“When nothing else from the past subsists, after people are dead, after the destruction of things, smell and taste alone remain, like souls bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the vast edifice of memory.”
I spent my childhood summers washing the glass splinters off bottles, getting blisters on my thumb from “ringing” cans into those plastic six-pack holders, gluing new twelve-pack carriers and stapling cases shut.
These poignant words appear at the beginning of In Search of Lost Time, the eternal if not interminable biographical novel by Marcel Proust. Here the narrator remarks how scents have such a strong power, unique amongst the senses, to transport you to a time in your past, often formerly forgotten episodes in childhood.
For Proust, that scent proved to be the sweet-tart smell of cake soaked in tea. For me, it’s the smell of molded cardboard soaked in stale beer.
For going on four generations, my family, the Schuhmachers, had been carving their sustenance out of the arid lands of Texas as wholesale beer distributors. Some of my earliest memories are of playing hide-and-seek amongst the stacks of beer in my father’s warehouse in Houston. In a bustling commercial beer operation, tall pallets of beer are constantly in motion, so the child must be alert, lest he get run over by a forklift. But other than those trifling dangers, which necessarily heightened the excitement of the game, the beer stacks proved even better than a hedge maze for hours of entertainment for my sisters and me.
As in every beer warehouse, then and now, accidents happen. A forklift holding a pallet with 65 cases of longneck bottles of beer on it will hook a turn too fast, and the stack of beer necessarily falls to the ground, based on the inverse square and Newton’s theory of gravity, smashing about half the bottles. The result is a messy mountain of wet cardboard, glass and beer. This mountain is pushed by a forklift into a section of the warehouse called the “breaker pile.”
The pile varies in size and age at any given time, depending on how fast the workers are able to repack the salvageable bottles and cans from those that are broken or leaking. The good cans and bottles are cleaned and repacked into cartons, while the rest is documented and destroyed (to regain the lost excise tax). It’s a tedious and time-consuming job, as you’re dealing with a lot of broken glass, old beer, soggy cardboard and those annoying tiny gnats that inevitably appear where there is spilt beer. But it’s an important job: no beer must be wasted, not one single bottle.
The breaker pile is where the wise beer distributor owner first puts his children to work. He does this for two good reasons: first, the breaker pile is the worst job in the warehouse and, as the children of distributors are perceived—usually correctly—as rich brats by the other employees, throwing them to the breaker pile forces the children to earn their salt early on. Second, children are good at working the breaker pile for some reason: maybe it’s their small hands, maybe it’s the fact they are fearless amongst shards of glass, maybe it’s their ability to make a game out of anything. But mostly I suspect it’s because children are dumb and don’t know any better.
So I spent my childhood summers washing the glass splinters off bottles, getting blisters on my thumb from “ringing” cans into those plastic six-pack holders, gluing new twelve-pack carriers and stapling cases shut. The smell of a ripe breaker pile is a combination of seaweed on the beach, boiling coffee and wet puppy. It’s not as disagreeable as you would think, but a very sweetly musty smell. Not too far, actually, from Proust’s cake dipped into tea, if the cake was actually a day-old Ahi tuna.
Today, I work as a beer industry trade journalist. My father sold his distributorship many years ago, orphaning me from the world of beer distribution forever. But my work takes me into many beer warehouses across the country, and each time I draw near to a breaker pile, it takes me back to my childhood. It’s the most powerful link I have to a time of innocence and wonder.