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Summer heat, 1983

It’s hot. It’s summer. It’s supposed to be hot. I like it. Extreme weather of whatever kind I like. And it gets extreme here in the Midwest. In fact, I get disappointed when it’s not extreme. I mean, those beautiful spring or fall days when the temperature is just right have a place. But I’m really into when it gets dirty.

wiedemannThere 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 out 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 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 across solarium to separate it from the rest of the room. All my worldly possessions were in there. I slept on a hide-a-bed and had plants my parents left behind on the sills under the windows. A box fan stirred the furnace-hot air around.

That summer, my car pooped out and I left it at the curb in front of the apartment. With no money in my pocket, I let it stay there until I could earn the jack to get it fixed. I walked the mile and a half to work every afternoon. I sweated away in the hot kitchen and then walked up the Main Street hill back home. I might take a minute in the restaurant’s dining room to get away from the heat, but that was about the only respite I had from the heat that summer.

Meanwhile, people were dying in their closed up little apartments. Old people, mostly, people who had shut themselves up in their houses and apartments, afraid to come out and fearful of forced entry. Their places heated up to 110 degrees or more. Who knows when they actually died. Neighbors would nose them out when the corpses began stinking up the apartment buildings or the miasma of death would waft 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 would swarm 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.

I was mostly drunk that summer. As unconscious as I was, even I knew about the heat deaths. Several kids died that summer running around in parks or on the streets. Grown men died on their construction jobs. I watched the news sometimes and the heat was all the news anchors would talk about. When I walked to work, people would shuffle by, towels over their heads. It seemed nearly everyone without air conditioning was in a state of constant heat prostration.

I felt it as I sat on the fire escape on the second floor smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. The grate radiated the day’s heat up through my bum and into my sweating upper torso. The heat pounded the pavement all day. After nightfall, I could feel the city relax. It had nothing to do with the people. The streets, houses, and apartment buildings themselves seemed relieved of the sun.

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 the behemoth window unit stuck in the dining room window at 9915 State Line. 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 downy 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 sit out on the fire escape drinking until morning.

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. Coming in out of the heat, I felt like I walked into a wall. 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). 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 pulled out one of those bottles and drained it while I waited for the light. I huffed up the two blocks up the street, stopping for another bottle of beer 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 it 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, gave us air.

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, I am 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.

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