Way Back When

The scent of fallen leaves,
in the low lying sun,
on an unseasonably warm day
in late October,
hits me in a certain kinda way.

Autumn came to the neighborhood,
in the 1970s,
with this very same scent.
Oaky. Earthy. Musky-sweet.
Crisp. Fresh and alive, and also…

I close my eyes and inhale,
deeply enough to activate
the flux capacitor in my mind.

And then, there I am,
on Clifton Avenue, buried,
surrounded on all sides
by smooth blades and sharp edges,
the cool pavement beneath me,
at the bottom
of an enormous pile of leaves.
Fully immersed.
(That was way back when the city still had tree-lined streets.)

There were oh, so many towering trees.
In the colder-older winters,
their heavy ice coated branches
reached down as if to grab us,
like the frigid fingers of Winter Warlock,
before friendship thawed his heart.

With the promise of spring they sprouted,
first bright yellow, then neon lime,
then deep, deeper and deepest green.

Their full-leafed shade, laid low,
kept us from overheating
on the sizzling hot dog days
of summer, and conspired with the street lights,
on those thick and heavy August nights,
to cast a cooling emerald glow.

But when autumn came,
oh, when autumn came,
did they put on a show?
Red, orange and gold, umber and sienna.
Whispering on the warm breeze in September.
Rustling on the wild winds in October.

Then followed the metallic echo of neighbors gathering their leaves.
(That was way back when having one’s own personal professional landscaping crew was a newly discovered luxury, only afforded in the far off suburbs.)
Thin springy steel tines scraping across driveways,
along slate sidewalks.
Oh, what a sweet and welcome sound!
(That was way back when the Sunday streets were practically silent.) Before the rise of the intrusive rattle and hum of the now ubiquitous leaf blower.

Here, in the city,
each neighbor would rake their own leaves.
Right out into the street,
in front of their own house.
And leave them there.
(That was way back when mandatory leaf-bagging ordinances were not yet a thing.)
Back when the city would send out bulldozers to push those personal piles into one gorgeous-glorious-giant leaf Garrett Mountain-like mound, at the end of each block.

Then they would send out more trucks to cart those mountains off,
to who knows where.
And who knew when?
It might be three days later,
or it might be only one.
We had to take the the leap, as soon as we could,
through our small window of opportunity.

Stay out of the leaves! Our parents yelled as we left our houses in the mornings. And we mean it!

We had all been told at least one story
of at least one child
who had been struck
by at least one car
while playing in a pile of leaves.

It happened once. Right here. Right down the block. He was in the leaf pile and the driver didn’t see him. It happens! So stay out of the leaves!

Urban legend parenting practice? Perhaps.
We took it as a tragic truth.
(That was way back when we trusted people’s words.)
We couldn’t fact check our families on Snopes.

And so, we would jump in!
Because there was safety in numbers.
With other kids surrounding the pile,
no car would drive through it.
That would never happen to us.
(That was way back when we were invincible.)

Even though the logical
mortality-aware parts of our brains
were not yet fully formed,
and would not be for decades,
somewhere, deep down,
we were wise.

We had fleeting sense of the knowing.
A knowing sense of the fleeting.

This wouldn’t last long.
Soon it would all be gone.
The leaf piles.
The season.
Our youth.

On our way to school,
we would throw handfuls of leaves
in each other’s faces.
And stuff bunches of leaves
down each other’s shirts.

Someone would get pushed
into each and every pile that we passed.
The (un)willing victim would scream,
pretend to put up a fight,
then giggle.
They would rise up from the fiery foliage
and give chase to the others.
Or roll around in the pile,
moaning and groaning, feigning injury.
Then pull a concerned friend
right down in it with them.
And we would all laugh until we could barely breathe.

Later in the day, sitting at my desk, I would look down at the leaf dust in the cuffs of my corduroys, and smile.

On the playground at lunchtime we would reminisce about the morning, and make plans for the (not) long (enough) walk home.

And on the way home, we would all leap
into the largest pile together.
Swimming in a crunchy sea.
Tossing leaves into the air
with wild abandon.
Laughing hysterically,
someone emerged from the leaf-tide
with a look of disgust on their face.
And we all knew…
(That was back before pooper scoopers and dog curbing ordinances.)
Oh, shit! we’d exclaim. Literally!

The poop covered person
would be taunted and teased.
But whomever it happened to be on this day
would eventually just wipe it off
with the biggest leaves they could find,
and keep on cavorting. Or maybe if they were feeling extra embarrassed
or particularly playful, they would
chase everyone else around
with the poop covered leaves, stretched out at arm’s length.
To share the cooties.
Then we would all run away for home.

Spent. Sated. We would certainly
do it all again the next day,
if the piles were still there.
Sure. There was a chance that we
would end up covered in poop.
But we would jump in anyway.
when we were young,
the joy
outweighed the shit.
(That was way back before the shit outweighed the joy.)
It always did.

The scent of fallen leaves,
in the low lying sun,
on an unseasonably warm day
in late October,
hits me in a certain kinda way.

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