September 13, 2020
Vancouver is clouded in smog. Thick smog. Two-teenagers-hotboxing-a-bathroom smog. The smog is not from cannabis, however, but rather a series of apocalyptic wildfires burning the Western United States.
Today, Vancouver has the second worst air quality among the world’s major cities, a standing it has held quite consistently (sometimes bumping up to first place and sometimes falling to third) for five days. Today, in a tiny apartment balcony one floor lower but adjacent to my own, a maskless woman pumps her legs and arms on an elliptical. I watch her from my window, which, between the COVID-19 pandemic and the smog, is my only safe portal to the outside world.
She shouldn’t exercise in such intense wildfire smoke, I tell myself, especially without a mask. I’m shocked someone would do so, and my instinct is to capture a photograph, which shocks me further. Would I share this photograph with friends and family? Post it online in an attempt to publicly shame her? I don’t want to do either.
I don’t know this woman, this neighbour of mine, but I do know she exercises on her balcony several times a week. I wonder if she simply isn’t aware of the health risks. Or maybe she is aware. I consider the hidden pressures that might lead her to exercise outside, pressures I can only assume from my window. She looks to be in her forties. Her balcony is guarded by wicker privacy screens (if my apartment was a floor lower instead of a floor above, I wouldn’t see her). Maybe she exercises outside to avoid whoever is inside. A partner. A parent. A kid who screams “Mom! Mom!” every five seconds.
Or maybe she’s trying to lose weight, desperately, at all costs, and wildfire smoke isn’t enough to stop her. I understand that pressure. During my stay in a treatment centre for drug addiction in 2013, I began binge-eating to cope with my feelings. I managed to stay sober post-treatment but gained 70 pounds in the proceeding years and immense shame about my body. Seven months ago, that shame turned into desperation turned into calorie counting and daily exercise (walking circles around Emily Carr University, mostly). I’ve now lost the weight, but, if I hadn’t, I could imagine myself huffing around Emily Carr today, my asthmatic lungs brimming with burnt forest.
In the alley below our balconies, the odd person walks by with a dog—a leashed Boston Terrier, an unleashed pug—but the traffic is lower than normal. When I moved to this apartment eight months ago, the alley was alive with a dog shit controversy. At the end of the alley sits a locked, graffitied garbage bin. Dog owners would regularly throw their concealed dog waste on top of the bin, creating a sickly decoration of green and black and blue poop bags and a sickly smell to match. A fed-up resident of the neighbourhood taped a hand-written notice on the bin, which, in part, read: “You bought the bags, you picked it up, now take it with you and act like a grown-up. Why should the workers here have to do it? Grow up!”
While most people stopped throwing baggies on the bin, new baggies still appeared. The new baggies were almost always green. So, the neighbourhood resident taped a new notice addressed “to the dog owner with the green poop bags,” adorned with a green poop bag they presumably removed from the bin, which, in part, read: “I’ll bet you wouldn’t be so brave if someone filmed you and put it on the internet for your friends (if you have any), family, or co-workers to see; like racists who get filmed in a racist rant and then lose their jobs + and the respect of others. Karma’s a bitch, and there’s a whole ‘shit load’ (pun intended) waiting for you. You’re pathetic!”
I wonder what pressures led this anonymous resident to write the notices. After the first one, I was on their side. But the second one, despite the disrespectful nature of littering, went too far for my liking, and the leap regarding racism felt faulty at best. I could never imagine writing such a notice, but I also try to avoid public conflict, so that’s not surprising. I’d also be lying if I said I’ve never tried to sharpen shame into a weapon. Sometimes shame is effective. More often than not, it’s a blunt instrument.