Last evening I took a walk in the fading dusk. It was cold, about 32'F/0'C. The sky was cloudless, a deep azure blue fringed with pink. The dry air felt like menthol at the back of my throat. I looked across to Boston's waterfront buildings. They seemed magnified by the startling clarity of the clean air. Stunning.
I strolled along a routine route. It circumvents this neighborhood, described as The Polish Triangle, an area still populated in part by Polish immigrants and Polish-Americans. The sidewalks were empty at evening rush hour. The streets unusually quiet for a Friday. The Thanksgiving holiday extends past Thursday through the weekend for many.
My mind drifted to my warm kitchen as I rounded the corner of my street. I was cold. The last long block of my walk should have been a relieved homecoming. Should have been. As I got within four houses of my address, the smog of my neighbor's wood stove, an illegal anachronism here in the city, clogged my nostrils. The crisp air was polluted. My serenity was challenged.
The owner of the wood stove is reputedly a good Catholic. I have been told that he teaches religion at my old prep school. He lives on the next street. His smog drifts over a large back yard which bridges the block to my street. He keeps a low profile on my street. I used to wonder why. The cold weather brings an unpleasant reminder. In summer, I seldom associate the smog of cold seasons with his frequent use of a wood chipper in his yard. But today I am aware he is making wood fuel from old lumber and dead trees he collects from trash piles and yards. The smoke is rancid, probably laced with lead paint.
I am sure there is romance entwined with my neighbor's insistence upon breaking the law and polluting our air. He has a miniature barn for a shed in his back yard. It has a fake hay loft door with a large hay hook dangling in the wind in front of it. I am also sure there is an economic motivation. There are gas lines in all our streets, but gas must be purchased. Rotten wood is free.
I am grappling with an ethical conundrum. As a nurse, I know the smoke is less healthy than exhaust from other sources. I also speculate the stove is illegal. It resides in a relatively new addition to a relatively new house. Boston banned wood fires decades ago as an environmental protection. My conundrum is how to approach the problem to fulfill my ethical, social and professional duty.
Peter and I have an obvious and dubious distinction of being two rare gay men residing in our immediate area. The smoker is a rather rustic type who often shoots a questioning eye in our direction from his elevated back porch when we are gardening or cleaning up. His middle-aged son, who apparently lives there with his family, will give the occasional wave. My hard-earned instincts of self-preservation tell me that the seemingly "normal" approach of simply introducing myself and telling him about his smoke will not yield a mutually satisfactory result. Too many potential mines (or memes) in that field.
My other option is the city zoning authority. Have you ever dealt with an urban zoning authority? A smoky wood stove is not a leaning high rise or all-night disco. Little graft value in intervening for the local bureaucrats. It is about as appealing as approaching the neighbor with my complaint.
For now I have insulated my windows and doors to exclude the smoke, which last winter invaded our stairwell through the antique front door. We are now smoke-free inside, more or less. Eventually I will call zoning with a rhetorical question about wood stove ordinances. I will check my blood pressure, like reading omens, before I call. No sense risking a stroke over a wood stove.