It rolled up the street in El Granada, lights flashing, quiet, slow, deliberate in the 3:00 AM darkness. I was there outside my house in sweats, Sperry Topsiders with no socks, and a small flashlight. I waved it and the fire engine pulled over. Three young guys in fire outfits, much more cheerful and awake than I was, jumped out.
“I told the dispatcher we have two theories,” I said, “either a big natural gas leak, or the strongest skunk we’ve ever smelled.” The guys laughed.
“Whew, this is strong!” one of them said as Wendy and I showed them around the house. Another guy was holding up a meter in various directions.
As I watched them I thought about the old, retired firefighter I had met on the subway last time I was in New York. He and his son had been 9/11 first responders. Do you remember what it was like back then, over 11 years ago? Like so many Americans that day I got the message loud and clear: no matter how big the oceans are that separate us, like it or not, we’re all connected.
“There’s no carbon in the air, so it must be a skunk,” announced the guy with the meter. His buddies, having sniffed everywhere, agreed.
“So how do I get rid of it?” I asked as I walked them back to the fire engine.
One of them laughed and shrugged. “We don’t do skunks; that’s your job!”
The next morning, after an hour and a half on the Internet and the phone, I found myself talking to a young guy I’ll call Tom, in San Francisco. He sounded very knowledgeable.
“I’ve smelled lots of skunks, but never anything this strong,” I said. “It’s still making my eyes water!”
“Yep,” said Tom, “this is a special odor, and it’s got to go a long distance.”
He proceeded to explain details about skunk behavior. “It’s their mating season. You’ve probably got a female looking for a warm, cozy place to have her litter. What you smelled is the special odor she puts out to attract males.” We made an appointment for him to come that afternoon.
I returned to my computer and scanned the day’s headlines. Everywhere you look, examples of human society coming unraveled: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, Greece, Mexico, Egypt, Mali. Here in the U.S., there’s the Mexican border, there’s Puerto Rico, there’s the political gridlock that blocks any solutions to our most pressing problems. There are so many people who are slipping into poverty, while neighborhoods and whole regions of chronic despair fester and multiply.
Even the relatively peaceful and prosperous community where I live hasn’t been spared. There are still abandoned houses, like the little house with a wonderful ocean view on the corner of my block, which became a home for raccoons and rats. Recently a guy with a pickup truck has been showing up to haul away debris. Maybe someone has finally bought the place.
I get back to work, trying to ignore the skunk smell. I’m winding down 15 years of operating the HR Forums, and moving forward with One World Lights. This new change feels like stepping outside of a comfortable, gated community of mostly privileged people, and into a much bigger and much more diverse neighborhood: chaotic, unpredictable, noisy, often dangerous. Sometimes I feel scared at the audacity of what I’m undertaking. But there are so many caring, loving, strong, committed people all over the world, each doing what they can to make a difference, so many role models, so much inspiration. I push against the fear by telling myself: maybe I can make a difference too.
At 6 PM Tom showed up with his van and his assistant –I’ll call her Rebecca – and his little white dog. They were both young; she’s in her 20s. Wendy had just returned from work. We invited them in. Armed with his gas mask, floodlight, gloves and iPhone, Tom descended into the dark crawl space under the house.
When he emerged 10 minutes later, the four of us sat around the dining room table over coffee. “The good news,” Tom said, “is that I didn’t see any skunks.”
“That’s great!” I said.
“Wait,” he said, “take a look at this.” He passed around his iPhone. “Your insulation down there is completely torn up. And see those piles on the ground, everywhere? Raccoon feces.”
“Yeah! They’ve been down there for a while.” Then he showed us another picture, a dead raccoon. “What I think, is he was old and weak, and came here for a nice warm, dry place to die. There weren’t any maggots, so he’s just been there a day or two. You’re lucky. If he stayed like that a few more days, the smell would be horrible, way worse than the skunk smell, and it would take much longer to get rid of it. “
“What about the skunk?”
“It looks like she saw the dead raccoon sometime last night, got startled, sprayed a really big spray, and left.”
Wendy & I made eye contact. I can see that she’s sad about the dead raccoon. We had thought the raccoon problem was confined to the house on the corner. But here they were, also under our house the whole time. That was sobering. “That skunk alerted us to the raccoons,” Wendy said. “She did us a big favor.”
The four of us talked about the details of what would come next: cleaning up, sealing off, and deodorizing the crawl space under the house.
I was curious about these two young people, who seemed to be about the ages of my two kids. They live near SF State University, in two separate apartments. Tom has been doing rodent and small animal removal for 14 years. Rebecca just graduated from SF State with a BA in media production. What struck me as she described her college experience is how scary it had been for her to walk to classes. Students, and particularly young women, are frequently assaulted, robbed, and worse. There are campus police, but there just don’t seem to be enough. And they both said that their neighborhood has been getting worse. Violence, gangs, shootings, lots of police everywhere – it’s all become depressingly routine.
Tom’s ambition is to grow his business to the point where he can afford to move out of the neighborhood. He’d like to live in a safe, affluent community on the Peninsula. Rebecca agreed. He feels optimistic that he can do it.
“I love this work,” he said. “I understand skunks and rats and raccoons. And when I clear people’s houses, they’re really grateful. That’s satisfying.”
I thought back to my days in the ‘60s as a student at SF State. It was a time of flower-power and love-ins, of the spiritual revolution and visions of a better future. The issue of day-to-day safety never entered anyone’s mind. The difference between my student experience and Rebecca’s makes me sad. What happened? Is there an infestation of social unraveling that has now spread to this part of San Francisco, just like the raccoons from the corner house migrated to ours? If so, why, and how do we turn it around? Isn’t that what One World Lights is all about? I hope that my determination and optimism will remain as strong as Tom’s.
Wendy and I watched as Tom and Rebecca walked back out to the van. “Are you guys really just business colleagues?” I said. They looked at each other and giggled.