My car is parked sidelong on a hill. The driver-side wheels cling to the edge of the asphalt, barely touching the roadway. The passenger-side, eighteen-inches lower, sits on the lip of a steep, grassy embankment. As I pulled off the road, I felt a vague fear that the car might flip. I sit now at the edge of a bridge, computer in my lap, camp chair under my butt. I look like a soccer mom squeezing in a bit of work before the game starts.
Eli hugs the bridge’s rail, avoiding traffic, throwing a powerful magnet into the water and hauling it back up with a rope. Over and over, hoping to snare something metallic. So far, yesterday and today, he’s caught three gigantic bolts, a C battery and a large chunk of iron—a cylinder six inches long and as wide around as an ax handle. Magnet fishing. His summer hobby. One of them, anyway.
Over the weekend his hobby was destroying TV sets. On YouTube, he watched videos of teenagers—ones older than himself—removing the thin surface screens from out-of-date TVs and turning them into giant magnifying glasses. With these, they directed sunlight into a condensed stream that immediately combusted anything it hit. He needed a TV.
After a half an hour on Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, he had a dozen candidates, each thirty-miles away. “Eli, every house on our block will have an old TV in their basement, you just need to ask them.” Except us, of course. Last summer, we took ours to an e-cycling event held at the local prison. We dumped three TVs and a twenty-inch computer monitor.
The house across the street was a likely candidate: an older couple—older than me anyway—with two grade-school aged grandchildren living with them. I figured they wouldn’t have time to get rid of their old TVs. I was right. They had a dusty old TV in a pile of crap—ladderback chairs, lamps without shades, bound bundles of newspapers, a window frame—in their garage. We all agreed that we were doing them a bigger favor than they were doing for us, and I carried the TV home. Then Susan and I went for a neighborhood walk.
Have you tried to get rid of a cathode ray tube? A CRT is the glass part of a not-flat-screen TV or computer monitor. Until 2007, my job at a large non-profit community center included acting as the organization’s IT staff. People would regularly drop by in the evening after I went home and “donate” their Windows 98 computer and seventeen-inch CRT monitor. I formed a standing-relationship with an e-cycler who would stop by twice a year to pick up all the garbage that generous people dropped off. A few years before the end of my tenure in this position, he stopped taking the monitors. He couldn’t unload them. People were charging him to take them off his hands. They were filled, he said, with toxic chemicals.
I thought about this as I walked around my neighborhood. When we returned home, I planned to tell Eli to be careful disassembling the TV. But there it was, the plastic cover partway removed, and the CRT cracked open like an egg. Just like Pandora’s box, Eli released evil into the world. Apparently, the chemicals we need to worry about are lead dust and phosphor, a synthetic fluorescent that contains trace amounts of Mercury.
On my sixth birthday, the science-guy came to my school. Sort of a local Bill Nye (only forty years earlier), he would perform science experiments for classrooms full of children to watch. The highlight of his show was the mercury trick. He’d pour out a dollop of mercury into a shallow cardboard box and then challenge one of the kids to pick some up with their fingers. As the birthday boy, I was the chosen one. For thirty seconds, I chased a pile of liquid mercury around a box, every time I touched it, it jumped away from me. The other kids hooted and yelled and cheered me on, but I couldn’t trap the mercury with my fingers. This is the trick, it’s repelled by human touch.
Here are some symptoms of mercury poisoning: Skin rashes, anxiety, memory problems, trouble speaking, trouble hearing, trouble seeing. Oops. I have all of those. Lead, as we all know, is a slow-acting poison. Symptoms take years to show up.
A few years after the mercury incident, my father bought me a neat toy. It was a metal casting mold that made army men identical to the little, green, plastic guys you buy for a buck-thirty at the Dollar General. Except mine were made out of lead. My father melted the weights from fishing lures with a blow torch and poured molten lead into the mold. When cool, he’d pop out an army man for me to sand, paint and then put in my mouth.
I think Eli is going to be alright.
I wasn’t ready to give up on the magnifying glass. I closed the gaping hole with duct tape, donned latex gloves and one of the surgical masks I bought in 2007 when I thought the bird flu was going to wipe out ninety percent of the population, and I set to work removing the rest of the plastic cover. It was slow, sweaty work. Although it was dusk, the temperature hadn’t dropped below ninety degrees. Mosquitos swarmed and stuck to my wet skin as they jabbed their sucking straws into my arms and legs and neck. Most of the mosquitos got in and out and made it home safely, but one on my forearm got swatted… with my gloved hand… covered in lead dust and phosphor.
After the TV was completely apart, we realized that there wasn’t a thin screen covering the CRT, just a CRT. There was nothing to serve as a magnifying glass. Just the wreckage of an old TV that I now have to store with the other crap in my garage until the next recycling event at the prison. After I got cleaned up, done with my shower, dressed in fresh clothes, and made dinner, I looked at that itchy spot on my forearm where I slapped the mosquito with my phosphor-coated hand, expecting to find a raised bump. Instead, I found this rash…