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Syrup on the 14th Floor

It smells like syrup on the 14th floor of Riverside Church.

I’ve had this note in my phone since I worked in the stewardship and development office at Riverside Church in New York City in 2016. There’s only one more line to the note:

I know that because I always go to the 14th floor to dispose of “sensitive documents.”

That’s the whole note. That’s the whole memory. But sometimes when I drive down the West Side Highway and glance up at the tower of the church, I wonder if it still smells like syrup. I wonder why it smelled like syrup. I wonder if the tiny non air conditioned office I shared with a colleague is still oppressively hot in the summer. I wonder what the stewardship and development team looks like now. I wonder if I still know folks there. But mostly, I wonder about the syrup. 

Eight years later and I am in another office, albeit air conditioned, midtown, 3rd floor. There’s a three stall bathroom in the hallway that we share with the other tenants. A three stall bathroom I never gave much thought to until one day, a few months ago, I noticed that it smelled like Play-Doh. 

It smells like syrup on the 14th floor of Riverside Church.

The first time it smelled like Play-Doh, I didn’t think much of it. Maybe someone had been in here with Play-Doh—a natural first thought for a New York City office restroom. Or perhaps more realistically, there was a new cleaning supply being used. Either way, I was sure it was just a fluke.

Until the next week. I go into my office one or two times a week so, when seven days later I was back in the restroom and smelling Play-Doh, I was delighted. The cleaning supply theory seemed the most likely. But then a new factor rose—it didn’t always smell like Play-Doh.

Only when I’d wash my hands in the first sink did that familiar scent dance through to my nose. Unmistakable. Childhood whirlwind. Play-Doh. 

I should run some tests. I found myself thinking as I walked back to my desk one day. I could figure out if it’s related to which stall I use. I could see if it’s the soap itself or specifically Sink One. I could run water and not use soap. (I have hand sanitizer!!)  

Of course, I didn’t run any experiments. I let my mind wander on the walk to the hallway bathroom… hypotheses the last thing on my mind. And by the time I was washing my hands and smelling Play-Doh, it was too late. I suppose I’d never know.

This pattern continued for weeks, this being surprised by Play-Doh as I washed my hands in Sink One. 

And then, one day, it stopped. I looked around the empty restroom. I washed my hands again. No Play-Doh. 

I’m embarrassed to admit how distraught I was by this. No Play-Doh? What was I supposed to do now? Go back to my desk without the boost of childhood whimsy? I went back to my desk.

I hadn’t realized how much joy had been forced into my day by this curious scent. In my current life circumstance, I don’t wake up expecting to smell Play-Doh. And yet every Tuesday, I did. And I let it delight me.

I let it pull me back into childhood memories. I let it confuse me. I allowed myself to be silly and ask questions—if only to myself, if only as a game.

And how wonderful is that? 

How wonderful that we can receive so much joy from something so unexpected and strange. 

And what a reminder, then, that our choosing to be curious may be the exact thing we need to infuse our life with a little awe.

It smells like syrup on the 14th floor of Riverside Church. And sometimes, if you close your eyes and run the sink, it smells like Play-Doh on the 3rd floor of a midtown office restroom.


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