I remember growing up that one of the coolest things that would happen in your house was when your mother dropped a thermometer. The globules of mercury were like an exposed lava lamp you could play with on the table with a pencil. Try as you might, you could never pick the stuff up with your fingers, so my brothers and I would play soccer with it across the dinner table until we finally got tired of it and swept it into the trash can.
Flash forward a few years to my middle school years at Presitigious Prep, home to nerdy outcasts and cromagnon atheletes charading as students. We had one Chemistry teacher (who happened to be the cross country coach), who actually divided the class into “Entities” and “Non-Entities” depending on whether you played a varsity sport. The good thing about being a “Non-Entity,” was that meant you were probably also on the Honor Roll which allowed you to spend your study halls doing whatever you want, namely screwing around while the lunkheads struggled to stay academically eligible to hit each other around in practice in the name of school pride. So where was one of our favroite places to screw around? That’s right, the self-same teacher’s chemistry lab doing “unauthorized experiments.” And what was our favorite thing to “experiment” with? You guessed it, mercury.
Once, an entire bottle of the stuff accidentally “fell” into a friend’s bookbag while he was walking through the chemical storage room. He couldn’t reach into his bag to put it back, because if someone saw him they might think he was stealing it. (Well, you try to go through a whole day without rationalizing or engaging in some revisionist history!) Plus the bottle was impossibly heavy and really cool. We had HG for days.
My nerd friends and I did not get sports cars for our 16th birthdays like many of our classmates. We rode the city bus from our middle-class suburb to a stop near campus and walked the rest of the way. We shared the bus with many of the maids and gardeners of our classmates and were the only caucasians aboard most of the time. The rest of the riders politely ignored us and our adolescent blatherings for the most part.
But now that we had the mercury, we decided it was time to play a new game. The floor of the bus was covered in a rigid rubber mat with ridges that ran the length of the bus. I imagine it was so they could simply park the bus on a hill and hose the insides down periodically. Unbeknownst to the MTA it also provided the perfect track for our favorite new pastime: mercury racing. Each contestant chose a groove and poured a different amount of the liquid metal while the bus was either accelerating or going up a small rise. When the bus went downhill or slowed to a stop, the silvery racers would rush forward down the aisle while each groove’s “backer” would cheer for his blob to be the first to reach the front and spill into the entryway steps. We would giggle and shriek like excited schoolgirls in a bizzaro version of cigar-chomping gamblers at a dog track. Eventually, after hundreds of races, our mercury supply was gone and we returned to the Super Bowl of Paper Football as a diversion to studying.
I now have several good friends who are nurses at various hospitals around town. I asked one of them how her day had gone and she replied, “Terrible! Some idiot dropped a thermometer, and we all had to evacuate the entire floor for a couple hours while the team of guys wearing the HazMat suits came in to clean up and sterilize the area.”
“Oh, so that’s a problem?”
I acknowledge how stupid I was and fully accept any damage I may have done to myself. I now eat tuna with impunity knowing that there’s little danger of raising my inherent mercury levels. RUABelle knows the potential for square-headed babies from my seed. But to anybody traveling on the Westmeade bus in the early 80’s who wonders why their hair fell out in clumps, I anonymously apologize.
I blame society.