September 6th, 2005


Telltale Fumes

There was one of those very minor but irritating events here this afternoon- the sort of vexatious events that mean next to nothing in themselves, but manage somehow to encapsulate something about the Way the World Is. Some guy in an old van came to do something at the long-vacant house next door. The van was parked in the driveway only a few feet from my house. When the guy went to leave, he couldn't get the van started. I could hear his starter squealing away, and the air began to reek of unburned hydrocarbons. This continued for three or four minutes. When he finally got the van started, it belched huge clouds of noxious exhaust which floated around and into my house, even through my closed windows. He finally pulled out and drove down the street, spewing a gray cloud behind him.

I'm not sure who the guy is, but I think he might be one of the heirs of the former owners of the house. I've seen him there a number of times over the last several months. Neither do I know if he drives the beat-up old van because he can't afford anything better, or he's just a tightwad who doesn't want to spend money on anything better (or even get a tuneup and have his smog device checked- assuming he isn't one of the millions of Californians who has deliberately disabled the required smog control equipment.) But it suddenly dawned on me that, even if the guy is simply not very well-off financially, he, like most Americans, is sufficiently well-off to be able to own something to drive.

This further led me to think on the fact that, by global and historic standards, most Americans are now sufficiently well-off to be able, in some small way, to be like Jay Gatsby's friends. Gatsby's friends were, of course, stinking rich, and at one time only the stinking rich could afford the degree of carelessness they displayed, but now there are entire nations of ordinary individuals with means sufficient to allow them to indulge in that sort of carelessness. When even those of modest means can indulge in this carelessness, and when so many are oblivious to the consequences of their actions, the minor irritations of life must inevitably multiply. The cumulative effect of these irritations is vast. And of course, it is always other people who pay for the consequences of this carelessness.

But when carelessness becomes ubiquitous, virtually all of us become those other people. Even the careless fellow with the van undoubtedly suffers numerous vexations at the hands of people as careless as himself. Maybe we are all doomed to turn the entire world into one vast valley of ashes. It is still possible for many to merely pass through that scene of devastation, on their way to and from the more salubrious environments their means provide for them, but we seem to be reaching the point at which the balance tips. The devastation is creeping outward, inexorably engulfing everything in the consequences of our collective, careless self-indulgence. How much longer will anyone be able to fly past the ruin, clucking their tongues, making sympathetic but empty promises to do something about it, while on their way to the suburban villa or the office with the security guards patrolling both the bright, tidy corridors and the dark, dingy basements where the machinery hums, for now?

The smell of the exhaust has blown away, but I know that it lies a bit thicker over the shrinking world than it did a few hours ago. How careless of us.

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