The White Powder

I have discovered that the 911 emergency response system works far better when you report a mysterious white powder than when you report a car break in. I would just rather not admit how I learned this lesson.

I came home this evening like any other evening. I checked my mail and went up to my apartment to settle in for the night. I usually procrastinate horribly about going through my mail, so tonight I decided to be proactive and open it, read it, and deal with it all right away. However, procrastination might have been the wiser choice.

As I finished going through my mail, I picked up the last letter, an envelope from my bank. Inside, I found a request to buy emergency hospital insurance. I was preparing to discard the envelope in recycling when I looked down and noticed that my lap was covered with a white powdery substance. The substance was also all over my hands, and when I inspected the envelope, it was all over the envelope, too.

I didn’t want to overreact so I put the envelope down, took a lint brush to my pants, and washed my hands with soap and water. I then turned to the Internet, but “white powder in bank mail” doesn’t really lead to concrete answers in a Google search. So, I did the next logical thing: I called 911.

The dispatcher took my information. “It is a letter from my bank, so I trust the source. It may be nothing,” I said. He instructed me to leave the envelope where it was – no problem, didn’t want to touch it again anyway. I should walk out of the apartment and wait outside for the fire department to arrive. Leave my cat inside? I guess so.

As I waited outside, I felt a strange sense of deja vu from four months back when I called 911 because my car had been vandalized. During that situation, I waited and waited and waited for a police officer to show up and inspect the car and the remains of my window, and so I prepared myself for a long wait this time, too. However, in about 5-10 minutes, two police cars rolled into my apartment parking lot. I was expecting firemen, but I would settle for policemen.

I met them and showed them the way to my apartment. A nice fellow apartment resident held the elevator for us and proceeded to eye the cops curiously as we got off on the third floor. We then went into my apartment, I showed the police the letter, and they put on gloves to inspect it. One of them also got friendly with my cat. He said my kitty was the friendliest cat he had ever met. Yes, I quite like that officer.

The officers couldn’t find much powder left in the envelope (probably because it had all fallen out on my pants earlier). They said they suspected it was nothing to worry about, but I should call my bank just in case. That sounded fine to me, and with minimal personal embarrassment, I prepared to show them out and continue with my evening.

As I was closing the door behind them, I heard the cops greet someone in the hallway. I assumed it was my landlord, so I went out to explain the situation. And that’s when I met the firemen. Apparently, they were still coming after all. The cops told the firemen, “It looks like it’s just paper dust. No worries.” To which the firemen said, “We’re here, so we might as well take a look.” Besides, they had already invited the HAZMAT team to join the party and give us a definitive answer on the powdery substance. Oh dear.

The firemen inspected the envelope with a glow pen, and then we all walked outside. One of the firemen told me the powder was probably nothing to worry about because my cat was still alive. Oh good, that’s comforting.

Once outside, we all prepared to wait for the HAZMAT crew to arrive. We couldn’t have looked any more conspicuous if we tried: two police cars and a fire truck milling about in my apartment parking lot. How could it get worse? Never ask that question.

About 5-10 minutes later (again, pretty quick timing), a large truck with flashing red and blue strobe lights came around the corner – followed by a second, equally flashing large vehicle. The HAZMAT team had arrived.

As the police and the firemen mingled with the HAZMAT crew, I tried my best to blend into the stone wall I was leaning against. I also tried desperately not to laugh. The humor of this situation was not lost on me, but I doubted the 15 people assembling before me now would appreciate it if I doubled over in a fit of giggles at that particular moment.

I showed the whole team – police officers, firemen, and HAZMAT crew – back into the building and up to my apartment. We passed a rather irate-looking landlord as we went. “Are they with you?” Yes, the two police officers, two firemen, six HAZMAT workers, two police cars, one fire truck with additional firemen inside, and two HAZMAT trucks with additional HAZMAT workers inside are all with me.

In the elevator, the HAZMAT chief joked about getting stuck in the rickety thing. Apparently, that has happened before. I’m not sure if the HAZMAT chief meant he got stuck in my apartment’s elevator or if he just got stuck in an elevator, but I was praying desperately that no one got stuck tonight. I really didn’t need the extra emergency personnel waiting outside to get called inside because two firemen, two police officers, six HAZMAT workers, and one confused blonde woman got stuck in the elevator on the way to inspect white powder that was probably nothing to worry about in the first place.

Speaking of praying, I was also praying that no one in the group recognized me as the woman who accidentally called the emergency medical response team to her office one Saturday evening about three months ago because she pressed the wrong bottom while trying to turn off the alarm system, which she also accidentally set off that night.

Luckily, no one recognized me, and the elevator did its job just fine. As we walked to my apartment door, the HAZMAT chief reminisced that one of his first emergency calls was to my apartment building; good times.

When we got to my apartment, they asked if my cat would run out into the hallway when they opened the door, and I said no, she’ll hide under the bed – which she did. Then the HAZMAT crew went to work, checking every surface and all the mail with light-up, hand-held devices. They asked if the 911 dispatcher had told me to wait outside my apartment, and I said yes. So, they asked me to stand outside, too, but one of the firemen held the door open so I could see what was going on. The chief seemed to be using this visit for training purposes as much as an actual white powder emergency. He kept asking the only woman in the crowd how she would respond if the hand-held device turned green. Green sounded pretty bad, so I hoped we weren’t going to find out.

In the middle of all this, the chief walked over to my desk, holding my kitchen towel. This seemed overly thorough if they thought my kitchen towel had any white powdery stuff on it. But it turns out the chief just spilled my Crystal Light on the desk, and he was cleaning it up for me.

Through this whole experience, I seriously believed that every single one of the emergency responders was secretly laughing at my stupidity, and I felt greatly relieved each time one of them said I did the right thing. You don’t mess with white powder.

At long last, they assured me that everything was fine. It was probably just a large build-up of paper fiber in the envelope, and they left me alone to collect the pieces of my ego.

And then there was a knock on the door. My angry landlord? The HAZMAT crew returning to tell me they made a mistake? No, just one of the friendly police officers. He needed to see my ID and give me a case number so this night could officially go down in the record books as the night Megan called 911 about paper dust.

Apparently, this last visit from the police officer put my cat over the edge. She came out from hiding under the bed and promptly growled at the man as he wrote down my license information.

Finally alone, I decided to focus on the bright side of the situation. As the two police officers, two firemen, and six HAZMAT workers explained, they are called out at least 1,000 times for powder that ends up being harmless, but you always want to check because it only takes one time to be the real thing. I did the right thing, and I’m grateful to join the 1,000 harmless cases instead of the one real one.

I don’t plan to check my mail tomorrow.

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