Julian Rubinstein

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From The New York Times January 7, 2001

New York Diary

The Life Cycle of a Mold Scare:

Panic, Paralysis, Acceptance

By Julian Rubinstein

THE past couple of months have been madness: insomnia, nervousness, not to mention the anxiety, moodiness and, come to think of it, a few headaches. Nothing really, but, well, have you heard about the mold?

I didn’t believe it at first. The lawsuit, I mean. The hysteria, the symptoms. Not the plain facts. After all, would you be hard pressed to imagine that the city’s apartment buildings could be rife with a toxic substance festering in the air ducts? Check your ventilation systems! My wife did, and oh, how it’s sharpened my senses.

It was late on a Sunday. We were just sitting there, reading, when she jumped up like a stock split, a New York tabloid bursting into the air like confetti and suddenly she’s stomping around the place like Roger Clemens after a wild pitch. “Oh. My. God,” was how it sounded. Twice.

First, she led me into the kitchen and pointed to a dark brown linty filament in a ceiling corner vent that could easily have passed for merely the detritus of our lives. It was in the bathroom too, seeping along the grate of the heating duct.

I then read for myself the newspaper story (under the reassuring headline DEADLY MOLD ON THE ATTACK): In a building just two blocks from us, “more than 400 residents are slowly being poisoned by toxic molds in their apartments,” a fuzzy matter that sounded similar to the one crawling along our walls. Two people had already died — a 7-year-old girl (stroke) and a 23-year-old man (allergies) — and hundreds of others had symptoms including asthma, dizziness, headaches, rashes and loss of memory.

I was remarkably calm in those early moments as my wife rifled through the blue pages of government phone listings. Wouldn’t it, after all, be more shocking to read that a team of independent inspectors had snaked the city’s buildings and deemed our dwelling places totally safe, I asked her? Hadn’t we forsaken any expectation of environmental safety upon signing our first lead paint waiver? Or at least after being fumigated by a flotilla of Army helicopters two summers in a row? But she’d come unhinged. “What are we going to do,” she demanded. “We just bought this apartment.”

She wanted answers and she even wanted justice and I watched as she called all the appropriate city offices and got all the appropriate responses (call back, call elsewhere, keep holding) until she found on the Internet what would be required of me. The following day, while wearing a thick plastic strap-on mask bought at a hardware store, I got on a step stool and scrubbed the mold off with bleach and sponges. It was like coming face to face with the truth. If the stuff grew back in three weeks’ time,it could eventually destory us.

I have little recollection of what exactly transpired in the subsequent days. Life began playing itself out like the theater of the absurd with that faint but unshakable drumbeat of reality tapping at the temples. I slept every other night, couldn’t focus, my birthmarks darkened. During one eight-day stretch, during which I consumed only grande frappuccinos before 8 p.m., three people asked if I’d highlighted my hair.

Things for my wife were even stranger. Her acupuncturist, whom she’d begun seeing for a variety of ailments that predated the summer scare about mercury in the sushi, suddenly spotted red dots on her tongue, apparently the onset of sickness; an allergist told her that she had “issues” with dust mites. Even our friends seemed to be losing it: one of them, while standing at the elevator bank with his boss, watched as a pair of his dirty underwear, caught up in a pant leg, shot out onto the floor. (“It could happen to anyone,” he maintained.)

Yet somehow, it was a couple of weeks before I realized (while watching a teaser one night for the 11 o’clock news about bottled water tampering) that we’d actually forgot to check on the mold. Forgot!

Had our symptoms become acute? I couldn’t bring myself to look at the vents again. I became immobilized by a harrowing vision of a conversation with the attorney for the other building’s residents: “Hmmm,” he clucks, “inability to follow through on things, headaches, insomnia, paranoia. Yes, yes indeed. Every New Yorker I’ve spoken to mentions the same things.”

Holy Gotham! Could it be true? Piped through the breathing apparatus of the buildings we inhabit, the mysterious element that defines our New York-ness: mold? For three days, I could barely get out of bed, so scarred was I by the apocalyptic notion of becoming a plaintiff in the biggest class action suit in American history.

Then, one afternoon, the words of one resident quoted in the newspaper rang out in my head like a car alarm: “You can tell the people from this building,” he had said. “We all have canes.” Was I crippling myself?

That night, I sneaked through the hallway to the kitchen with a flashlight to see what I already knew: the mold, brash as a Baldwin and stubborn as Steinbrenner, was back, a thin but distinct fuzz, forming along the metal grating. It wasn’t pretty, but it was there, proud and somehow reassuringly alive. It’s an arrangement I’ve come to realize I’d have to make work.

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