Gutter Rivers

There is something fundamentally attractive about water, especially flowing water.  It invites the eye to watch the flow and follow it to where gravity pulls it, even if it is just a city street outflow system.   The melt of the snow is creating these water run-offs along every street I walk these days.


I took a walk to the local supermarket today but when I left the house this time, I was immediately taken with the smell I encountered.  In truth, it was a smell I don’t think I’ve consciously noted since I was a kid.  The last time I noticed it was a halcyon time when “This Is the Law” was my favourite TV show.  “This Is The Law” juxtaposed a hapless ner-do-well with good, law-abiding citizens in a short film where a obscure small town law gets broken, and then an in-studio panel of big city smart-asses attempt to guess what quaint, provincial statute has been transgressed by the luckless rube.

The set was a tribute to shag carpeting and press-board sets.  A little known fact is that the show’s resident criminal was Toronto actor Paul Soles who provided the voice of Spider-man & Peter Parker for the classic 1966-era cartoon series.  I had seen the cartoon as part of my daily and week-end viewing habits which also included The National (I was a weird news-watching kid), “Headline Hunters”, “90 Minutes Live“, “Coming Up Rosie”, “King of Kensington”, “The Bob McLean Show“, and “Hockey Night in Canada”.


Winters of the 1970’s on Bell Island, an island off the coast of Newfoundland, were solitary affairs, insulating as much as isolating.  TV was the great pacifier, educator and electronic window.  And so a steady diet of programs to make the inside more bearable while the outside winds blew steady seemed to be the obvious productive choice.


Snowdrifts to my 8 year old self seemed like the highest mountains I could conceive of and they were right outside my door.  They covered the bushes that lined the driveway from the gate to our house, and the bushes towered over me in summer.  But the snow packed in tight and you could climb it to see over the driveway in a way I never could in summer.  You could see down the street where we lived to the corner, and across the neighbour’s yard to an area of town called “The Green”, the “rough” section of Bell Island where as kids we were never allowed to go alone.


Occasionally, my brother and I would dig out a fort to keep watch against imagined something-or-others.  Most times I enjoyed sitting up there and eating snow.  It is one of the single most pleasant tastes I have from my childhood and is a flavour regretfully fading from my memory.  I tried eating some snow when I was back in Newfoundland a few years ago.  I found one of the clear, clean spots in our backyard and took a hunk of it in my hand and bit in.  It would have tasted better with a drizzling of blue raspberry syrup, but plain as it was, it didn’t taste the same.  It had a bitterness I hadn’t recalled.  The snow I ate as a 9 year old was very much like shaved ice.  Watery, yet solid in consistency.  This snow was different.


Everything seems to taste different now.  The pleasures I knew at 8, 9 or 10, all seem gone.  Dubble Bubble gum, Hawkins Cheezies, even Coke in a tin (not aluminum can) all taste different.  I know none of that stuff is no good for me, but that’s not the point.  Taste and smell are linked to memory and these treats could bring back my past as quickly as any photo.


But Dubble Bubble has a different manufacturing process now, as does Hawkins.  Coke has the hint of aluminum or plastic on its taste when you pour it out.  Occasionally, you can find a glass bottle, and that gets you close enough.


However, today when I left the house I found this smell so familiar to my childhood.  It’s a smell you find in that overlap between Winter and Spring, when snow is still piled up but patches of grass emerge from underneath.  Mud covers unpaved lane-ways and rivers of gritty water flow in gutters.


It’s the novelty of it that I remember as well.  The temperatures were so warm that you didn’t need a heavy coat or a parka when you went outside.  No mitts, no hat.  Yes, there was snow on the ground, but it was warm outside!  You could stand around in a snow-covered yard wearing just a sweater.  Nothing more insulated required.  Your eyes are telling you this is winter but your sense of temperature tells you something different.


I know this is usually described as “Spring in the air”, but it’s so much more.  It’s a change in comportment, in outlook.  It’s a chance to be outside and experience winter without having to be protected against it.  For me, it usually also meant assuring a worried mother that I was plenty warm to be outside.  It’s like breaking a rule, somehow.


We don’t seem to get much of a chance to experience such small things anymore, so I took delight in my walk today, to see and smell emerging grass, to sense the flow of the water and to trample along on soft melting snow.  The browning tips of the ears on neighbourhood rabbits mean that winter is withdrawing and spring is truly ready to accept its official status next week.  But to me, it also means memory and dreams.  Of things done, and to a large part these days, still undone.


As Pete Townshend once wrote, “The sea refuses no river.”  Neither does a gutter.