Glowing like a nightlight in my reflective vest, I barreled down the hill as a Parkview school bus chugged past. On the last leg of a four-mile pre-dawn run, my lungs filled with the noxious fumes the bus belched as it crawled up toward the intersection.
In my 18 years as a runner, this scene has played out roughly the same so many times I can’t even count. What made this notable was that it was my first diesel fume blast of the season.
I have no experience with inhalants or hallucinogenic drugs, so I can’t really compare the sensation you get when your muscles, starved for oxygen are instead fed a helping of
carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and aldehydes. Let’s just say it feels as if all of your energy seeps out like air escaping from a leaky balloon.
You don’t need a code orange smog alert from the Clean Air Campaign to know this really isn’t good for you. Our awareness is probably greater here in Atlanta because of the annual emissions tests our cars have to pass before we can renew our tags, but I think in general people who walk or run for exercise are the most sensitive to the contents of our air.
I remember watching the marathon during the Beijing Summer Olympic games as the athletes choked through smog so thick it was visible on television.
“That can’t be good,” I thought.
I’ve already written about the prevalence of asthma inhaler use I’ve noticed among kids in the Atlanta area, and I’ve used this space to tell how I relive my grandmother’s cooking when I smell bacon cooking. Diesel fumes cause a similarly evocative experience. While I’m coughing and gagging and losing precious seconds on my split times, I’m simultaneously transported back to the fall of 1991 when I interned in Washington, D.C.
You can insert your own political commentary about how the smell of pollution makes me think of our nation’s capital, but during that fall, I didn’t have a car. I really didn’t need one because the Metro took me everywhere I needed to go. But to get to the Metro, I walked. And as I trod upon the sidewalks around the Capitol, dodging the homeless and avoiding the picketers, I was frequently treated to a puff of diesel fumes from the ubiquitous transit buses.
Maybe it’s the combination of the fall air with the smell that makes me think of that semester I spent in D.C., but once again, last Thursday as another school bus rumbled past me, I thought about that time on Constitution Avenue with my four roommates as I learned the way journalism works or doesn’t work inside the Beltway.
I know buses are a necessary evil. I know clean air should be a right not a luxury. I know alternative fuels come with their own set of problems. But, I look forward to the crisp, fall morning when a jog doesn’t have to result in a face full of toxic fumes.
Guess I’ll just have to get up earlier.