A thick coat of smoke unfurled over the East Coast this week, blanketing the entire region with a toxic-looking haze and general panicky aura. The by-product of raging wildfires in Canada, the Big Smog brought with it a fresh wave of pandemonium and despair, particularly in New York, where experts likened inhaling the densely particle-filled air for one day to smoking half a pack of cigarettes. N95s suddenly reappeared in the streets, offices closed early, Broadway shows were interrupted, baseball games called off.
For many of us, seeing our cities disappear into a cloud of smelly, sulfur-hued fog is alarming and more than a little apocalyptic. For others, not so much. Plenty of Californian expats headed out to enjoy what my L.A.-born boyfriend called “golden hour all day” and loudly remind panicking New Yorkers that, actually, this is a totally normal slice-of-life experience out West. True, California is not infrequently consumed by smoke and fire, among other extreme natural disasters. But here on the Atlantic, the end times are not nearly as visibly apparent, so, yes, the sky is orange and we are freaking out. Deal with it!
Notably, the East Coast is not the place that’s actually on fire. We are not watching 2,900 miles of our country’s land be engulfed in flames, nor are we among the tens of thousands people displaced by the blazes, which are coming simultaneously from the east and west. Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and most other areas of Canada are suffering from similar if not worse air quality, and health experts in both countries have issued warnings about dizziness, chest pains, and heart palpitations. While the ash-filled air poses even more serious risk for those with respiratory issues, for a lot of us, it’s simply uncomfortable — people have reported watery eyes, sore throats, and difficulty breathing.
In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams released a statement urging New Yorkers not to spend time outside, a warning that not many of us seem keen on observing. Most people, it seems, are reacting to an eerier, more deep-seated anxiety, perhaps the sense that we are hurtling at full speed toward irreversible climate disaster. Record-breaking wildfires are only expected to get more frequent and uncontrollable on our warming planet, suggesting this fiery vista is a preview of the years to come. Really, how can you imagine any kind of promising outcome when it already looks like New York moved to Mars?
With the inescapable specter of doom quite literally hanging over our heads, a healthy sense of nihilism has emerged in our city’s streets. New Yorkers seem either ready to brave the elements for bodega nonperishables and seal themselves in an air-filtered basement for the rest of their days, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, defiantly leaning into the inferno of it all. Several co-workers reported being struck with a sudden, Freudian urge to smoke a cigarette, a phenomenon not unique to the Cut. On my way home, I spotted a shocking number of people taking deep, Affleckian drags, presumably figuring that if being outside is equivalent to smoking six cigarettes, why not add a seventh? It’s not just tobacco — one friend who works in Soho reported the vape smoke that typically shrouds Canal Street is thicker than ever, mingling with the smog to form a fruity, foggy mélange of lung damage. Sounds like we are all just jaded chinchillas dust-bathing in this ashtray of a city while we prepare to burn. I can’t imagine a more fitting way to go down.