Friday, July 19, 2013

Tis Bitter Hot...And I Am Sick At Heart

It was close to one hundred degrees today in New York City. And once upon a time I welcomed Bronx summers and hot temperatures with open arms and a happy heart. But not anymore. My reasons are multifold and have been previously chronicled. Foremost, past summers used to mean to me the end of school—a couple of months respite from ten months of drudgery and high anxiety. Is it my imagination, or do more kids than ever actually like going to school?

Summertime also meant longer days, all sorts of games played outdoors, vacations on the Jersey Shore and the North Fork of Long Island, and a whole lot of stoop sitting to fill in the gaps. The art of conversation was alive and well back then, but I can’t remember what any of us talked about. Thirty and forty years ago, a night like tonight would have brought the stoop sitters out in full force, with the exceptions of those spoiled sorts addicted to a luxury called “air conditioning.”

I grew up with no air conditioning on the premises to help us navigate sultry Bronx summers. My father frequently opined that feeling the heat was all in our heads—a state of mind. This mentality from up above, and the fact that an air conditioner would have blown a fuse every time we turned one on, precluded any sort of technological relief from the dreadful heat and humidity one-two punch, which was so commonplace. We did, though, employ fans in the house, which were both reluctantly condoned by my father and compatible with our antiquated electric wiring.

Nevertheless, summers from those days of yore underscored the genuine neighborhood quality that existed—one that is gone with the hot winds around these parts. Very few people sit out on their stoops nowadays, even on comfortable summer nights. Kids aren’t playing outdoor games on the streets—none at all. Why...we even played a game called “flashlight,” aka “flashlight tag,” to extend our active summer days after the sun had set.

Without air conditioning in our upstairs lair, the excessive heat of the past was not a barrel of laughs. And, too, there used to be regular utility brown outs back in the 1970s, with power cut back on the hottest of nights, lights dimming, and, worse than all that, refrigerator ice cubes not fully freezing and tasting pretty bad to boot. But somehow we endured the worst of the summertime heat. We played doubleheader games of stickball on hot asphalt in ninety-plus degrees weather, and didn’t bring any liquid refreshments with us. It’s just what we did. In retrospect, I wonder why we didn’t think to bring water, or an alternative thirst quencher, in a thermos jug or something, but they were just different days. Individual bottles of water for sale didn’t yet exist, and we would have thought that quite bizarre. We just played the games we had always played—and that previous generations had played—and returned home parched. We’d then hit the iced tea jug or lemonade pitcher. A stickball peer of mine often referred to his life-saving need for “H-2-O.”

Sure, I prefer air conditioning. I’d long ago broken ranks with my late father on that score. What a great invention. Honestly, I don’t look back fondly on being miserable in the summertime heat, sucking in the poor air quality of New York City, and sticking to my bed sheets on the warmest of nights. But I do look back affectionately on the lost neighborhood, and the sense of community, that has been cast asunder—not by air conditioning, but by the times.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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