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‘We’re Inhaling Fire’: Scenes from NYC’s New Normal

"I can't stay at home, I need to make money. This is my bread and butter."

8:07 PM EDT on June 7, 2023

The view at the Williamsburg Bridge on Wednesday. (Hell Gate)

On Twitter, people kept saying that California's gone through this a million times now, but it's hard not to catastrophize when the sun is a different color than it's supposed to be. The air was fading from piss yellow to a goldish silver, and everything smelled like a spent, saliva-covered cigar. New York City's air was, suddenly, the dirtiest in the world. 

But delivery cyclist Eli Rosado said that his tips weren't any better.

"Some people tip two dollars, some people pay us fifty cents, or a penny. Some people give us 10 dollars, the ones that are generous," Rosado told Hell Gate. "This job is mostly about tips."

Rosado was outside a Lower Manhattan location of Gopuff, loading up some snacks to be delivered. The 29-year-old has worked for delivery apps for five years, and he likened being outside surrounded by Canadian wildfire smog to "being in a burning building and just inhaling all that smoke." 

"I just get a headache if I don't wear my mask," Rosado said, revealing his makeshift N95: a folded-up paper towel tucked inside his balaclava. "We're inhaling fire, we're inhaling smoke."

Rosado said the apps he works for didn't warn him about the air quality today—he watched the news. "I look at the news everyday. I don't know if everybody else does, but I do," he said. "They said that the air quality is bad, some people should stay home, or wear a mask if you go outside. But I can't stay at home, I need to make money. This is my bread and butter."

N95 masks for sale on Flatbush Avenue. (Hell Gate)

Miles away on Flatbush Avenue, workers at the Trim-Fabrics store had propped up a cardboard box full of boxes of aquamarine N95s on an office chair on the sidewalk. "N95 MASK BIG SALE $5" had been written on the box's flap, with a googly-eyed smiley face.

"I've sold a whole lot of them," one employee grinned, his own surgical mask dangling. "I sold eight boxes to one person, ten boxes to one person." How'd they transport all those boxes? "One of them had a suitcase, the other just held all the boxes in his arms." They weren't leftovers from the COVID pandemic, he said, pointing to the white box truck that was parked in front of the store. "We always have them."

At the 99-cent store next door, an elderly woman was getting in a heated discussion with some of its employees. "Where's your mask?!" she asked one of the workers. "What?" he replied, looking blank. "Your mask!" she urged. "Come on now!" 

Down the street, double-masked school children slow-danced in arcs and twirled as they waited for the B41. Across the street, a man heaved packages out of a FedEx delivery truck with a white New York Health + Hospitals mask covering his face. He said that the company had provided them this morning. 

At the Jefferson Street office of the Democratic Socialists of America on the Lower East Side, a half-dozen or so masked volunteers sat at folding tables, staring at laptops and calling restaurants in the area to see if their workers wanted masks or other kinds of PPE. In a few hours of putting call-outs on social media, they had scrounged up more than 1,000 surgical masks and a few hundred N95s to give away; Wu's Wonton wanted some, and so did Scarr's Pizza.

Children cover their mouths as they walk home from school. (Hell Gate)

"Last night, and this morning, a bunch of folks in an organizing chat that I'm in with DSA, we're kind of thinking like, what can we do?" said Isabel Francisco, a Lower Manhattan branch rep for the group. 

Francisco told Hell Gate that the wildfire mutual aid dovetailed with the group's mission of fighting Mayor Eric Adams's proposed budget cuts. "We are all really thinking and agitating towards Mayor Adams taking care of people better," Francisco said. "You know, everybody is sort of in horror, seeing the climate crisis happen before their eyes, as well as just how unresponsive like Adams and [Governor Kathy] Hochul have been."

A few blocks away, Neil Singh was sweeping trash away from a spot in a median where he has slept for the last several weeks.

"Today the air was different, the atmosphere, everything. Everything was so different," Singh said. "I heard we had a fire in Canada or something and the smoke came all the way over here? That's kinda weird, I've never seen something like that."

Singh, who is 40, said he'd been living on the streets for decades. He said he'd been approached by outreach workers in the past, and wasn't interested in what they had to offer. "I'm more scared of going in the shelter than staying out here," he explained. "Why? If I'm staying in the shelter, I'm afraid I'm gonna get stabbed up. Out here, people can see you. I'm much safer here."

Singh agreed that breathing was harder than usual on Wednesday. "It felt like something was over your face," he said. "Like it was blocking your air flow. It was the first time I've ever had that feeling."

Still, he added that he didn't think he was much worse off than other New Yorkers.

"The same air you breathe in here is the same air you breathe in your house," he said. "It's still the same air, it just takes a little bit longer to get into your apartment."

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