About a month ago, my office building lost its air conditioning – and couldn’t find it for three days! Luckily, it got so hot, most company occupants in the building, allowed their employees to go home with pay. I enjoyed the break, but it got me to thinking about before AC – what did we all do before central air or portable window units? Then my mind took a trip down the memory lane of summers past…fortunately without a ghost in a bikini.
I remember a time when there wasn’t air conditioning, just fans: fans of all shapes and sizes. We had a fan as big as the bottom half a window we kept on exhaust all summer long, trying to suck the heat out of our apartment. I remember throwing tissues at it and watching them stick to the grill. Once, just before I let a pencil fly, my mom stopped me. I think I really believed I would be able to throw it between the slats of the grill and whirling fan blades. Ahhh – youth.
Our neighbor, Mary, had a hassock fan in the middle of her living room floor that you could sit on; it worked best if you were wearing a skirt. Janie’s family had oscillating fans all over the place: on top of the ‘fridge, on the living room and bedroom end tables, and one on top of the big floor model television console that you could only use when the TV was off.
I remember sleeping on our fire escape on hot city nights as a youngster, maybe around 10 years old or so. My dad would lace rope and wooden slats through the iron railings, so I wouldn’t roll off while I slept. There was only a little useable space, about 4 ft square, not comfortable at all, even with a mountain of blankets, or an old mattress to lay on, but somehow, in the still, hot and humid air, it just felt cooler outside.
I remember Saturday’s on tar-beach – the tar & gravel composite, used as roofing material on NYC apartment buildings. If I wasn’t going to a real beach, (Orchard and Jones Beach were my favorites), tar-beach was always there, a few flights away, right above my head. I almost expected to step onto sand every time I opened the heavy steel door to the roof, into the intense, glaring sunlight.
I’d use the tar-beach blanket encrusted with sun-dried and rock hard black goop the gasoline couldn’t get off the last time the blanket stuck to the roof. Like pack-mules, my friends and I would trudge up the stairs with thermoses of water and snacks, in our swimsuits and wearing our father’s old shoes. The roof was so heat-wave-mirage-hot, we couldn’t wear our sneakers; you needed asbestos, but men’s shoes provided that extra layer of protection.
We’d slather up with a concoction of baby-oil and Mercurochrome to insure a bronzy tan. What we didn’t know then, a dermatologist would tell us 25 years later. On top of the blanket, I’d put down a folded towel lengthwise, so there’d be more protection between that hot roof and my butt. Someone always brought a portable radio – remember Up On The Roof – and we’d lay there for as long as we could take it, never more than an hour, as there’s very little shade on a rooftop; maybe a little from a tenant’s pigeon coop.
I remember Jones Beach sunburns – Jones Beach is on the Atlantic Ocean side of Lung-Eye-Lin, so what you actually got, along with a blistering sun burn, was a sand and wind burn. The ocean winds would blow the sand along at the velocity of an Indy race car on the straightaway, and in combination with the sun’s rays reflecting off the water, your skin would be burned to a crisp. On Mondays, you could always tell who had gone to Jones Beach over the weekend – they truly were a brilliant, blazing, beet red!
The envy of their friends !
Yours ’til, Kate