July 28, 2011
Here in New York, the heat wave finally broke on Monday, sending the temperature plummeting from Friday’s high of 104 degrees to a mere 83. It was time to resume the activities of daily living, like washing clothes and running the dryer, before the next debilitating wave hits.
I can’t bring myself to turn on the dryer with the thermometer in triple digits. Besides doing my small part to avert a city-wide power failure, it seems crazy to pump very hot air into very hot air. Riding on the elevated trains that emerge from underground in the Bronx, you still pass apartments with clothesline pulleys strung from one building to the next, shirts and skirts and underwear fluttering like international flags — and flags of surrender — in the breeze. Once symbols of tenement blight, these little solar-powered devices could make a comeback as a renewable energy source. Plus, your clothes smell so good when you pull them in, and no static cling. I may get one myself.
Heat brings out the New Yorker in New Yorkers. Another ancient summer tradition is the opening of fire hydrants for instant refreshment and water-sport. No matter that the little park right down the block has a delightful walk-under fountain spraying a cooling mist 24/7, and no matter that gushing hydrants discharge millions of gallons of water into the sewer and lower the water pressure, keeping both firefighters and people in upper-floor apartments from getting their own critical supply. Despite the threat of a thousand-dollar fine for tampering with hydrants — the law was enacted in the Giuliani days, part of his “quality of life” initiative — it is still common to see hydrants open full blast, kids with boogie boards surfing in the surge or deflecting it to douse passing cars. (Forget to close your windows and you’ve got a rolling swimming pool.)
When I moved to New York from drought-ridden Southern California in the early 1990’s, I was appalled by the waste of this precious element. In my first sweltering summer here, I was on Lafayette Street in Greenwich Village, where a stocky, bare-chested man with a can of Bud and a cigarette in one hand and a pipe-wrench in the other stood by a gushing hydrant. “Why are you wasting all this water?” I asked indignantly. “Because I want to,” he snarled. Welcome to New York.
Ever the Californian, I am still appalled, but I now think the better of openly challenging neighbors wielding wrenches. Instead, I call the city hot-line, and sooner or later some public employee will arrive to shut off the hydrant, fit it with a tamper-proof cap, and take the heat of hostility. That’s got to be the worst job in the world, and a futile one, too: A few minutes later, New York ingenuity successfully tampers with the tamper-proof cap, and the fun begins again.
In low-income areas like the South Bronx, where apartment air conditioning means one little window unit in the bedroom and one big electric bill at the end of the month, beating the heat becomes a community event. The spacious public parks are chockablock with people fully equipped for such occasions, lugging from their fourth-floor walk-ups barbecues, beach chairs, canopies, coolers, and recreation equipment. Dueling boom-boxes — rap and soul from one group, salsa and bachata from another, reggae from a third — all get along in a cacophonous melting-pot.
Also competing for the ear’s attention are the jingles of ice-cream trucks at streetside, one playing “The Entertainer,” another “Turkey in the Straw,” yet another the cloying Mister Softee theme. Many New Yorkers count the Mister Softee ditty as noise pollution because for some reason it keeps playing in their heads long after the truck has gone. In 2005, the City Council passed an ordinance permitting operators to play their jingles only when the truck is in motion — a measure that, like the hydrant law, is just laughed off.
Watching New Yorkers cope with oppressive heat is watching a wonderful cultural phenomenon — and the next opportunity arrives on Friday. Neighbors, get out your wrenches!