Forgetfulness is an underrated virtue.
We evacuated our apartment and checked into a hotel in the French Quarter– a new, snazzy place meant for trysts. It had dim blue hallways and headboards made of pleated white leather. An absurd place to take children. But sometimes it’s fun to be en famile when you are the only famile around. My daughter learned how to play pool in the lobby.
It began with a call from the doctor, as hellish experiences often do. He told us our one year old boy had elevated lead levels that were dangerously toxic.
I now have to jump ahead and tell you that the test- a finger prick test – was wrong. We followed up with a ‘venous’ test, because those are more accurate. His lead levels are elevated, a matter of serious concern. We have a problem– but when he first called we had a four alarm crisis on our hands. For forty eight hours we had a one year old who was poisoned. “Poisoned.” Think about looking at a one year old, staggering around in his first days of walking, smiling and laughing, the delight flashing off him, radiant life, and now affix to him, like a floating thought bubble in a VH1 Pop -up Video, a word like poison. Or, Neurological damage. Brain damage. The mind races both towards a scenario in which everything is somehow all right, and, at the same time, towards a way of telling the story so that it makes sense, has a trajectory that goes from bad to better.
But the problem with lead poisoning is it defies any narrative.
Oh, how I wish that every child with elevated lead levels started bleeding out of his or her eyes!
How wonderful! You could go screaming into the streets! You could yell for all to hear that there is blood trickling down their face where there should only be tears, and even that no so often! Everyone would understand that lead was present in the environment. Everyone would come together to find out where it is. Now! It would be located – in the bare soil where there is no grass, in the playground sandbox, in the walls where paint is chipping – and “remediated.”
Anyone who was doing something like – oh, a random example – sanding the exterior of an old house would know there was a chance that the nearby children would start bleeding from the eyes. They would feel shame in advance. They would not scrimp on an unlicensed shlub who is going to do a shoddy job. Who thinks saving a few thousand dollars is worth being accused of making children bleed from the eyes? Or, if that image isn’t enough, who wants to risk the public shame of having caused such a thing?
But the lead is invisible. And the effects of the poison are invisible, usually for years. The brightest, healthiest tot will keep on being bright and healthy and happy for days, months, maybe years. And then one day he or she will start to change.
But children all change all the time don’t they? And if one precious, lovely kid becomes less preococious and lovely, well, that generally happens, too, right? The children don’t stay magical forever. Poison or no poison. And if the mental capacity isn’t as high as it once seemed, if the impulse control is not so good, if the concentration and empathy and everything else is less present than one would like, well, there are many, many possible explanations. As for culprits? If you didn’t have your kid tested at one, or two, you would have to look back over years to find that stretch of weeks when a guy came to paint the house next door. Which, first, he sanded.
Out of respect to my wife I will leave her response to that first call from the doctor out of it, except to mention that she expressed the hope, early on, that the test was wrong. For my part I went numb and tried to be practical. We retreated upstairs to what we call, “the Soft Room.” It has a carpet, the newest paint job, and feels, for some reason, the safest. We started calling hotels. We called friends. We checked craig’s list. We needed to get out of there. We got the kids to sleep. We kept our cool, for the most part.
That night I dragged the pink carpet where the kids play out onto the patio out back. The sky was dark. I looked up and saw a huge wall of unpainted wood, stripes of lumber arranged one folded on top of the other. A gorgeous honeyed wall of wood rising into the dark Louisiana night.
I live in a house that my landlord for some reason painted brown. If I had to look at it all day I might be a bit annoyed, but my days in the house have been spent gazing out at a gloriously shambolic, prissy, dilapidated old house painted a festive yellow, with white trim. (you can see both places, and much reflection on the general environs, here) .
The older lady who lives there alone, sometimes renting out the apartments upstairs, sometimes leaving them vacant, presented herself as absolutely batshit nuts when we moved in. But I’ve grown to like her. She no longer throws hysterical fits about the people blocking her driveway. At some point she became chirpy and friendly, towards us, took an interest in the children, told us about her grandchildren. She attended to the flowers in her yard with great care, gray hair up in a bun. I grew to enjoy watching her back out of her driveway. At the key moment, as the rear of her old Toyata edged into the street, she would honk and look one way and the other with a furious, desperate expression, as though convinced that some terrible affront to decency, and her physical well-being, was about to take place. Then she would tootle off up the street, posture erect. Like much about New Orleans, she seemed a figure from another era.
It’s a kind of mental exercise to render her as a harmless neighbor because I now I think she is vile. At the very least she is the person I am going to try and sue. I don’t have a lawyer yet but I am friends with a law professor who has advised me that the case against her would involve trespassing.
Not that she trespassed herself. Her property, in the form of tiny particles of lead dust, floated over to my house. This happened because she had her place sanded on the cheap. The guy who did it came by to let us know he’d be doing some sanding. Polite, low key, amiable. I chatted with him now and then over the many weeks when he would come by, often on weekends, and drape a light tarp over a portion of the h0use, where it billowed in the wind, plumes of dust wafting into the air. He lied to the neighbors on Constance Street, on the other side of the house, when they asked if it was lead paint. He said, “no.”
A lie. But of what magnitude?
We all know, us grownups, about business in America,. Everywhere. How things get done. We know corners get cut. There are whole professions dedicated to advising companies with factories on the Mississippi on how much pollution they can dump in the river. Advising them on the legal limit, and how far beyond it they could reasonable go. The very phrase, “Environmental Health,” encompasses such a cornucopia of concerns, anxieties, it is almost immobilizing. Compared to all that, what’s a little paint dust floating through the air in Uptown New Orleans?
Those particles. Up against the bright blue sky, they would sometimes glitter. Like glitter make-up or a very fine form of confetti. They flew up, and drifted down like an invisible filament of poison through which my child’s finger’s must have strayed on the way to his mouth. The particles that trespassed.
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