Sunday, October 15, 2006

Believe It

[The subsidized apartment building I live in is called The Union Hotel. It's run by DESC, Seattle's Downtown Emergency Service Center. All the residents have been homeless. I write a column for the monthly building newsletter. The column is called Out of My Mind. I'm posting them here, properly dated, because I can. -- wes]

There’s some pictures on floor L I think about a lot. Paul Dorpat, who does the “Then and Now” feature at the end of Pacific Northwest Magazine, gave us the photographs on the walls down there, including the shots of the women at the Union Hotel Laundry posing for pictures around the time of the Spanish Flu of 1918. You’ve probably seen them hundreds of times. They’re posing with happy smiling faces in this one; they’ve all got their masks on in that one, so we can’t tell if they’re still smiling, but I like to think they are.

One of the things I think about is that the Spanish Flu wasn’t from Spain. They called it that because Spain was one of the few countries of the Western World that wasn’t involved in WWI at the time, and they didn’t have wartime censorship. So it was reported heavily in the Spanish press and hardly at all in other places, because the governments at war didn’t want each other to know how sick their people were. Actually it probably started in the United States.

The masks the people in the pictures were wearing were made of gauze and meant to keep infectious microbes from passing through the air from person to person or from a person’s face to their hands. I don’t know if the masks were required in Seattle but I’ve read that some California cities required people to wear them in public. Stanford University has a website that reports this pathetic jingle was posted as a reminder: Obey the laws /And wear the gauze / Protect your jaws / From Septic Paws.

At the time scientists thought the Spanish Flu was a swine flu. Most scientists now think that the Spanish Flu was a bird flu that became a human flu, just like what everyone is worried about now. Many scientists now also think the gauze masks our ancestors wore during the Spanish Flu didn’t do a bit of good, in fact may have made matters worse.

So to put all of this together, the Spanish Swine Flu was really the Kansas bird flu, the laws requiring gauze masks for everyone’s safety were actually for everyone’s harm and inconvenience, and while I’m looking at these pictures and thinking this, every five minutes I’m blasted by sirens that are supposed to be saving lives.

Sure they are.