We’ve got another heat wave on our hands in Los Angeles, one that brought the stink of privilege to my awareness.

The other night as I was sitting in direct aim of a standing fan, trying to keep cool, I found myself sniffing around me and wondering, what is that smell? Was it my dog? Nope, not her. Something rotten that dropped behind a bookcase? Nothing. I let it go.

The next morning I emerged for a walk and, again, noticed a pervasive, bad smell. Although it changed character as I walked, it took just a couple of blocks to realize that my neighborhood had, in one day, become smelly. Not sickening, just unpleasant.

The black trash cans on the street were all out on the curb, in full sun in many cases. They’d been placed there a day before by all of us forgetful residents who didn’t remember that trash pickup comes one day later after a holiday weekend. This year, Labor Day came with a heat wave, and the combination of trash bins left out for a full day in monster heat resulted in a stench that my neighborhood on the westside of Los Angeles does not normally experience.

The next thought that crossed my mind was this: what would my experience be if this stench was a regular occurrence? What if I lived in an area where trash pickup was sporadic, or where trash was dumped and ignored for long periods of time? At that moment it came to mind how several issues come together to create challenges I do not face…environmental racism, lagging trash pickup, and lesser air quality.

A mid-August LA Times article brought light to the fact that many poorer areas of Los Angeles get less trash service. The web version includes an interactive map that allows readers to see the break down by neighborhood within L.A. in terms of most unanswered requests for track pickups. Just two short weeks later, an article announced that the Mayor ordered the trash agency to clear the backlog of illegal dumping complaints.

That’s all well and good, and what I realized is that this issue is one that highlights how race and class converge on a regular basis in ways that protect me from annoying/unpleasant experiences. In Los Angeles, as is true in many U.S. cities, poorer areas are populated largely by people of color. There is a long history that explains why this is true (see Sundown Towns, racial covenants, mortgage discrimination, etc). Being a white, middle-class (or as a friend of mine says “need to work wealthy”) homeowner, my life is shielded from much of what many/most people of color in my city experience.

The noxious smell shifted my sense of the world that morning. It made me less interested in staying outside and conversing with my neighbors on their walks. The foul smell came close to putting me into a foul mood. I am so used to pleasantness in my home environment that it’s hard for me to conceive of what it would be like to experience cramped, noxious living conditions. I also generally have the power and resources to eradicate smells when something does penetrate my home. This race/class privilege allows me to go about my days in relative ignorance of what others’ experience and how it shapes their moods, interactions, and attitudes about our city.  

I also recall when air quality in Southern California was so bad that as a child we had many summer days when we couldn’t go out to play due to the smog alerts. Much has changed since then, yes, and the air quality IS much improved, with positive effects, so says a study demonstrating that children in L.A. now have stronger lungs in response to better air quality. That is good.

And, what this last heat wave brought to my awareness is that we have a long way to go if we want to eradicate class and race as markers for who gets to experience a stink-free quality of life.