I was throwing punches into my boxing trainer Bob’s hands in a basement gym down the block from City Hall when he gave me some advice that had nothing to do with shifting my weight back for the hook. ‘You do know, don’t you, that if you’re within range of a chemical bomb, you have to cut your clothes off? If you pull them off the regular way, you’ll get the stuff in your eyes and mouth.’
We were just a few days into the orange alert. Ever the fighter, Bob likes to be provocative and find out just how nervous you are on any given day. If he hadn’t been talking chemical warfare, he might have been asking about my book or my family, trying to rile me that way.
‘Thanks, Bob. I’ll keep that in mind,’ I said cheerfully, picturing myself in my kitchen with the shears, clothes dropping to the floor. Then what? I thought of the famous photograph of the naked Vietnamese girl running down the road.
‘And when you’re washing the chemicals off, never rub your skin. Just dab at it with warm water and soap.’ He delicately patted his huge forearms.
‘I’ll remember that too.’
‘Seriously,’ he said. ‘If nothing else. You’ll remember that.’
‘If nothing else, and I’ll think of you,’ I said. Maybe I would. He laughed.
A former heavyweight champion of Canada (he fought Larry Holmes all six rounds in 1973), an autodidact and a bartender, Bob – who was briefly married to my cousin – is someone I count on for political discussions. He has seen something of the world (he drove trucks from Turkey to Afghanistan in the mid-1970s) and is an enthusiastic reader, a fount of information on everything from political parties in the Philippines to obscure facts about the Cuban Missile Crisis. ‘I watched a documentary on terrorism on my wedding night,’ ” he told me recently.
The Friday before, on Orange Day No. 1, Bob had caught me off guard as I was warming up. ‘I figured it out,’ he said. ‘If a dirty bomb goes off while I’m here at the gym, I’ll get some fans and aim them at the doorway. Even a light breeze going out will help. Chemical particles are heavier than air, so the air can come in but the particles stay out . . .’ He stopped. My hands had dropped to my sides. ‘What’s wrong? You look like you’re about to leave.’ I almost did. If the end came, I wanted to be at home with my husband and dog.
That weekend, the Government ‘advice’ to buy duct tape and potassium iodide pills came out (unhelpfully, absurdly), and Bob’s fan plan sounded a lot more reasonable. ‘Of course, it’s all about what the wind’s doing,’ he said now. ‘If they drop a bomb in New York, it could go to Jersey or Brooklyn in a matter of minutes. The plastic sheeting/duct tape thing is ridiculous. Can you imagine the two of you sealing up your windows? You would probably start fighting.’ We probably wouldn’t, but I didn’t want to spoil his fun. That said, it took us months to put up plastic sheeting (with duct tape) in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to keep out winter draughts last year. ‘It takes so little: an eighth of a drop of VX to kill a person, a vial of anthrax to kill Congress. Besides, buildings breathe. Cracks and vents.’
My husband and I are longtime fans of the durable silver sticky tape. He introduced me to it seven years ago when we met. Since then, we have used it for wrapping packages, fixing tears in clothing and backpacks (from the inside, so you can’t see it), hemming trousers, holding shoes together, a number of crafty-type projects, sealing up bags of fresh tuna steaks for the freezer and, appropriately enough, hanging the orange curtains in our bedroom. We almost always have two or three half-finished rolls around the apartment; though when we needed some this past weekend for an actual leaking duct, we realised there was little chance of finding any in the shops.