The smell of sulfur and asphalt baked in the sun is immediately the smell of so many years ago, of the La Brea Tar Pits of my childhood. A sad downtown tourist attraction where I could press my face into chain link to stare at concrete mammoths forever trying to pull themselves free of a lake of tar in the middle of LA - a baby mammoth calling out to its mother drowning with an dirty Big Gulp cup at her side.
There's a museum there now. Maybe there always was one. But I don't remember the museum before my adult years. I just remember standing at the bus stop, the smell of tar, standing next to a monument to the horror of drowning alive in sinking tar taking over a block in the largest city I'd ever seen. Low riders and business folks driving past the mammoth family, oblivious to their eternal call for someone, anyone, to rescue them as the city itself swallowed them one by one. And my nightmares, dreams about the crosswalk, the sidewalk, the grass suddenly becoming seeping pools of tar that I would never be able to pull my feet from. And the rude teens standing by, throwing trash over the fence to see if they could make it sink, which will someday to be recovered as its own time capsule of 7-11 wrappers of the late 20th century.
The LA of the '80s stunk of petroleum. The derricks in the south pumped oil of some sort from the ground like miniature versions of oil fields from TV, but less grand because they were wedged between highway overpasses and broken down trailers. The sticky, black tar balls from the oil refinery washed up on the shores of the beaches, clinging to the bottom of your feet, requiring your dad to siphon a bit of someone's gasoline to remove before you climbed back in the car - but don't get near his cigarette. The community service worker going door to door, warning you not to eat the berries that grew from the bushes or the lemons that fell from the trees thanks to the lead in the air drifting from the Hollywood Freeway that shusshed us to sleep. The headlights, the tail lights, the giant boat-like cars that made you nod out in the back seat with their creamed air carbon monoxide leaks through the rusted floor boards and duct taped exhaust pipes. And the stench of the La Brea tar pits in the hot sun.
Oh, how I miss it.