(I say to myself)
What is happening to my skin?
Where is that protection that I needed? – Talking Heads, Fear of Music
We seldom think of that mixture of various suspended hot and wet particulates and undulating molecules that we are suspended. We call all the time, hey we’re 79% water so we must seek out the ocean, buy a beach house, we want to swim so we book a vacation to Jamaica in order to dive into pristine waters, swim with the jellyfish, sharks and globs of BP oil. We never buy a house overlooking the air. Jump off a bridge not to hit the water but to swim in the air for a moment, suspended in that other thing which, we perhaps may not be 79% of all fart jokes aside we need this invisible collection of substances in order to propel our little selves throughout the universe.
My journey with air I assume started when some doctor or nurse whacked me on the ass in order to see if indeed I was a living thing (we didn’t have ultra sounds back then – this is way before people said, “we’re pregnant” since people still recognized that the world wasn’t equal, that curse of Eve or not, one of the two in the arrangement was going to have a head tear apart their pelvis… ahem,…. anyhoo)…. So, I have been yelling ever since so I can only assume I took in the air and started my little machine in motion. I wonder what it tastes like for the first time. Air. Was it thick with hospital smells, or thin with vapours all trying to attack my nervous system at once.
I remember the air at my home when I was a child. The sense of smell is thought the longest memory we have. Does this count as an “air” story, are smells part of the air? I am going to answer that with exactly zero science. Yes. Yes smells are part of air. The smell I first recall as I write this is the smell of mothballs. They bring back such a strong memory of a friend of my grandmothers, her ancient house stuffed with antiques, her Hungarian cooking and accent, the time her 91 year old self was half beaten to death by area youth who thought she had treasure…. Moth balls, rather toxic stuff, but there it is. My second is of dust. The smell of the dust in my grandmother’s attic where my brother and I were sent to play. So dusty, the hornets buzzing about the window, the trapped lint of so many ages. Now, another air I remember was the beach on the north shore of the island we lived on. Salt, low tide, the mud of the bays with little squirting clams or such creatures we could not see. The air in our neighborhood smelled like cut grass, lawn mowers, cars being repaired, BBQ cooks outs and family feuds. Can sound be part of the air? Perhaps not, however, air often changes sounds – those over a lake clearer than through the woods, those in a snow storm, feed tromp, tromp, tromp muffled or the almost painful squeak of those most cold nights where the snow tinges the ears like a rubbed chalkboard.
The air in our house stank. Pets, diapers, unkempt clothes. Poverty smells. Poor people stink, and we had that odor of that. Were the air not so strong in the house would I remember so well? Had the place been all clean, the air thin and kempt, would I have any memories of my youth? Probably not. Now, I remember every turd I stepped in, the puke I cleaned up, made or that got all over me, that a mother has 32 words for diarrhea as the Eskimos do for snow so plentiful yet subtle it is when it rains down. There was my grandmother’s friend’s cooking too. Rich dishes of cream and vegetables, meats potted, clotted, and stewed. Coffee and tea, candies and cake. The smell of my neighbors where my mother would go over to gossip in those days (before the internet infotained us, you see, and women still proudly gossiped without having to shroud it in a veil of feminism and hide it from view). Smoke from cigarettes smoked right in front of so many children, pool chemicals wafting in from the deck-level-unfenced-in-really-deep-pool. I must have smoked several cartons before I was seven. Then there were the holidays. Back then Christmas started in late November. We’d go to this one pool store that became a Christmas shop with so many plastic trees of sundry size, colour, and variety it makes the natural world of conifers a boring disappointment. Our own tree was proudly made in the U.S.A. and of grade A plastic. It smelled like church. Speaking of church, we still had Midnight Mass. It was on midnight and the priest or someone in vestments would knock about this little ball thingy and the smell of incense overpower…. Knock us kiddies right fools, or at least stun us until the end of Mass.
When we moved, the air changed again. The valley air was thicker in summer. Also, the neighbors burned their trash all the time, letting it smoke out there in huge barrels. Smouldering rubbish we got so good we could call “plastic milk jug. 1981,” or “envelopes with plastic windows with a hint of cellophane 1988,” or “Tupperware with an oak after taste of a doll’s leg, 1982. Our house had a rotting smell in the cellar. The air by the river not the same dingy mess as the ocean, but sometimes it smelled of mud and clay. There were a few factories making cement or some shit that had wonderful clouds of mythical animals – look, the face of a lamb! No, that toxic cloud is that of some creature with three heads, like a frog in 2027! When my brother and I started milling about further and further from home we came upon other airs. The railroad tracks and the air of tar. The hay fields and the air of dust. The long abandoned potato cellar and the smell of musk and mildew… the later also reminding us of our grandmother. The house never changed the air, since heat and cooling was expensive. Poor people hold on to whatever air they can inside their house…. They always have…. In the old days people thought the night air could kill you, and an open door or window in the house could let in the devil or something that didn’t smell like piss, smoke, and thick rancid greasy skin.
In time, I grew up, got a job and smelled all sorts of air. The close damp air and disinfectant I was sprayed with from an industrial dishwasher for five years. The rare and woody air of the private college I managed to get in to was exactly what sort of air you’d think hung out in the halls of higher education. When I moved in to the city, the air above the welding shop smelled like tig, mig, and whatever other metals they burned, the air outside on that first warm day smelled like months of thawing dog shit and school lunches, also as you’d expect. The bars still stank of tobacco then, and a night at one meant spending several days in the shower. My room for four years overlooked an elevated expressway and stank of truck exhaust as it also filled up with a coating of grime as black as what we imagined was in our lungs. I have moved about a great deal ever since, but the air seems to be the same no matter where I am when I am in the city. The countryside seems not so much filled with burning plastics, at least not the obvious sorts. More construction up on the ridges and hills still means more heat pumps and SUV tracks. The cement plant apparently burns cleaner, but not so much so as to allow for the construction of another one in a slightly richer area. There air where I grew up on the island must have something really wrong with it. So many of our neighbors died of all kinds of cancer. Perhaps the tobacco, perhaps the toxic goings on at certain defense facilities, perhaps just the air.
Today, it is not unusual to see air purifiers, the sort of stuff really rich paranoid people used to have. The parents of your friend who washed their hands 1000 times and whipped the sink with a paper towel after using it each and every time. It is not unusual to hear people talking about clean air. We did ban smoking in several states in bars and such…. That ought to do it….. However, what is this air we live in, never a moment we cannot take it in and filter it through our airsacks. My life with the air has been one that upon reflection just now, makes me want to get a few MRI scans, just in case.
Air can hurt you too