The Smoke In Our Lungs

An essay that finds a voice for the voiceless which draws a parallel between the government’s response to Covid and the East Palestine train derailment…

by: Kit Stookey

On Sunday night, after our fight blew over and we were lying in bed, you had pulled up East Palestine up on Google Maps. I looked at the screen and remembered the mug you keep in the back of the kitchen cabinet. The one that says “East Palestine High School, Graduating Class of 1951,” with the brown etching of the school itself and of a grouping of trees behind it. You saw on the news that they were evacuating all the houses within a mile of the train tracks. You pulled up the address of the house where your grandparents used to live and pointed out where your aunts still live, just down the street. They were only a four-minute drive from where the explosion happened, but technically just outside of the evacuation zone. I think you told me once that your grandfather used to work for the train station. If the train hadn’t been derailed, its end point would have been the station where my grandmother used to work. I wonder if our grandparents knew one another when they were our age. I imagine our life beginning a long time ago in a place where the tracks intersect, but I kept this to myself.

A couple minutes later, your Aunt Gayle responded to your text . She and your uncle Carl were fine, but they did drive over to your cousin’s house, outside of the village (under 5,000 people live there so it can’t technically be called a town). Throughout the week that followed, I’ve asked if you’ve heard anything else, but there hasn’t been any news from them.

I have heard, however, quite a lot of opinions on my Twitter feed. Reposted TikTok analyses, threads of people talking about how their chickens are dying, how fish are floating up dead on the river, how the effects will ultimately spread all the way down to the Mississippi Gulf and destroy the environment there, too. On the other end, there are plenty of people decrying these reports as alarmist and instead, defer to local news and public officials, who say that doing a controlled burn of vinyl chloride was the best way to avoid long-term environmental effects. They say that the never-ending column of black smoke, which looks like it came straight out of Mordor, is the best possible consequence for such an accident, ignoring that this disaster could have been prevented by enforcing more robust rules about transporting toxic chemicals and by legislating safer, more equitable conditions for those on the ground with the train. 

Me? I’m of the mindset that we’re all fucked. We all remember when the CDC told us it was actively bad for us to be wearing masks. We remember the optimistic estimates that a global pandemic would dwindle down on its own within a few short months. We remember all the trusted outlets talking about how Long Covid really only affects people who have risk factors. But I’ve met people, of all ages, who didn’t meet those criteria, people who are physically active, but who’ve suffered from fatigue, who only started to get their senses of smell back months after infection. Our nation’s response to Covid seemed like it was driven by both willful and honest ignorance, by doctors who had never seen illnesses quite like it and by governments and companies that want to keep people working and spending money. I can’t help but think the same thing is happening with East Palestine. I’ve seen plenty of people complaining about how it’s been harder to breathe throughout the week and that the air smelled foul. But my weather app has resolutely stated that the air quality around East Palestine only poses “a moderate health concern for a very small number of people.” 

I told you that it was like applying a wet band-aid to a gaping wound when you’ve complained about how Norfolk-Southern Railway, which has a revenue of almost $10 billion, is giving the town $25,000 in compensation for the environmental catastrophe they’ve caused. $5,000 dollars per person to uproot their lives and find new homes and jobs or pay outlandish medical bills as cancer cases will surely skyrocket. I’m sorry that I can’t be more optimistic for you and your family, but it’s clear that that greed and recklessness have ruined a place that holds so many fond memories for you.

I know you’re not grieving yet, exactly. Your family is still alive and well, but your uncharacteristic quietness reminds me a little of when your grandfather died early last year when we were both home with Covid. Your dad had called early that morning to let you know it wasn’t looking good, and by lunchtime, your grandfather was gone. You sat on the bed and cried, mourning a man you hadn’t seen since before the pandemic out of fear that you would get him sick (at the service, you would learn that he died from Covid-related complications after all.) I tried to talk to you about him, remembering how the deaths of my grandmothers caused all kinds of memories to resurface for my parents, but you didn’t have much to say. Your grandmother was the bigger personality — blustery, opinionated, full of life — while your grandfather was silent, steady. Their dynamic reminds me of us, how you fill a room with jokes that toe the line between hilarious and deeply insensitive, all eyes gravitating towards your height, your bleached hair, your ever-growing sleeve of multicolored tattoos. It’s been so odd to find you speechless about this, for me to introduce the reality of your family’s situation when we’re out with friends. I hope I’m not overstepping or twisting their realities. I know this isn’t my story to tell. It should be yours or your aunt’s or someone else’s, someone who actually knows the history of the stores that have opened and closed. Someone who remembers which neighbors gave out king-size candy bars for Halloween and which ones gave out apples. Someone who kept a scary-looking dog that would bark at every passing car but that was, in fact, sweet as a lamb. The person best equipped to know and speak about what’s going on in town might have attended the reunion for East Palestine High’s Class of ’51, but as it stands, I’m the one talking.

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