There was a vibrating, menacing metal box on a concrete slab behind my parents’ house. It hummed all summer long, hiding an electric motor spinning giant metal blades. If I stepped too close, an uncomfortable heat found my face, kept me away. It doesn’t want company. The box was busy conditioning the air.
It was late into the summer when I was eleven when our air conditioning failed, the one and only time it ever did. It died sometime after supper, before we’d settled in for television in the living room upstairs. My dad noticed first, asked my mom if she was too warm. Then he went to check. The box out back was quiet. It was too late to call anyone, we’d have to wait until the next morning. We opened windows, and pulled box fans out of dusty storage. My parents said I could sit on the front porch, even though it was getting late. I stayed there for hours, our lawn lit by the corner streetlamp, listening to the neighborhood. I could hear televisions in living rooms and dogs on walks and conversations meant to be private. There were cicadas, tree frogs, and sprinklers watering backyard garden patches. Underneath it all, I could hear other boxes behind other houses, droning on. The drone of a central air conditioning unit is the soundtrack of a Southern summer.
Summertime in the South is a daily relay race, AC to AC, home to car to work to car to home again. Workplace AC feels harsh like a walk-in freezer. Grocery store AC is good, but department store AC is better. The best AC in the South is found in a movie theater. Two hours of cold in the dark is worth the cost of a matinee ticket. It’s never a surprise to look over on a Saturday afternoon to find a sun-weary mom letting her eyes shut for a little while, caring little about the extravaganza on-screen, her hand grasping the handle of a stroller turned away from the film and rocking lazily. Summertime in the South is great aunts and grandmothers, standing on front porches and moving their arms like shepherds urging sheep into a pen. “Come on in this house!” Step inside, shut the door, you weren’t raised in a barn, don’t let the air out.
I’m from the South. I’m supposed to embrace sweat, bear it with pride. Let it trickle down my back in recognition of my humanity, remembering red clay and harvest home where we rocked in chairs on porches, drank mint juleps and let seersucker wick away our perspiration. But mint juleps are overrated and seersucker too often abused. Give me the joys of summer without the thick humid and human reality of it. While “Hotlanta” isn’t a nickname for nothing, no matter how much natives hate it, Atlanta never expects you to suffer the heat for long. If you’re sweating, it’s your own fault, a choice you made. There’s always relief.
But New York knows air conditioning is a lie. This false idol of cool keeps you from knowing your own body, knowing how it works. Heat can be purifying and tests your limits. The city celebrates sweat and a New York summer is a crucible.
One of my earliest dates with H. was on the hottest day of a New York summer. I arrived for dinner early, bow-tied and delirious, rivulets down my face. Whatever cool I’d brought with me, New York wasn’t having it. My composure soaked into my collar. I made my way to wait at the corner of the bar, attempted to sit, and missed the nearest stool by inches, dizzy from the heat. I’d barely caught myself as I turned to find H. by my side, smiling and radiant in a white dress like summer turned human for a day. I was caught off-guard, could only smile at her speechlessly, entirely uncool and sun-struck. She looked like an angel.
Take a walk around the nicest neighborhoods in New York City. Pass under beautiful awnings held aloft by polished brass. Wave at doormen. Now look up and still higher up. There they hang among the fire escapes and terra cotta molding, window-unit air conditioners sprouting like new growth on trees. Box after box, precarious and ugly. The paucity of central air in this town astonishes me every day of the summer. New York embraces its architectural treasures and deals with the inconveniences. Few older buildings have central air because the expense would be too high, the damage needed too great a cost. I hear Jerry Seinfeld lives in the Beresford on Central Park West, and yet I look up at the building and I’m sure one or more of those janky-ass AC units is his.
I waited too long to install last summer’s air conditioner. It should’ve gone in before Memorial Day, but the spring hadn’t been so bad and I convinced H more research was needed. Truth be told, I was just terrified of installing it, something I’d never done. AC was something I just had, not something I had to provide. And besides, we live on the fourth floor, right over a sidewalk. I called our renter’s insurance company and told them I had a serious question. “What happens if I’m installing the air conditioner and it, you know, slips out of my hands and lands on a person?” The insurance agent laughed, then answered, “That wouldn’t be covered.” Turns out falling AC units are Acts of God. I was terrified. I feared for our neighbors.
We opened the windows wider and filled corners of our apartment with fans of various shapes and sizes. I put a tower fan in the bedroom. I placed a small fan atop the refrigerator. I bought a box fan from Duane Reade and balanced it on a kitchen chair. But nothing worked. There is a ritual to surviving a New York City summer and it demands adherence. If we were going to make it, we needed an air conditioner. So three weeks after summer’s arrival, I met my H at an electronics store six blocks from our apartment and we picked up our first air conditioner as a couple in New York. We took a cab home. Late on a Friday night in June, we slid the AC into place, shut the window against it, taped cardboard to either side as an added precaution, then stood in front of it and let the cold wash over us.
There it is. The soundtrack of my childhood summers, a little louder than I remember. The first couple of days take some adjustment. I have to speak up more, repeat myself. Turn up the volume on the television. The cat reroutes herself, finding cool spots to sit and curl her paws under like a sphinx. It’s worth it, the noise, the precarious installation. It makes the apartment a refuge. Here’s relief. Here’s shelter. Come on in this house.