A simple ride
Note: We are in the shortest month of an odd year. Hence, I decided to do something a bit different with my column; I wrote a short story. IÕll jump back into the non-fiction world soon enough. Till then, enjoy.
In a nondescript city, not unlike the small Midwestern city of Galesburg, Illinois, lives a man named Jack. He is in his 30Õs and has held a managerial position in a local business for several years. Jack attended a four year college where he majored in economics. This background led him to seek employment in the business sector. Looking back, Jack feels very fortunate to have taken only two weeks upon graduating to land a secure job. With the handsome income he brings in, he has been able to put away a good deal of money over the last ten years. It brings Jack great comfort to read his retirement fund statements which arrive quarterly in the mail.
JackÕs daily routine largely consists of working and sleeping. He goes to work very early and sits behind an office desk nearly the entire day. On weekends, he isnÕt often free either, due to the fact that business reports have to be completed regularly and it is his sole responsibility that they get done promptly and accurately. Not surprising, his busy schedule doesnÕt lend itself to social encounters (romantic or otherwise) and as such Jack spends most of his private time alone. Yet, since he is always so busy, he doesnÕt really have time to be lonely. Sure, he expects to get married some day and even have kids, but as much as this seems an obvious future outcome, very little in his life suggests that it will actually happen. The years just keep ticking by.
One of JackÕs passions involves driving around in his grayish convertible looking at architecture and gardens. Jack grew up in an old Victorian home with a rather large backyard, where his mom spent many hours in the flower beds. His city is replete with older homes with well-cared for gardens, so these drives provide Jack a bit of a break from the mundaneness of his job.
One spring day, Jack was driving home from the grocery store, something he did bright and early each and every Saturday so as to avoid longer lines and awkward social encounters, when he noticed that a house at the end of his block was having Òthe Garage Sale of the Century.Ó After unloading his items in his fridge and cupboard, he decided to head down to see if this sale was half what it was cracked up to be. Jack loved a good deal and sometimes felt beckoned by ÒFor SaleÓ signs. When he arrived at the cul-de-sac, he was impressed yet somewhat intimidated by the hordes of people present. They were swarming among the piles of goods like worker bees in a hive. After spending about ten minutes wandering through the yard and garage (he didnÕt like to hang around too long for fear of seeing one of the few people he knew in town), Jack determined that most of what he saw was nothing more than the standard junk one finds at such events (stuff that if he bought would undoubtedly end up either in his trash, on a shelf in his already cluttered house, or, worse yet, in a yard sale he would need to have). So he set off to leave, feeling quite comfortable being empty handed. Yet, just as he was opening the door of his vehicle, he was struck by a glimmering light off to his right. He turned to find that this glisten emanated from a shiny bicycle in the yard. As if drawn in by its rays, Jack felt he should go check it out. Upright and resting against a small maple tree, it was a model very much like the one he rode as a child. And given that he didnÕt own a bike, he began to consider if he ought to get one. Leaning over to see its tag, Jack was pleasantly surprised to see how inexpensively it had been priced. Acting more impulsively than usual, Jack pulled a $20-dollar bill out of his wallet, handed it to the homeowner, and threw the bike into the backseat of his high-powered machine. On his short jaunt home, Jack wondered if he would ever ride it. He wasnÕt sure but at least it was now an option.
The next morning, Sunday, Jack woke up extra early to a melodious song coming from the crabapple tree outside his bedroom window. He headed downstairs to get the morning paper. Opening the door, he noticed three people, probably a mother, father, and their young teenager, moseying down the street on their bikes—apparently undeterred by its narrowness or the many cars parked on it. While seeing a biker in his neighborhood wasnÕt unusual, it was quite atypical to see a family riding together or to see adults riding at all. Jack took some satisfaction in knowing that he lived in a safe neighborhood and one where people were beginning to go outside and recreate. These three neighbors even looked like they were enjoying their leisurely ride. Having returned to his kitchen table to drink a cup of coffee and read the headlines, Jack couldnÕt help but reminisce about his childhood days when he and his older brother (his lone sibling) used to pedal around chasing butterflies from garden to garden nearly every Saturday during the warm months of the year.
Perky from the caffeine, Jack felt antsy. He had another report to complete today but he just wasnÕt feeling like spending the entire sunny day behind his computer screen. Perhaps he could try out this new bike of his. But, oh, how out of shape he was; fiddling with a keyboard ten hours a day just doesnÕt count as exercise no matter how fast you type. But, he thought, what are the flatlands of the Midwest good for if not a bike ride by an aerobically-challenged individual like himself. Putting excuses behind him, Jack went to dress himself in athletic looking garb—something not so easy to find in his closet full of business attire.
Donning a simple T-shirt, kaki shorts and a pair of low tops, the same outfit that he wore to mow the lawn, Jack set off on an adventure. Having not thought out his route before he was already perched atop his two-wheeler, Jack had no plans except to avoid getting dehydrated (something he did consider and so had brought a generic water bottle). After about 30 minutes and some 5 miles out of town (Jack had taken Main Street as far as he could go without stopping), he pulled over to take break and rejuvenate in preparation for the return home. Under an old oak tree that spread its branches skyward as if stretching after a long nap, Jack began to retrace his steps during this half-an-hour trip. Albeit brief, he had observed so much in so little time. It was if a whole new world had begun to open up.
Not more than a block from his house, Jack had to break for a stop sign. On bike, he was more careful to come to a complete stop and look both ways. While at the stop sign, he looked down to make sure that his foot was properly engaging the pedal—the bottoms of his shoes were quite worn after hundreds of mows. As he did so, he noticed how much garbage lay along the curbside—a pair of relatively new sneakers, the casing for a cell phone, three empty plastic bottles, and several shards of sharp glass—dangerous looking yet beautifully iridescent. Never before had he considered how much junk was to be found along the streets. This observation prompted Jack to ruminate over a series of related questions. Where had these materials come from? Who put them there? Who was going to pick them up? Where would they end up? Was his city always so polluted? Why hadnÕt he noticed this before? (This latter question became recurrent because as he rode on these seemingly small piles of roughage kept ÒappearingÓ before him, as if sending a message of some sort.)
Stuck for awhile at this intersection, waiting for a funeral procession to pass, Jack also began to smell something awful. The more he stood there waiting, the sicker he became. What the heck was he smelling? He looked around circumspectly and noticed that the lawns in front of the houses to his immediate right and left each had little white flags sticking out from them. Though, not much of a lawn ÒcareÓ expert, Jack knew enough to know that these flags were placed to indicate that chemicals had been put on the lawn to ward off pesty insects and/or weeds. By gosh, it was the lawn chemicals that were making him feel sick. Breathing through his mouth (rather than his sensitive nose) seemed to help, but Jack couldnÕt help thinking what these poisons might be doing to him—an innocent passerby. He wasnÕt much of a scientist but he sill remember something prophetic in his high school chemistry class—if you smell something, it exists and it is now in your body. Yikes. These thoughts only made him feel sicker. Oh, how he wanted to move on. Fortunately, he didnÕt have to wait too much longer.
A couple of blocks farther on, this time Jack got stopped by a passing eastbound train—one consisting of open car after open car of coal (apparently carrying low-sulfur black fuel from the Western states). While waiting, he began to sneeze and his eyes began to water, things that rarely happened to Jack—he was one of the fortunate among us who didnÕt have allergies. Jack had routinely been stopped by passing trains, so this was nothing new, but on a bike, he was able to stop within only a few feet of the passing cars. Here he was better able to ÒsmellÓ them and physically, albeit involuntarily, respond to them. So while waiting for some five minutes, Jack contemplated why he was reacting so strongly this time. Was it because the coal cars werenÕt covered with a tarp or something? As best as he could remember, he routinely saw coal cars open and coal heaped like jagged mountain tops sitting in them. Was it because he was exercising (and so breathing more deeply)? Was it because he was too close to the train? He knew not why but he wondered. Also, as he looked to his left, he noticed that several homes (where his fellow city folk lived) were located within spitting distance of the train tracks. He began to think about what it must be like to live so close to the tracks that one can literally smell the chemicals that were being carried on them day in and day out. Were these residents immune to these noxious fumes or had they just adapted to them? Never before had Jack ever considered this question.
Well, the train passed and Jack got back on his bike. A few blocks farther down Main Street, the train was a distant memory as were his running nose and water eyes. However, as he approached another big intersection, the light turned yellow then red. He came to a full stop. While waiting for the next color change, up pulled a noisy pickup truck. The excessive noise wasnÕt due to the booming volume of its radio or the activity of grade-A woofers, rather, the noise was coming directly from the rear section of the vehicle. Apparently, its muffler was on the fritz. As it accelerated upon the greening of the traffic light, a heavy cloud of black sooty smoke billowed on poor Jack just as he gathered himself for the first pedal. Consumed with this smoke, Jack had to stop breathing for a few seconds. A few seconds later and finally through the intersection, Jack pulled over on the sidewalk to regain his composure and his breath. What had just happened? The driver, now blocks away in the distance, didnÕt mean any harm but nonetheless Jack felt violated. Why did he have to breathe these fumes? Clearly, there had to be a law against vehicles with such poor exhaust systems. WasnÕt there? Jack actually didnÕt know. How much poison had he consumed and would it impair his health for the rest of the day/week? Jack didnÕt know. How often had he himself been the driver (or passenger) of a motorized vehicle which had released similar irritants (perhaps poisons) out on another unsuspecting bicyclist or pedestrian? Jack wondered.
Unwilling to let this incident deter him, Jack gathered his thoughts and his bike and set off again. Once out of the city, the roads became a bit rougher. This was fine since JackÕs bike had wider tires than a typical 10-speed. And while the bumping did slow Jack down a bit, he didnÕt seem to mind. But, yet again, JackÕs eyes began to water and his nose began to tickle, so he pulled off into the ditch (as no sidewalk or shoulder could be found). Looking back towards the city, Jack spotted the culprit of his malady clear as day. His little bike and he had created a significant trail of dust. Not visible to him during his ride since he pedaled straight ahead the entire way, this dust was surely the source of his discomfort. Jack shook his head in amazement. And while he stood there in the ditch (appropriately cluttered with samples of ÒmodernÓ garbage), he noticed how each and every car that passed from either direction would also be followed by a ghostlike stream of suspended dirt. Did this always happen? It must, Jack thought. But, once again, why hadnÕt he noticed this before? He had driven on these ÒdustyÓ roads; not everyday, mind you, since he lived in the city, but certainly often enough to have noticed something so visible and predictable.
Not exhausted yet, Jack continued his ride. Bumpy and a bit dusty, the ride improved because Jack focused more on the new vistas that were opening up in front of him rather than on his physical ailments. Although, most of what he observed were just patches of dirt (since the corn and soy that would soon fill the void hadnÕt yet pierced the surface), Jack was still amazed at how far in the distance he could see and how large the sky looked from ground level.
He rode on for a few more minutes and came to yet another stop sign. This time a tractor pulling several plastic tanks rolled in front of him. Once again, he noticed how terrible the smells became—acidic, even caustic, this time. Jack pondered where these chemicals were going and where they would end up. Were these the same chemicals that he had smelled earlier on the lawns in his neighborhood; they seemed to smell a bit differently? Wow, what large containers they were too. Perhaps, Jack thought, he should start investing his retirement monies in industrial chemicals since they seemed so ubiquitous. But wouldnÕt doing so only encourage their use?
So sitting under this gigantic wooden climax of ecological succession, Jack realized how important the decision to ride his bike had become especially given how trivial it seemed at the time he made it. Jack longed to ride his bike again, this time in a different direction. And, as he sat there envisioning his next trip, lo and behold, a solitary biker, coming from the other direction, stopped, dropped her kickstand, and began walking in JackÕs direction.
Peter Schwartzman (email: email@example.com) is associate professor and chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Knox College. Father to two amazing girls, Peter hopes that their lives will be lived on a cleaner, more just, more environmentally-aware planet. A nationally-ranked Scrabble¨ junkie, he is also the founder and maintainer of websites dedicated to peace, empowerment, and environmental well-being: www.onehuman.org; www.blackthornhill.org; & www.chicagocleanpower.org.