canada wildfires

It Was a Weird Day in New York

Photo: Alex Kent/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I was annoyed this morning because today was supposed to be an outdoor water fun day for one of my kids’ classes and it had been canceled on account of the smoke: Cue the caterwauling. The other kid knew in advance he would have indoor recess and wouldn’t get to see some of his favorite friends. What was even the point of going to school at all? Because you absolutely need to get out of this apartment! I wanted to scream. Instead, I cajoled, yelled, and offered peanut-butter M&M’s. Then we all finally left. I didn’t think anything along the lines of, My kids won’t be able to go outside at all in some point of their future lives because I’m not capable of getting that bleak before 8 a.m. I barely noticed the yellow air as I walked to the subway. The smell of it mixed with the smell of jerk chicken near the train; nothing seemed that strange. The sun was out, seemingly yellower than usual.

As is normal on my walk from Fulton Street to the weird mall that houses New York Magazine, I witnessed dozens of grinning tourists taking photos near the 9/11 memorial. I barely notice this anymore. But this time, it occurred to me that the photos would have a sulfuric haze in their background. What were they planning to do, fix it in post? That was when I started to get just a hint of that nasty, gnawing apocalyptic feeling, but I managed to shake it off.

Over the course of the day, things kept getting weirder. People kept coughing. Stores closed early. Jodi Comer started wheezing uncontrollably ten minutes into her Prima Facie matinee. The sky got dark, then brownish gray. It felt strange to talk about work when the building across the street kept disappearing periodically as the visibility shifted. The prospect of a weekend spent indoors with kids threatened to send me into a COVID 1.0 panic. I kept reading articles and trying to trick myself into thinking things weren’t as bad as they really were.

On my way back from getting my lunch, I was lucky enough to catch the moment when ​​the air-quality index was the worst it’s ever been since it started being measured (324 … seems bad, but IT has since gotten worse). The sky was the color of gourmet mustard, and it smelled like mesquite-smoked barbecue.

There’s a wild, chaotic feeling that comes over us as a city when it seems like no one is in charge and all bets are off, especially when it’s coupled with the exciting feeling of living through history, even if it’s bad history. When the total chaos of today’s public messaging became obvious, I thought about the other days like this I’d lived through in NYC — more than a handful now. The obvious one, of course, which the tourists come downtown to commemorate. The 2003 blackout, which, if you were a 22-year-old, and not someone in dire need of electricity, felt like a 24-hour party, lawless in a good way. The early days of the COVID pandemic, when some people jogged down Eastern Parkway as the old ladies on park benches near them tut-tutted at one another for wearing the masks when we were supposed to be saving them for medical personnel. It’s the thrill of bad history that I just saw a guy experience as he lit up his first cigarette in years, explaining that he’d heard that the smoke we’re all inhaling is like smoking six a day anyway. To my friend, I say, smoke ’em if you got ’em.

It Was a Weird Day in New York