i love the smell of apathy in the morning

There is no denying the fact that Phoenix stinks. Seriously, the city (generally speaking) has a bad odor to it. This is a fact that I never really came to notice until I started bike commuting. And as it has become custom for me to do, I contemplate these things while I am riding to and from work each day. It is easy to see why the city has a foul odor – there is litter everywhere, a plethora of cars and machines spewing pollutants, very little natural “greenspace,” and trash cans baking in the intense sun. But why is that the case?

Reluctantly, and non-judgmentally, I think America’s “car-culture” is, at one level, a root cause of such a catastrophe as a smelly city. It is our willingness to drive even only down the street to a store or friends house that facilitates the downward spiral into poor city conditions. When we step into a car, we are removing ourselves from our surroundings, and just as Robert Pirsig wrote about in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, viewing the world through a frame – just as we do when watching tv. All of a sudden, the world around us does not seem real, but mere fiction. And therefore the problems in that world are just as fictional. When we are in cars, we don’t have to worry about the litter or the smell, because it does not exist. We do not see it and we do not smell it.

I never intend to force my personal beliefs on anyone else. But from time to time, in order to provide appropriate context, it is necessary to reveal things about one-self and the life one lives. So here is a story:

This past Sunday at church, the priest (Father Gil) gave a well-delivered sermon about the growing disparity between rich and poor. Episcopalians use 3 readings from scripture during every Sunday service, and this week there was a reading from Luke’s gospel about a rich man and a poor man, to which Fr. Gil stated the following:

What was the rich man’s sin that resulted in him being sent to Hades? It seems that his sin was what he didn’t do rather than what he did. He ignored the poor man Lazarus. He didn’t do anything to help Lazarus. He averted his eyes from Lazarus’ condition and did nothing to help him. [read more…]

And tying this back into bike commuting: it is our willingness, as modern Americans, to drive anywhere and everywhere that facilitates a culture that ignores the real problems of our own communities. I guarantee that no one who walks by all the trash on the road smiles and says, “that is so pretty, and the smell…heavenly!” Instead, we plop ourselves into a car to drive someplace, and are not confronted with the reality of it. It’s not that we are always the ones creating the litter. But we ignore it, all from the comfort of our air conditioned, sea breeze-scented, rolling world-shrinker.

So it is only when we immerse ourselves in reality that we can truly see what the problems are. And I have the youthful ignorance to believe that when those problems become real to each of us, we will eventually reach a tipping point and do something about it. And because of that, I urge people to take a bike ride or a walk around something as remote and small as your own neighborhood, and if you see a piece of trash, pick it up. It’s such a simple thing to do – and as we do it more frequently, it will become almost second nature, until we restore the care and respect for our surroundings. Our neighborhoods and our cities need it. And our conscience will be happy…

The Velorution is about more than bikes.


  1. RL

    Amen to that Brother!

  2. Ghost Rider

    Great observations, Jeff! I think a lot of people forget that our car-centric culture is responsible for more than just smog and other pollutants — it’s a killer, it fosters disregard for the environment and keeps people away from what is REALLY happening out in the world.

    All that being said, I am lucky enough to have a route that passes by two Cuban bakeries (mmm…the smell of fresh Cuban bread in the morning is sublime) and a restaurant that smells like fresh bacon and coffee. Oh, and there’s a coffee roaster somewhere near where I ride, and if the wind is right I get a dose of that beautiful smell!

  3. Lance

    Jeff you stole my posting! haha, no hard feelings though.

    Moe and I rode out to the beach here a week or two ago, after a day of rain. We traveled down on of the main drainage runoffs that lead directly to the ocean. It was DISGUSTING!!! Piles and piles of those white foam cups everywhere along the sides of the “river”. I hate so sound sappy, but man does that hurt the old ticker.

    My brother is a habitual litter bug and I’ve yelled at him several times for it. Wake up people.

  4. Chris C.

    Everything you describe about Phoenix is so dead on. I moved to the Bay Area a year and half ago because I was sick of dealing with the stench and general apathy of that place. Now looking back I feel like I escaped hell. I hate going back to visit my family and every time I do I try and urge them to move away.

    Its strange how much garbage is there…

  5. Quinn

    ignorance is bliss!

    The one comment I Always get, that makes me angry, that must stink, sucking all the car fumes!, Little do they know that fumes are just one part! And they only know about the fumes b/c the “experts” say they are there, not b/c They themselves have sucked on them.

  6. nord

    Very well said, Jeff. Riding across central Houston today got me thinking about the stank on a number of occasions. We’ve got the same problems with trash, traffic, and smog, and my commute takes me over a lovely butthole-scented stretch of Buffalo Bayou.

    The bayous here have always played a vital role in the city. The city was founded on the banks of Buffalo Bayou, the eastern end of which now forms the Houston Ship Channel. While most of the other bayous in Houston have been channelized and serve primarily as flood control measures, Buffalo Bayou still tracks a natural course. It too, however, remains one of Houston’s main drainage arteries, and every piece of litter that’s thrown on the street eventually makes its way into the bayou, where it mixes with runoff and festers in the tepid water.

    It’s actually kind of interesting to note the juxtaposition between Phoenix and Houston. We’ve both got tons of garbage, and we’re both insanely hot, only Phoenix is in the desert, and Houston is a sub-tropical megalopolis with the second busiest port in the United States that’s fed by a giant toilet carrying the effluent of an area half the size of Connecticut.

    I could go on forever about numskulls in the world, but Cartman just gave himself Tourette’s…

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