Like Outgassing Carpet and Formaldehyde

The odor of the house we rented in Clarkston, Michigan was “like outgassing carpet and formaldehyde” Jared noted then and still remembers well. “I won’t ever forget that the smell of that house, like outgassing carpet and formaldehyde”, he repeats.

We are at the threshold of that age in which we begin to repeat ourselves, memory loosening faster than tired shoelaces on cheap sneakers, eyesight softening to an Impressionist sensibility. What brings it on - aging or a partial lifetime of outgassing carpet and formaldehyde?

“Oh, that place smelled so bad,” Jared adds.

Wait, what was I writing about? Ah, yes, Michigan circa mid-2000s.

“The smell of the rotting grass, I remember that, too. Awful. Uh. Uh,” Jared grimaces.

In the rental house, we had several challenges. 1.) No trash pick up. 2.) A lawn with a sprinkler system. 3.) A lawn mower with a bag attachment. 4.) No washer/dryer in a home located in a mostly upper middle class suburb.

I will cover items 1, 2, and 3 as follows:

One morning we woke to the sound of water splattering on the front windows. We peered out the window into the pre-dawn darkness, and were shocked to observe an automated sprinkler system watering the lawn.

“Betrayed!” I exclaimed. “We’ve been mowing the f/cking lawn so much because of the sprinkler system!”

We had heard the sound on other mornings, but were writing our own rules then, sleeping in, catching up after the drop-dead NYC pace. We had noticed excessive dew and water on the house in the mornings but had not quite figured it out.

City kids. What can I say. We had just moved from Queens. We had never been joint renters of a lawn prior to this particular summer.

Thanks for mowing the lawn all those years, Mom and Dad! But, we are going to make your lawn smaller this autumn thanks to some Indian Grass! And, Jared, well, he grew up in Manhattan, so the Parks Dept. mows the lawn there. Thanks, DPW!

Again, betrayed is how I felt. Mania for a neighborhood of green lawns in summer was ruining my summer. That lawn was making me buy gasoline I didn’t have money for. That gas wasn’t getting me to work to make me money, nor was it getting me out to Royal Oak to The Gap outlet for cheap clothes, nor to Ann Arbor the closest college town with good books and eats, nor to any oddball Michigan town to conduct research for our project (more on that in the future).

No! This gasoline was going into a lawnmower that made me walk in circles on a Saturday! Of course, we let the lawn get long and tall. The owner’s kid came over to mow. The neighbor mowed the front once.

When we mowed, we emptied the clippings into garbage bags. Where else was it supposed to go? Back on the lawn? To smother it? Seemed like a good idea to us, but probably not to our benevolent landlord.

Plastic garbage bags of rotting refuse and grass clippings began to fill the garage. We were perplexed. These bags would not fit in gas station trash bins. Downtown Detroit did not have public trash bins. There were far too many bags to load up the truck and go for a surreptitious cruise of local dumpsters.

The odor in the garage was sickening. Jared was particularly sensitive to it. For about a year, he had been struggling with mysterious headaches that just about put him out of work.

I was stoic. Had to be. Jared, born and raised in Manhattan, was 1.) not buying this lawn crap and 2.) about to puke from the smell. The clippings had to go. It was on me.

“We’ll dump them over the fence,” I said. The fence bounded the back edge of the property, separating us from a scrubby strip of trees and shrubs that grew in a swale adjacent to Interstate 75. I now would be curious to identify the plants in that swale. We dragged cheap, bursting, stretching, snagging, splitting trash bags out of the garage and across the lawn. Some were tied shut. Other bags were packed to the top because, after all, the only modern gesture more insane than walking circles on Saturday blowing your precious gas money out a two-cycle engine is spending the rest of your money on trash bags to throw your crap out. Every inch of trash bag space counts.

The fetid stench leaked from the bags. The bags tore as we emptied them out over the chain link fence. Delicate at first, we avoided contact with the slimy clumps issuing from the bags. Jared gagged. I frowned grimly. We worked faster. Grass stuck to our hands, arms, and clothes. I pondered the fate of the plants beneath the clippings, pausing to mourn their deaths briefly before unleashing another sack of lawn corpses.

Later, we found the circuit breaker in the basement dedicated to the sprinkler system. We discussed. Jared was adamant. I fretted. With some nervousness on my part and absolute determination on Jared’s, we flipped the switch and watched the lawn turn brown.