When I was a kid in the Inland Empire of Southern California in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there were days the phone would ring, and an automated voice would tell my mother that schools were closed. On all the local news channels, meteorologists talked about air currents, induction zones, and other words that were meaningless to me about why the heavy, brown curtain of air was thicker than normal. The proper term was Stage 1 Air Quality alert. If you live in LA, you normalize smog, forget it is there, but there are the days that no matter what, its existence demands recognition, waiting in the street, sitting on the trees. The clear days, you always notice those. It is seeing with new eyes, watching the platonic ideal of Los Angeles appear if only for a day.
The sea breeze pushes most of the smog from LA proper east into the Inland Empire, and if you ever drive back from the Desert on the 10, when the sun is just right, some days you can see the wall of haze that divides the Inland Empire from the High Desert. It is a nice reminder that LA’s famous urban planning and forced racial/economic segregation is even woven into the fucking sky.
Sometimes my lungs hurt when I ran. Every kid was a pack a day smoker when there wasn’t a strong breeze to keep pushing the smog east. We’d play games to see who had the darkest snot after a few laps. We’d joke about acid rain, and sometimes we’d watch as the crud and grime of a 30 year old penny melted away in puddles. Those were just on the days that it was still ok to go to school. Those weren’t real Smog Days; they just cancelled recess, the bastards.
During a Smog Day, the news talked about asthma, and the danger signs of a potentially fatal attack, even in otherwise healthy kids. They always stressed that the danger was mostly to children and the elderly. I couldn’t be told to “go play outside”, so I booted up the Nintendo and spent the entire day there, complete with official sanction from the school district.
The Smog Days died sometime in the 90s, at least here. Maybe it was the new emission laws. Maybe we just stopped having them because it looked bad. Maybe it was just that most of the factories were finally closed and relocated to more profitable countries where nobody bothered to have Smog Days. I wonder if people now would be willing to trade 300,000 middle class jobs in LA for Smog Days and an uptick in infant mortality.
It is not like the problem went away, not really. I look at my cousins’ children now, nestled in the central valley of California where almost half of all fruits and vegetables in the country are grown, and I hear all the stories about asthma, about hospital trips, about football practice cancelled due to air condition. Their weather forecast still has air condition listed below highs and lows and with the same soothing warning: Be mindful of children and the elderly.
I wonder if LA and SF just found a way to push their junk into the central valley where it hangs, blocked by mountains on both sides, seeping into oranges and almonds. The massive corporate farms with over 5 million cows cracking off methane every minute don’t help either. If you had to the pick the fruit or shovel the shit, well, I imagine you got used to breathing in grit you could almost ball up into your hand like a snowball. I am sure in a hundred places in the wide world of which I am ignorant, children run around and then hack up brown goo. The problem didn’t go away, not really, we shoved it away.
But whatever people did, it worked. We stopped having Smog Days. Maybe there are still smog days, and because I’m back on the right side of the wind, I just don’t see or care. Doesn’t really matter if it is not here, does it?
I look at my son and wonder what his Smog Day will be. I am sure he will have one, some day designated by administratia to keep him safe while ignoring why he is not safe.
What will be his meager contribution to teach him that his generation is taking care of the problem? Will he have to bring his own container for milk, soda, or water to the supermarket? Will he have to accept insect-based protein gels instead of beef patties? Maybe he’ll just have to pay an extra 10% tax on anything plastic.
I look at my son, and I wonder what Days he’ll have when I get the call, or more likely, text message:
Extreme Heat Day: Recess is cancelled due to 130 degree heat. Parents: please pack sun block in your children’s school bag. SPF 200 if possible.
Extreme Heat Day: School is cancelled due to lack of funds for Air Conditioning. Parents: keep children and the elderly inside. If you do not have Air Conditioning, please take them to a Shopping Mall with functioning climate control. Remember: it is polite to purchase something while there.
Extreme Weather Day: School is cancelled due to unseasonable weather conditions, up to and including: Hurricane, Tornado, Flash Floods, Mudslides, Uncontrolled Fires, Blizzard, and/or Hail exceeding 5 inch diameter.
UV Day: Schools are closed. Please do not let your children outside. If so, make sure they wear a shielded jacket, hood and mask. Please make sure children take their Potassium Iodine tablets.
Acid Rain Day: Please do not let your children outside. If so, make sure they have a Teflon coated umbrella and slicker. Do not let children drink tap water for 48 hours after the rain ends.
Methane Day: Half Day. Please wear masks at all times, even when inside. Inspect home filters daily. Do not expose air to open flames. Limit breathing as much as possible.
Crop Failure Day: No lunch today. Please entertain your children to distract them from the hunger pains. Also, the cafeteria will no longer be serving <insert extinct crop here>.
Rapid Sea Level Rise Day: No school. Please ensure children have life vests with them at all times. Reminder: Swimming lessons can be purchased at the school, conveniently scheduled before SAT prep courses. Inquire about our bundle deals!
Giant Irradiated Insect Day: No school. Please assist in securing your housing compound and report to civil defense stations where applicable. Supervise children closely.
Rampaging Bands of Wasteland Scavengers and/or Plebeian Uprising Day: No school. Supervise children closely, and leave offerings of Guzzoline, Aqua-Cola, or toilet paper to appease malcontents.
Mutated Prehistoric Influenza and/or Parasite Released From Ice Shelf Day: No school. Please wash hands thoroughly. If any children exhibit symptoms, please send them to a designated quarantine zone.
I am sure we will still get the usual message – Remember: these conditions are mostly dangerous to children and the elderly. I am sure somebody’s child will die gasping because it is just inconvenient. I am sure this is already happening, and we are all just waiting our turn.
Daniel Jose Ruiz is a great example of being a failed writer. He’s
been trying to get published for over a decade now, and damnit, he’s
still thick enough to keep trying. He is a graduate of the CalArts MFA
program in Creative Writing (don’t hold that against them) and UCI’s
Summer MA in English program. He is an associate professor of English
at Los Angeles City College. He spends most of his time now with his
newborn son and wife.
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