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Day 6: A Harrowing Sneeze & Home Decontamination

I ventured out today in driving rain. I couldn’t get my products picked up and my partner was working his day job, so my backup ‘flu buddy’ insisted on driving me to the UPS shipping center in midtown. I felt like a draftee being hauled off to war by a cackling drill sergeant.

I’ve never seen New York so empty, not even on Christmas. Traffic is scarce. Drivers are courteous.

The mood was radically different at UPS. People were jammed together, nervous, venting at the understaffed desk. I was an alien—safe and distant—wearing what I consider pretty good equipment. As people stared enviously, I started to feel like a celebrity. I should get a t-shirt emblazoned with my URL.

Then a stocky woman sneezed. Flu circulates by annoying our immune systems until we cough or sneeze. Hers was a titanic launch. The room went silent.

VIRUSES TRAVEL IN MANY LANGUAGESAll eyes turned to her, turned on her. She tried to keep her paper mask on, but she needed to blow her nose. In the middle of doing that—as people around her tried to back away without losing their places—she sneezed so hard, her mask blew off.

As she groped on the floor for the soggy piece of bent paper, I wondered how she’d kept her lipstick intact behind a mask. Everyone wanted to kick her. I could feel the rage through my plastic sheathing. I hated her, too. When she opened her mouth to mutter apologies, her lips festooned with slimy, dangling white blood cells, I felt sick.

The sound of a sneeze has become more jarring than chalk scraping a blackboard, scarier than a police siren erupting behind your car. It pumps the heart into overdrive. It’s a loud reminder that invisible viral particles are scratching and clawing inside the others until they can burst forth to fling themselves at us, infesting the very air we gasp when we hear that sick, violent exhalation: Achoooooo….

Or hatschi in Germany, atchim in Brazil, hakushon in Japan, apshkhi in Russia, atchoum in France, and han-chee in China. Here’s a nice Web page about this.

My roommate has been sneezing tonight. It should be cat allergies, though this is denied, probably in deference to the fact that it’s my cat. To throw us off track, the cat sneezed, too.

Bio-Security Starts at the Door

Coming back inside was a pain—and not merely because my roommate has refused to talk for hours. Did I return with a mermaid tattooed on my forehead? The mirror shows nothing but concern.

The process of decontaminating is so bothersome that it’s often easier to stay put. My cleansing area consists of plastic sheeting near the front door of my three-room apartment, which opens into the living room. I keep going-out clothes by the door. I wash in a temporary tub, using a makeshift shower head and a bowl of diluted disinfectant solution to clean parts of me that were exposed and then to soak goggles and gloves.

I worry that my cat will catch H5N1 from something I track in. It’s interesting how caring for a helpless creature makes one more responsible. (Is this what happens to parents?) He is no longer allowed to enter the living room or kitchen. His vocal response to this catastrophic loss of territory has inspired a new nickname: Mrrrowlin Brando.

I like dogs a lot, but I’m glad I didn’t get one. My smarter, dog-owning pals are building indoor litter boxes. Imagine a Doberman lifting his leg in a Manhattan living room. I still see a few people walking canines on the street below, which is risky. They can pick up bird flu, though not quite like cats: Dogs shed it without becoming ill.

I can only imagine how parents feel as they keep their children cooped up. Kids have fingers and voices. They can easily escape, or make you want to.

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