SUMMER HEAT, 1983
It’s summer. It’s hot. It’s supposed to be. I like it. I favor extreme weather of whatever kind. And it gets extreme here in the Midwest. In fact, I get disappointed when it’s not. I mean, those beautiful, still spring or fall days when the temperature and sky are just perfect have a place. But I’m really into when it gets dirty.
There comes a time each summer when the world just smells hot. Dried grass and dust in the wind have the vegetal odors of life on the wane. Chlorine floats across the park from the swimming pool. The pines ooze the twangy scent of turpentine. The oaks and elms crowd each other with the redolence of leaves burning in all that sun.
I remember hot. In 1983, my parents moved away from Kansas City and I was glad of it. Free at last, I took up with two other guys in a dingy second-floor apartment at the corner of 43rd Street and Warwick. That swath of Midtown Kansas City wasn’t the nicest place to live in those days. Time had worn on the neighborhood, made it ragged. The mental cases from the Rockhill Manor, a halfway house for the schizophrenic and detached, wandered up and down the street bumming cigarettes and drinking coffee from little styro cups.
My roommates took the two bedrooms in the apartment and I made my room in the solarium. That was the nice word for it. It extended out from the living room and had windows on three sides. We hung some gauzy cloth to separate my space from the rest of the room. All my worldly possessions were in there. I slept on a hide-a-bed and placed plants on the windowsills. A box fan stirred the furnace-hot air.
That summer, my car pooped out and, with no money in my pocket, I left it at the curb. I walked the mile and a half to work every afternoon. People shuffled on the sidewalk, towels over their heads. At work, I sweated away in the hot kitchen for ten or twelve hours. Before taking off for home, I might take a minute in the restaurant’s dining room to get away from the heat and before sweating up the Main Street hill back home. I was in a state of constant prostration. Those moments in the front of restaurant were my only respite.
Several times a week, I worked until 9 p.m. Coming home in the evening, I’d stop at the liquor store at 45rd and Main. The place felt like an ice box. I lingered in front of the beer case, even though I knew that I would buy the case of Wiedemann’s in bottles and leave. (Wiedemann’s in the returnable bottle cost $4.95 a case). Coming in out of the heat, I felt like I walked into a wall. I hefted that sturdy case of 24 longnecks down the street. I always carried a bottle opener with me—this was in the days before twist-off caps. I’d have to stop at the streetlight at 43rd Street, so I’d pull out one of those bottles and drain it while I waited for the light. I huffed up the two blocks up the street, stopping for another bottle somewhere along the way.
Then, I would hole up in that apartment, whose confines seemed to have soaked up all the heat of the day. Maybe one of my roommates were home, which meant that we’d have to get to the liquor store at least once more before it closed. Twenty-four bottles were enough for me, but not for two of us. We stewed in the heat before going out to sit at the end of the walk and take in the humid night. The air fell still after dark. We’d smoke and talk to the mental patients as they paced 43rd Street. Being outside, at least, we’d have air.
Some evenings, I sat on the fire escape outside my apartment smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. The grate radiated the day’s heat up through my bum and into my sweating upper torso. I could feel the warmth coming off the pavement in front of the apartment. After nightfall, the city seemed to relax. It had nothing to do with people or traffic. The streets, houses, and apartment buildings themselves seemed relieved of the sun.
Although I was mostly drunk at the time, even I knew about the heat deaths. I watched the news sometimes and heat and death were all the news anchors talked about. People were dying in their apartments, mostly old people who’d shut themselves up in their rooms, afraid to leave and fearful of forced entry. Their places heated up to 120 degrees or more. Neighbors would nose them out when their corpses began stinking up the apartment buildings or the miasmas of death wafted out into the street. A neighbor might look up and say to him- or herself, “Well, I haven’t seen Mr. Jones in quite a while; his place sure smells funny.” Flies swarmed the house. Someone called the fire department. The firefighters would bash in the door to find Mr. Jones in his armchair with a blanket around his shoulders, a fan rotating on its base. Old shut-ins weren’t the only ones. Kids died that summer playing in parks or on the streets. Grown men collapsed dead on their construction jobs.
Except for one year when I lived with another raging drunk in a basement apartment at 43rd and McGee, I lived without air conditioning until 1996. Summers were hot but I don’t think I ever lived through a heat spell like I did in 1983. Maybe it sticks with me because it was the first time I’d been without air conditioning since my dad bought a behemoth window unit and stuck in the dining room window at my childhood home. Even then, my dad only allowed the electric-hungry beast run through the hot part of the day. Before and after, we ran a whole-house fan that kept the curtains in a constant flutter. Box fans moved hot air from one room to the other. When we weren’t outside playing or away from home working, we laid in front of one of those fans, the four of us kids sharing what hot air puffed from the blades.
But I found myself happy in all that heat in 1983. There was something about the smell of the lawns in front of the apartment buildings at 45th and Main, that burned-up grass smell. The tawny colors of high summer soothed me. Everything that grew was brown or blond. The leaves on the trees drooped.
Being 20 and drunk, I felt like I had it all. Every now and then, a friend of mine would come around at 2 a.m. after she got off work, three six-packs under her arm. We’d drink and make love and sit out on the fire escape drinking until morning, sweating the whole time. She was like a goddess to me, coming out of the jungle humidity to provide a moment when I had more on my mind than drinking, work, and paying rent.
I don’t look back on that summer with fondness, except that I was still an innocent. I believed that all I had to do was pay rent and drink. That was the whole of life. The heat was part of it.
So, now, over thirty years later, I’m not one to complain of the heat. In fact, I enjoy it. I like working in it, walking in it, and riding my bike in it. Sometimes I can’t get enough. Even though I love the rain, there’s something about summer rain that interferes with the dry brown that I so love about this time of year.
The problem for me is that I can only take so much heat. I tend to keel over in it. But that doesn’t stop me from getting to the edge, being out in it just up to the time I begin to slur my words and start moving slowly. I start to feel cold. My heart races. My mind tells my body what to do, and my body doesn’t respond. When that happens, it’s time to get inside, and these days, inside is always cool.
It’s hot out. Sure, it is. But I don’t hear about people dying of it this year. In fact, until just the last couple of weeks, we had a mild summer. A big disappointment. I don’t want people to die. But I want all that heat.