubbery-mint scent under your feet, like someone crunching one of those flat dusty candies had blown his breath in your face.
The floorboards were a bit wider than the ones in the gym, and dark and oily like the planks at the feed-store; they looked like they’d been worn down by the shoes of centuries, and it’s just possible that by the time the school had been there for a few more years, the floors would have been worn through entire, completed by the sanding of those crumbs.
I always thought the stuff was all the old ground-up erasers from every school that there was, thrown useless into the trash with a tick onto paper, or a plink into the bottom, then picked up all over the country and retrieved from the bottoms of countless big brown metal cans in unknown classrooms. I had visions of all the inch-pencils, too short to hold, with their erasers being hulled out with a little twisting motion, like the wrist-twist to release an oyster from its shell.
Where this big universal grinder was, nobody knew, but it turned out great barrels of the rubbery-mint crumbs. Who EVER saw or smelled anybody using that particular stuff in a doctor’s office or a bank? It must have been manufactured exclusively for schools, and made to erase that unmistakable chalk/gum/hot-puppy odor of children.