I looked out my front window today to see a small cloud of smoke wafting through and over our fence and into our front yard, which was strange. But cars often pull over near our house so at first I thought maybe it was a car overheating. When I went outside, there was no car there. I walked out through the gate and found that the smoke was rising right out of the ground, apparently from a patch of smoldering mulch about 18 inches across, which was also strange. I was wearing pretty heavy shoes, so I started to stamp it out but this didn’t work, so I grabbed a bucket from our yard (what? You don’t keep buckets in your yard?) and went to our hose and filled up a bucket of water. In the end, it took about three or four one-woman fire brigade trips to put the whole thing (which seemed to have jumped to a few smaller patches in the intervening time as I walked back and forth).

In the meantime, drivers in their cars waiting for the light to change at the closest intersection watched me. It’s hard not to feel embarrassed. “Oh, I’m just putting out a small fire here on the side of the road in front of my house while you watch me. Hi!”

I don’t know.

I took a picture too while drivers watched.

Although I didn’t see a cigarette butt, what I can only assume is that a lit one tossed from a car or by a pedestrian going to the bus stop was the initial spark. But I didn’t see a filter and I’m no fire marshall so who am I to say? Later on, my husband and I considered whether it could have been a roach, which led to a lot of questions from my 10yo. She’s writing two novels right now, so I will not be surprised if some of her characters end up tossing a roach out a moving car window.

Eighteen months ago or so — anyway, back in November of 2018 — I put in a request for a sidewalk in front of my house. Part of me thought, naively I guess, that by sending the sidewalk people (as I call them, not their official title) a picture of the smoldering mulch, maybe they would put in a sidewalk. I received an email response from them: no. Well, not this year anyway. Our sidewalk is now under consideration for 2021.

Perhaps this is the moment that I need to remind you that I live in the United States of America (which, my all measures is still considered a first world country) in a suburb of the capital, Washington, DC, in what is supposedly one of the wealthiest counties in the nation.

I ended up calling 311. I wanted to talk to the County Executive, Marc Elrich, and 311 is his listed phone number. The operator said she couldn’t connect me to the county executive but that she could put in a request. I’ve put in a number of email requests over the years, I explained to her, and never has Marc Elrich responded. One time, when my husband called to try to get some help with a rat problem on our property in connection, in part, to the open garbage at the nearby bus stop as well as some pet birds at our neighbor’s house, someone from the County Executive office (Mike Subin?) responded to tell us that his people were taking care of it. But the whole rat problem is perhaps a story for another time. I feel the same flush of embarrassment thinking about the rats as I did pouring water over smoldering mulch by my house while drivers looked on. I don’t know. It’s something about being watched but not seen that feels terribly embarrassing.

The 311 operator couldn’t connect me but she put in a request on my behalf. I told her a bit about my problem with the sidewalk and the fire. She was lovely and even granted me a sharp intake of breath when I told her about the burning mulch.

“You should not have to be dealing with all that in the middle of a pandemic,” which, honestly, (and a bit like my previous post wherein my two year old touched dog poop), COVID-19 hadn’t really even been on my mind. Even in a pandemic, some people are still just putting out fires.

“I wanted to go on a walk with my kids after that happened, but I knew that without rain in the forecast, I would be nervous about another cigarette butt igniting. So instead of going on a walk with them, I hosed down all the mulch,” I told her.

She was sympathetic, a mother too, she told me. “I understand how important your kids’ safety in their environment is,” she told me. Which was nice of her. I apologized a few times and told her that I knew that dealing with all of this wasn’t actually her job or her fault. And I thanked her for her sympathy. And it was nice and I felt a little less alone and isolated and a little less like no one cared or understood or wanted to understand.

It’s late and I want to click publish on this, but I’m hesitant. It’s all so unpolished and I haven’t properly processed and revised and edited. But it is all true.

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