x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

If there's nothing to worry about, what's with the helmet?

We've all had that moment: something seems wrong, our internal alarm bells start to ring, and then someone who should know tells us, essentially, to 'chill', and we do.

A friend of mine who lives at the beach once woke up at dawn to discover that the house next door was surrounded by brightly coloured yellow tape emblazoned with the words: "Danger! Hazardous Materials! Do Not Cross!"

There were flashing lights, the crackle of a two-way radio, and the sound of a dozen or so people making purposeful conversation.

Alarmed, he headed out to see what was going on. A team of guys was gathered around a bright orange van - "Danger! Haz-mat Crew!" stenciled along the side - and the group was busily donning white space-suit-looking outfits, complete with huge white gloves and plastic-enclosed helmets.

"Um, what's going on?" he asked one of the guys. "I live next door. Is everything OK?"

The guy in charge shook his head inside his scary helmet. "Nothing to worry about," he said through the microphone/speaker attachment. "Everything's normal. No need for alarm."

And then he and his team frog-marched into the house next door like astronauts, because, of course, there was nothing to worry about. Everything was normal.

A few moments later, they re-emerged carrying - by tongs - a large metal crate, which they carefully placed in the van. "Nothing to worry about," said the leader through his helmet speaker. "Just routine. You can go into your home now."

Which my friend did. And for a few minutes, at least, he worried about it. What was in the box? Who called the Hazardous Materials squad? Was he in any danger of radioactive poisoning or toxic gas ingestion or something? He sat on his sofa and thought about it for a while, but by then the sun had come up and the kids needed to get to school and the dog needed to be walked, and he had an early appointment at the office so the whole thing just slipped his mind.

He never found out what the Haz-mat team had carried out by the tongs. He didn't know his neighbour - Malibu is a distinctly un-neighbourly neighbourhood - and the house was put on the market a week or so later, sold, then sold again, and then the housing bubble burst and now the house is owned by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York for whom the place is still kind of toxic.

But what was amazing, to me at least, was this: a week later, he had forgotten about the whole incident.

"Hey, what was the deal with that haz-mat crew outside of your neighbour's house?" I asked him one day at lunch.

"Oh yeah. That. You know," he replied with a shrug, "I forgot all about that. I wonder what that stuff was that they had to carry out with tongs."

"When I saw you that day," I said, "you were really concerned about it."

"I was?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said. "You had calls into the city, you kept Googling the address. You mean to say you never found out what it was all about?"

He thought about it for a minute. "I guess my feeling is," he said, "those guys must know what they're doing. I mean, that's why they give them the space suits and the tongs, right?"

And then we both went back to our Cobb salads and our scurrilous gossip and never brought it up again.

It's amazing how many odd and alarming things can seem normal, as long as there are enough people wearing some kind of uniform, or with some kind of lofty job title, to say: "This is normal. Relax. There's nothing to be worried about."

Haz-mat guys next door with tongs and a glowing box. Hedge-fund managers brimming with breezy confidence about the health of the mortgage-backed securities market. Airport security officers, wearing disquieting rubber gloves, touching you all over without making eye contact and taking body scans of you.

All totally normal. Nothing to worry about. You can go back into your home now.

We've all had that moment: something seems wrong, our internal alarm bells start to ring, and then someone who should know - someone with the right badge or the right job or five minutes on a financial news show on television - tells us, essentially, to "chill", and we do.

It seems odd for a moment, and then the day starts up and we forget all about it and get on with things. And the next time the haz-mat team shows up on our street, we don't even get out of bed.

Rob Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood.