THE BRIGHT LIGHT of a full moon cast long shadows on the snow as the firefighters walked up to my home. It was 2:30 a.m., and they tramped single file through the narrow trench I had dug, the exact width of a single snow-shovel blade. (I’m familiar with my sidewalk. I know what it looks like, and felt no need to uncover all of it from the two feet of snow that fell in late January. It was called “snowzilla” or “snowmaggedon,” but I preferred to identify this monster snow as a “snonster.” But that sounds like a head cold, and it never really caught on.)
The firefighters were responding to a call I made after awakening to the strong odor of burning. It smelled like leftover barbecue, which is an utter impossibility in my household because when we have barbecue, we eat it greedily while emitting animal-like growls to warn away other family members, then lick the empty plates clean in a state of giddy delirium. There are never leftovers.
(Editor’s note: Okay, we get it. It wasn’t barbecue.)
I rushed outside to see if a nearby home was on fire, and I saw nothing. But the smell was still strong, so I felt I had to notify the authorities. Figuring my editor was still asleep, I dialed 911 instead.
They were polite fire persons; they did not comment on my lackluster shoveling nor, as I stood stoically on the moonlit porch, did they discourteously remark on my mismatched pajamas. (The bottoms to my top were somewhere in a drawer, and the tops to my bottoms had been accidentally included in the Great Clothing Giveaway of 2012.)
They assured me the smoky smell was from numerous fireplaces and wood stoves in use during the blizzard, and that the extreme cold was keeping the fumes at ground level, a natural phenomenon.
More important was what they didn’t say: It was the smell of white people.
WHEN WE MOVED in 30 years ago, we were the youngest family on our block, a quiet little street of neat houses and well-kept lawns, the pride of the mostly retired African Americans who lived there. They welcomed us and our little pink girls, even as we brought our native culture of intermittent lawn care, thrift-store porch furniture, and toy retrieval so infrequent it was once respectfully suggested we get a permit for our yard sale. We also caused more than one kindly resident to phone and ask if we knew our daughters were playing naked outside. Again.
They were beloved and caring neighbors, putting up with us and our unsightly ancient cars, our wild children, our casual Sunday attire. But one-by-one they passed on to their reward, hopefully streets of gold where the adjoining sidewalks are not littered with tricycles and various doll parts that I’ve been meaning to pick up.
Now we are the elderly people on the block, joined by growing numbers of young professionals who, to no one’s surprise, have found their new homes insufficiently luxurious. (My home is insufficiently waterproof. But we have buckets.)
With their unbearable whiteness of plumbing, they are adding spacious kitchens with walk-in microwaves, bathrooms large enough to park a car in, and pop-up additions so high they blot out the sun, placing my yard—and its decaying sandbox and poorly constructed swing set—in shadows.
More to the point: Unlike members of the previous generation, who were content with basement furnaces and who used their fireplaces primarily to display dry flower arrangements, our new arrivals insist on seeing flames inside their homes on a winter’s evening, warming themselves and their large dogs by a crackling fire or wood stove while sipping a sauvignon blanc. (The dogs prefer a red.)
It’s not enough to simply survive winter. One must be cozy. (I hear it’s trending.)
But their comforts leave a large carbon footprint and create a reeking smog that draws the elderly onto their porches in mismatched attire, their mouths watering for the barbecue that these kindly firefighters must be bringing up the sidewalk even now. How thoughtful.
ONE MORE thing: If harsh winters require these new arrivals to resort to cannibalism, please note that the older folks down the street are a little gamey, and hard to chew. Whereas young professionals, well that’s where the tender meat is. (Prepared correctly, it tastes like chicken.)