Ralph Gardner Jr: The Heat

Jul 7, 2018

In the same way that a forecast for a major snowstorm fills me with anticipation so the news that a heat wave was on the way last week triggered similar excitement. 

Obviously, extreme heat is cause for concern, especially if you don’t have access to air-conditioning, or certainly shade, and if you have elderly family members.

The heat is also more ominous in a city where all that concrete seems to ratchet up the effect even further. The most vivid example of that may be frying eggs on the sidewalk. 

By the way, I looked it up and it takes a temperature of 158 degrees Fahrenheit to fry an egg properly, and sidewalks don’t approach that temperature. You could still conceivably fry one on the sidewalk but, concerns about hygiene aside, it would take a while before it was edible, even longer if you like yours over easy, as I do. 

But there’s something timeless, atavistic about the notion of summer heat waves. My father, who remained behind in New York City and loved the heat, used to write us letters about hot it was and how lucky we were to be in the mountains or at the beach. 

Part of the allure of a good heat way, I suspect, is that like a good snowstorm it takes you out of yourself. It forces you to focus on larger forces. It reminds you that, in a world where we increasingly buy into the conceit that humanity is the master of its own destiny, we’re just bit players in a much larger and more majestic production.

By the time this commentary airs temperatures are expected to have receded into the mere eighties. But as I wrote these words we were looking forward to a couple of days flirting with one hundred degrees and several others in the mere low to mid nineties.

So what did I do last Saturday morning? Clear brush. There was an eyesore spot behind the house and I assumed it would be too hot for heavy labor, or any labor, for the foreseeable future.

Consider it the equivalent of heading to the supermarket to provision before a major hurricane or snowstorm. Fear or at least concern may be a contributing factor. But there’s also a celebratory component about being socked in.

It thrusts one backwards to a time, as I said, when we weren’t masters of the universe.

Obviously, air-conditioning plays a major role in our attitude and relationship towards the heat. A few years back I was recalling to Kenneth Jackson, a Columbia University professor and prominent historian of New York City, those letters from my father where he painted New York  as basically a sweltering, deserted cauldron in the summertime.

I suspect he was exaggerating; he couldn’t have been happier than when the rest of the family left town and he had our apartment and the city to himself.

But Professor Jackson pointed out that everything changed with the advent of air-conditioning. Fleeing the city for the mountains or the beach suddenly became a recreational choice rather than a compelling necessity.

Perhaps nobody captured that sense of urban lethargy better than E.B. White in his famous essay, “Here Is New York,” penned during a heat wave during the sweltering summer of 1949.

“On any person who desires such queer prizes,” he begins, “New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”

While he was speaking of the city in general, and at any time of year, one can’t but help believe that his opinions were influenced by the fact that, as he wrote, “I am sitting at the moment in a stifling hotel room in 90-degree heat, halfway down an airshaft, in midtown.”

The heat has a way of isolating and connecting one – isolating in the sense that motion becomes a luxury best not overindulged – connecting one in the knowledge that the misery of a heat index soaring well past one hundred degrees is shared by all sentient creatures.

Indeed, at the advent of this heat wave I wondered whether birds and other animals feel it as intensely as we do. Whether they fly only when necessary or take a break from burrowing holes or raiding the lettuce in my raised beds. 

I like to think they do. That we’re all in this together. That we can agree, if not upon much else, that shade and a cool pond or stream to submerge oneself in, is a heavenly thing.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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