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08.21.2005

Too Hot

There may finally be signs of hope with this New York summer. Blown papers and small children no longer spontaneously ignite in the street; Manhattan is again visible from Brooklyn, and some of the neighbors have even left their hammocks and plastic patio chairs to go inside for the first time in two months. The scraggly tree in front of my apartment block has surprised everyone by breaking out in a fat autumnal crop of green acorns - who knew we had an oak? And I've noticed some sinister new shadows appearing in paintings that had been fully sunlit when I started them in June; the sun is sinking daily in the sky. Even the six staggering sunflowers that spent all summer growing across the street, bagged in plastic to defeat what I hope were squirrels, have been cut down by a machete man.

But man, has it been hot. Hot enough that the fire department was voluntarily driving around and opening hydrants; hot enough that some schools cut back on hours and unhappy first-graders had to take turns in front of the classroom fan. You would sweat all night, wake up, and continue sweating in the shower, then sweat wherever you ended up sitting motionless in your underpants for the rest of the day. I don't understand how the Williamsburg Hasidim (dress code: full-length black wool) can survive, or retain their faith in a benevolent God.

I started the summer with a single ally in the fight against heat, the Vornado, a diminutive but aggressive fan whose blades can accelerate air to near-relativistc velocity. My roomate and I had set the Vornado to blow the length of the apartment, and though it depilated the cat whenever she accidentally walked in front of it, for the first few days of summer it provided us with a measure of relief. But then the real heat set in, and there passed a series of increasingly terrible nights until a call came from the del.icio.us offices - a surplus air conditioner, no waiting, and one might feel human again.

The air conditioner had to work all day to get the temperature in the apartment down to human levels, but once it did, indoor life became a delight and joy. My only regret was that we were now contributing to that creepiest of New York experiences, air conditioner drip. Walk along any street in any borough on a hot day, and chances are a cold drop of water will strike you on the crown of the head as you round a corner. For a moment you may think "rain?", but looking up you'll see that there is not a cloud in the sky, only an air conditioner directly above you, and here comes another drop straight in your upturned eyes. Repeat to yourself as much as you like that the water is condensation, and therefore completely pure and wholesome, it won't help a bit. It's icky.

One July afternoon, the lights in the apartment began to dim and brighten, and the computer made an alarming series of clicking whiny sounds, as if the power were being rhythmically cycled on and off. The precious air conditioner, too, was making a kind of exasperated growling sound, and I raced to unplug things in order of indispenability - a/c, computer, coffee machine, lamps, television. A look outside showed we weren't alone - curious people were wandering out into the street, and the outdoor lights along the block were also dimming and brightening, all in the same rhythm.

Soon a fire truck pulled up, then a red ConEdison van with 'EMERGENCY' written on the side, followed by six more fire trucks. The firemen jumped out of their trucks, stretched, and then stood around to watch the Con Edison people fix the problem. A few minutes later, a series of squad cars raced up, sirens blaring, and its occupants walked out to stand side by side with their FDNY colleagues in a touching show of post-9/11 solidarity.

The ConEdison guys were pretty unflappable. They lifted a panel in the street and waited without interest for giant flames to stop shooting out of the ground. Then they motioned the firefighters to bring over a hose and start extinguishing, and a line of firemen duly shuffled over and started to spray. The firemen and the fire quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm. The firemen would hose for about two minutes, pouring enormous quantities of water into the hole, then there would be a long, pregnant pause, and finally a defiant electric BZZZZWAT would come from below, with prodigious white sparks and the smell of ozone, until orange flames were visible again and the firemen shuffled up to hose some more.

This dance continued for some thirty minutes, but incredibly the power in our building was still on at the end of it, now steady and without a hint of a flicker. It lasted like that until the middle of the night, when I woke up to complete silence and a feeling of being crushed by thick, oppressive heat. For the first time, the Vornado stood silent, its thick coat of cat hair hanging limp from the front grill. The only thing I could hear was the soft click-clack of keys from the windowless middle room as my roommate typed on his laptop, pleading with anyone he could find online to physically come over and kill him, to end the horrible sweltering misery. But the Internet connection was gone, too - there would be no relief until late the next day, and by that time I had had my fill, and was driving as fast as I could to my mother's cool, seaside house in Maine.

When things get truly canicular, the only thing for the New York-bound to do is to head to Coney Island. Not only can you drink cold beer on the boardwalk, but every afternoon a strong offshore breeze sets in and cools the whole neighborhood by a good ten degrees. Northern Brooklyn is designed to make Coney Island hard to get to - there seems to be a reluctance to have any kind of north/south train connection between the two halves of the borough, possibly out of fear that La Guardia passengers might be able to make a connection at JFK without a fifty-dollar cab ride. But when the temperature is headed past the nineties, no amount of inconvenience seems too great, at least not until you board a southbound train.

I don't understand the MTA's obsession with cryogenics. Someone very high up at the transportation agency must have been locked in a hot car a little too long as a kid, and vowed Scarlett O'Hara-style never to be hot again. There are times - very rare times - when you will enter a train packed solid with people, doors wide open at a sunlit outdoor station after a prolonged stop, and find the temperature pleasantly cool. But far more common is to walk into the car and feel yourself blacking out from cold and from the fact that all the breathable oxygen has liquefied out of the air and is skitting around in corrosive little puddles on the floor. Once inside an MTA train in summer clothing, it's very hard to remember why you would ever want to be somewhere cool, rather than in front of a large fire, say, wrapped in a bearskin. But step out of that door and right away you are back in the flaming heart of the Sun. So you have to tough it out.

Once you get to Coney Island, it's worth staying for the day. Go during the early afternoon on a weekday and you can eat a pie at Totonno's Pizza, considered the best pizza in New York by those who have not been to Staten Island (on weekends, the line stretches around the block). And you'll find that the ocean - that large dark blue mass with all the sailboats - is surprisingly clear and clean considering its proximity to ten million people. There is even seaweed and live fish in it, an impressive sign of health. When the sun goes down, fog will sometimes roll in, and when you are swimming through warm water in the dark, looking at the eerie carnival landscape lit up through the fog with colored lights, there is very little that can top a New York summer.

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