The summer smell of Cleveland Heights
I’m not ready to let go of summer. I would have been last September, and for the previous 40 Septembers. But that’s because I stopped caring about summer. I no longer embraced it as I used to when I was younger—and as I did again this year.
One positive thing that has come from this pandemic—for me, and, I think, many others—has been walking. For a while, everything was closed; there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. We’d been in our homes for weeks. And gyms were closed. Then the weather got nice, and we needed to move, and walking was something to do, with something different to look at.
Walking is not a big deal to many people. It is to me, because I haven’t done it for about 40 years. In that time I tried to stay inside as much is possible. I wasn’t an introvert—I got together with people (inside), I performed for audiences (usually inside), I went to restaurants (almost always sitting inside). But my day-to-day jobs have been writing books and articles (sitting inside), practicing or arranging music (sitting inside), and, sometimes, cooking (standing inside).
Growing up, I walked from my house at Belmar and Mayfield roads to Roosevelt Junior High, at Lee Road and Euclid Heights Boulevard, and, later, to Heights High. In my early teens, every summer day, I walked to Cumberland Park to play softball and hang out all day, and, a little older, I walked all over the city to practice with my rock groups at various band members’ houses.
As a young adult, wherever I lived in Cleveland Heights, I would walk to Coventry Village every day, sometimes twice a day, which could be a distance of two or three miles each way. I was about 40 pounds lighter then (and eating at Tommy’s three times a day). But I stopped walking. For 40 years. Until early May, when I suddenly began again. I’ve walked every day since then. I’m up to two miles at a time. And—yeah, yeah—I feel a little better (number-one question). But better than that, I have rediscovered how things look and, more interestingly (to me), how things smell.
In June, the privet hedges’ little flowers were in bloom, and the scent, when I walked past them, took me right back to my childhood. It was not something I thought about when I was a kid, but, rather, it was simply the smell of summer. All these years later, that aroma is kind of intoxicating.
And mulberry trees. When I was 10, I substituted for a kid on his Plain Dealer route for the two weeks that encompassed July 4. It was a seemingly short route—just the south side of Mayfield Road, between Coventry and Middlehurst—one block. But it included six or seven apartment buildings, flanking six houses. And in each apartment building were 15 or 20 customers. So that was, maybe, 150 papers to deliver. But it was early morning, before it got too hot. And in the first three buildings after Coventry, I got to ride up and down in elevators, which I spent quite a bit of time doing. And I got to walk the un-air-conditioned halls and smell the odors. The hallways of those buildings, which were occupied mostly by older European Jews, always smelled like fried foods—liver, cheap cuts of beef, lots of onions.
The kid for whom I was subbing tipped me off that behind the last building on the route, going from west to east, was a mulberry tree. After my final paper was placed carefully at its corresponding door, I would rush around to the back of the building and stand under the tree’s lowest branches eating mulberries. Lots of them.
Walking all around Cleveland Heights this past July, I passed many mulberry trees, and, for the first time since childhood, stopped and ate the berries off the trees. And smelled the ripening fruit, that I had forgotten even had a fragrance.
August has its own outside odors: growing things are already beginning to decay. And September brings more of the same—there’s that fragrance of fallen leaves drying in the sunshine. These are not bad smells. But they’re kind of sad smells. They say, clearly, that this is all going away soon. And then what? In a few weeks, it will be cold. There will be snow. No more long walks outside. No more flowers and trees, for a while. And no more smells—at least not the fresh and natural outdoor kind—for a while.
But I waited 40 years. I can wait six months this time.
David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.