On Air Conditioning

In the New York summer heat, everything sweats.
In the New York summer heat, everything sweats.

Brooklyn, July 2013, 3 a.m.: I’m lying on the floor of my bedroom in nothing but my underwear and a sports bra holding a fan aloft over my face in an attempt to find some form of relief from the heat. I’m no stranger to heat: I grew up in heat worse than this, at least if you go by the numbers. The Ohio River Valley was about as hot and sticky as a place could be outside of the Mississippi basin or, you know, a rain forest. The June I spent in Prague as a study abroad student actually had me missing the humidity of Louisville in the summer, that sticky quality that glues your hair to your forehead and has you wading through air thick as molasses. But this New York heat was a whole new animal.

We had just moved to Brooklyn from that fifth floor walk-up in the East Village, and we were entirely happy to not have to climb (and sweat through) what must have been at least four million stairs every day; however, in leaving that tiny apartment we also left the air conditioners we had grown accustomed to (and the electric bill that came with them). In a fit of resolve, and general brokeness, we decided that we could totally get through the summer without air conditioning. We had moved to Brooklyn to save money on rent, and we wouldn’t be giving that money directly back to Con Ed, no thank you, sir. Oh how we came to regret that decision.

So lying on the floor at three in the morning, unable to sleep because of heat and sweat, I began to wonder why it was that this heat was so hard to bear. At first I thought it was due merely to the lack of the aforementioned air conditioning (never underestimate my ability to wax poetic about the beauty of central AC), but I have since reconsidered. See, I’d already spent many a summer without it, some hotter than others. I went to camp for nine years. I spent a summer in a crowded dorm at RISD without AC and with temperatures around the same level as New York. I thought a crowded oil painting studio at 100+ degrees or climbing Masada at midday was the worst heat-related torture I would endure. I was wrong. This heat lacked the punctuation of pleasant summer breezes or the chance of a sudden rainstorm. It was sweaty, sticky, and so unrelenting that it seemed, ironically, to freeze time.

When the going gets hot, the hot get cocktails and hand fans.
In Kentucky, when the going gets hot, the hot get cocktails and hand fans.

In many ways, my first year in New York can be considered a constant battle with the weather, unfolding in a number of Chuck Bartowski-esque episodes (See: Scout Versus the Hurricane), and these three weeks of excruciating heat were my series finale (until the movie: Scout Versus the Westerosian Winter). I was losing this battle, badly, and I was trying to pinpoint exactly what made this heat so hard to take. The reasons, I concluded, are threefold.

  1. The lack of central air in my apartment. There are a lot of things I love about summer in the South — the smell of the air before the skies open up in a summer rainstorm, the sound of a can popping open on a pool deck — but one of my absolute favorite things about summer is the feeling of walking inside from a hot sticky day to the icy blast of central air conditioning (and subsequently walking back out again into the enveloping heat). That feeling is scarce in New York. Even after you climb the stairs to your apartment (glistening with sweat, huffing and puffing) and unlock the door, you still have to cross the hot apartment, turn on the window unit, and wait until it cools you down. Once you’ve gone from human magma to a survivable level of at least semi-cool, you subsequently shut off said air conditioner in an attempt to be able to pay your electric bill for the month. How often have I stared longingly at the window ACs in Bed Bath and Beyond only to tell myself that I can’t afford the monthly bill (nor do I have the space to store it come winter). How come that’s never a scene in the latest twenty-somethings-in-New-York sitcom?
  2. The smell. Is there anything worse than the smell of hot garbage? At home, when it gets hot, it’s sweaty and terrible, but the smells that permeate are often fresh and natural. When it’s upwards of 100 degrees, the smell of sidewalk garbage, subway urine, and that public bathroom in Tompkins Square Park are only amplified. A pleasant summer evening stroll becomes a fight through a war zone, dodging clouds of putrescence and breathing strategically through your mouth like a hyperventilating codfish.
  3. It just doesn’t fit. Even with central air, or just a window air conditioner, to me, heat has a time and a place. For some people, the ideal summer spot might be a Manhattan rooftop bar or a free outdoor movie screening in Central Park. And sure, those things can be lovely, and summery in their way. But for me, the slow wave of summer heat takes me to a time and place that is definitively Southern, sticky as it may be. It feels like home, in an undefinable way, something rooted in my bones. So a sweltering 100+ day on the banks of the Ohio sipping an Against the Grain brew and listening the melodious sounds of Ben Sollee? Yes please: I’ll take that any day. But weaving through sidewalk traffic as three-day-old garbage festers in the July sun, with no cool oasis but a sweltering sauna awaiting me at home? Not so much.

Note: I decided to write this post in late July 2014, thinking that the New York City summer temperatures would catch up and I would thus be doubly inspired. They haven’t yet, and thank god. Though writing this piece was trickier, my life and my laundry have been infinitely easier.

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