Bad Air Days

Smoke-diffused sun and Sutro Tower
Afternoon sun in San Francisco, on Friday, November 9, 2018

I haven’t felt this cooped up since Chernobyl. I was a kid and hid from radiation behind the couch all summer. My parents told me there was a radioactive cloud, and I imagined an invisible but poisonous cloud beaming death at anyone who dared to go outside. As I understand it now, it was a plume of smoke with particles of radioactive dust. That’s what fallout is: radioactive dust.

The air went bad on Thursday evening, right after I got some bad professional news, which has been piling on since. Nothing out of the ordinary if you’re looking for a job or trying to get published in a literary journal. You get used to rejection. Or I thought you do. Or, I thought I had.

Normally, when it gets bad in my head, I walk it off. There are hills two blocks from my door steep enough to soak up any kind of fear or despair. And if one doesn’t do it, there’s another and another. It’s too steep to think while I climb, and when I get to the top, the city stretches out to the Bay, where sometimes I can read the names of container ships waiting to dock. I rarely have to walk for more than an hour.

The bad air came in from Butte County overnight. I was in the Richmond, a fog-prone neighborhood, and as I walked to catch my bus home, cones of light formed under the streetlamps as the light caught on the smoke, like it does on foggy nights. Except instead of the soothing taste of fog, I felt dust on my tongue. Overnight it got worse. On Friday morning the house smelled just like when the neighbors fired up a blazing charcoal barbecue in the courtyard right under my open bedroom window.

Air quality red. Unhealthy for everyone. Meanwhile, the Camp Fire in Butte County burned down the town of Paradise and killed, at last count 42 [2]. I wore my N95 mask when I went down to the Mission to meet a friend. It worked, in so far as I couldn’t smell smoke, but every breath felt labored, which makes sense. I was sucking air in through the filter. The rubber straps squished my face into sections, like a trussed up piece of meat. The sun hung over Twin Peaks, deep red and so smoke-diffused I could look right at it.

Saturday the air quality was Red again with a few hours of Orange. Sunday: Red. Monday: Red. Today is still Red. I cleaned the house a little but didn’t want to vacuum or use any cleaning product with a smell, because I couldn’t air out the place after. I played video games until I got sick of video games. I read two books. I stopped wearing the mask outside because one of the straps snapped and it doesn’t work very well. Besides, I think they’re supposed to be single use [1]. I can’t smell smoke anymore. I don’t know if that’s because there’s no more smoke to smell, or if my nose is exhausted. When I walk downhill, I tasted the dust but it seems OK to breathe. When I walk back uphill, I get winded like I’m out of shape, like I don’t live in one of the hilliest neighborhoods in San Francisco, like I’m not used to this.

I’m not used to this. No one is used to this. Fire season still going in mid-November is not how it’s meant to be. It should be raining. It should be sodden. If I feel cooped up, I should feel cooped up because it’s raining too hard to go for a walk without getting soaked to the bone, not because the air is poison.


[1] It turns out that’s not true. You can use N95 masks for quite a while. Source: No, you do not need a new N95 mask after [#] hours.

[2] It keeps going up.