That was Wednesday’s alert on airnow.gov for the atmospheric presence of Fine Particulate Matter.
For the day, the local news said we had the worst air quality of any city in the world.
To be fair, it’s not yet winter. That’s when the balance shifts, when we have soft rain while folks in some other countries have to burn coal to keep themselves warm. We were terribly lucky here. Our smoke lasted only a few days. The towns closer to the wildfires had it worse, and for much longer. Compare that to Ukraine or Haiti or half the world, and this is nothing.
Still. AQI 100 and up means nausea and indigestion and eyestrain and fitful sleep and ominous dreams and a creeping sense of dread. It meant no Wednesday church with its 14 minute walk there and back. Early that morning it meant hopping the bus to work, because a great big building has more air than a little studio, right? Except their HVAC detected smoke in the system and went into overdrive like a wind tunnel in the elevators and halls, to blast the smoke out. That of course blasted more smoke back in. So then it made sense to just give up and leave early.
On the bus commute home, it was broad daylight with over an hour to go until sunset. Here was the sky where the sun was supposed to be.
Outside the bus window the sun is even more not there when eyeglasses steam up from the safety mask (fine particulate matter model PM2.5) worn under my cloth mask and over my knitted cap from the Muslim women’s shop all tucked under a long wrapped head scarf to hold everything together. The bus reading is Доктор Живаго (Dóktor Zhivágo) from the Little Free Library. It flips right open to some apocalyptic Russian wartime winter where characters are trying to cobble a chimney and stove so the smoke doesn’t kill everybody before the cold does.
At home everything is silent. It’s like late evening on a snow day, but not fun and without the sledding. The library up the road has to close on smoke days and in hot weather because they don’t have AC and it isn’t safe for the staff. No pedestrians or neighbors or dogs or birds or cars. Any other day at sunset there’d be whole flocks of mouthy crows rivering over in a racket. Today there’s only a few of them, sitting on the lawn with their beaks open. Crows are not somebody to mess with, so I always back up and nod to them and point away to show them where I’m going, and I walk the long way around them. Then there’s a chammering little squeak that I’ve never heard before. It’s squirrels, creeping close and staring at me like they’re in a trance. Some tenants hand feed them, but I think that’s not a good idea. “Hi guys,” I tell them, backing away. “I don’t have any food.” But they chammer at me and close in like they’re going to climb my pants leg. Finally I pull out my rain slicker and let it float open like a curtain, and that makes them uneasy enough to stop and let me walk away. Late that night I wake up in a sweat in the closed room and realize: oh gosh, they must have been thirsty. I should have run and got them some water.
This smoke drill is new to us. It’s only happened the past five years or so, and absolutely never this late in the year. But we know enough to batten the hatches and seal the doors and windows and leave off the kitchen and bathroom vents and fans. Whatever air you start with is the air you will have until the alert is over. That means fast cool dipper baths, and no hand laundry; clothes on the rack outside will smell like burned tires and need another washing. If clothing dries indoors, that is more condensation and humid air, and that’s not ideal. (Some other units have mold, and one had mushrooms turn up in the bedroom closet.) Same goes for cooking. The Brussels sprouts and collards and onions in the fridge need to stay there, not to bother the neighbors up and down the hall. No point in setting up a crock of kimchi either. Even cooking potatoes just leaves more steam. So it’s defrosted beans and salads and pre-soaked flash-boiled oatmeal and fruit and nuts and Ezekiel bread and goat cheese. Which is fine really. Except at one point when I masked up and went to the supermarket just to see people and breathe a while, and bought some pudding and chips. Taking walks and gardening and returning library books are all off limits. So is toting water from the triple-filter machine down the street. By yesterday the water supply on the counter tasted like what might be pond scum.
But late last night, Thursday, I could pour those bottles out and scrub them with salt water and then suit up in fluorescent gear and go bring home a couple of days’ worth. That’s because all of a sudden the wind shifted around and brought in a breath of fresh air and real honest mist. This morning Friday brought this whole new AQI score too. Cause to leap up and throw the windows open again, and fix some collards and eggs.
And with the morning I stepped out for a look at the garden and found this bouquet. The Wings could tell the smoke was getting to me. So they went out and gathered my tomatoes and cleared away the bushes. And then Mrs. Wing worried that I’d come back out and miss my tomato patch. So out there in the AQI 251 she went outside and cut down some of her very last dahlias of the year and left this.
Captain Wing was out early with the garden hose.
“If Mrs. Wing left these flowers last night — and no other candidate comes to mind — then it’s a good thing I was not around to see it.”
“How come?” he asked. “What’s up?”
“Because I was told at a culture seminar that it is not polite to run up and hug Chinese people. Is that true?”
“Oh, okay. What did I do in my past life that your family is so kind to me?”
“Your “past life”??? WHAT are you talking about! It’s for this life here now. Go get that bag: she left you some cucumbers and avocadoes for your breakfast.”