Heat, a Re-examination


The last day of July, the first of August, it’s supposed to be hot. Today, it’s an unremarkable 90 or so here in Brooklyn. I’m sitting in my brother and sister-in-law’s unairconditioned kitchen about a mile south and east of the Brooklyn Bridge. Not suffering. But tomorrow we’ll be getting what folks to the west have been dealing with for the last couple of days (112 in Bismarck?!). The National Weather Service is warning it will get up to about 100 Tuesday and Wednesday, that it will be plenty humid, and that we’ll have high ozone levels as the air in the region stagnates. (Add rum and guns, then stir for a swell party!)

The last few days, Kate and I have been staying in a friend’s house  near the northern New Jersey shore. It’s got central air conditioning, and the system has been running ever since we arrived there last Thursday. It struck me this morning as I walked outside for the first time and shut the sliding glass door behind me that around here, the ability to cool the air in homes and cars and public places of all kinds is just as vital as the ability to heat it in the winter. In the suburbs, anyway, you don’t see homes open to the elements on a hot day any more than you’d see a place with its windows flung open when it’s zero outside. Yet, the weather’s the weather. It may be incrementally hotter on average than it was a generation or two or three ago, but everyone here endured long, stifling stretches of heat then without refrigerating every living space, just as most of the world’s people do today. (We went to France in August 2003 at the tail end of the country’s extended heat wave; I knew air conditioning was uncommon there, but I hoped against hope that somehow our little hotel would be an exception; instead, when we got to our room, we found that the windows hadn’t been opened for days and the place was like an oven — and what was worse was that for several days afterward, there wasn’t enough of a breeze to cool anything off.)

I’m not arguing for some kind of sweaty, hair-shirt virtue in living without air conditioning. Just makes me wonder sometimes what would happen if we all suddenly had to do without (which ties into my fear for the next couple of days; I’m concerned that the power demand here will cause a blackout and shut down the air-traffic-control system and keep us from flying back Wednesday to our effete little climate back in Berkeley). I do remember that before we had our first air conditioners, in 1966, the remedy for hot nights was staying up late watching movies with our mom and taking cool showers before we headed off to bed. Somehow, we slept.

(Picture: Hamilton Avenue and West 9th Street, Brooklyn. It wasn’t really 99 degrees.)

3 Replies to “Heat, a Re-examination”

  1. I’m absolutely convinced that if AC hadn’t been invented, the population distribution in the US would be different. In the absence of AC, Phoenix, Las Vegas, interior Florida, and anywhere in Texas would be much less appealing. I never had AC growing up in Massachusetts and Michigan. My grandparents in Delaware never had it either. Iced tea and cool water helped. (And I’m vacationing in NYC mid-August. Hope it’s cooled off some by then.)

  2. Oh, yeah — I’m sure you’re right about that. Everyone would be squeezed in between the torrid belt (which will soon include the whole country if this article is to be believed) and the black-fly zone. Of course, screens can keep black flies out, but don’t work so well on excluding hot air.

  3. Kem: I tend to agree with you. I have travelled all through Florida (between the coasts) and there is no way that all of the development in there could have been done without AC. Shopping malls, amusement parks, the works, wouldn’t be what they are today without air-conditioning. I also remember growing up without AC…at least early on. We were at the neighborhood pool all the time. Also, people had screened-in porches to retreat to–and sleep on–during the hottest days and evenings. There are some great photos of kids in Harlem, sleeping out on fire escapes and I know people who would sleep out in Central Park and Prospect Park. Also, if you ever saw the Hitchcock classic, Rear Window, there is a couple who sleep out on the fire escape. The hero of the story (played by Jimmy Stewart)is seen taking in all the sights and sounds of his neighbors during one of those hot NYC summer days. At any rate, most of this was back in the Thirties and Forties and probably further back than that. Another NYC-Brooklyn-Bronx, etc. tradition is sitting on “stoops”– the stairways in front of tenement and apartment buildings. The old Italians around here still do this. I think that it gave the neighborhood a better cohesivness, people knew eachother.
    Not to take anything away from AC. It is a real blessing when you have little kids who are trying to sleep in the hot weather.

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