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Central air reminds me we’re not living like we used to

Nothing screams middle class like having an issue with your air conditioner. Listen to the sound of “air conditioner.” A thing that conditions air to our liking.

air conditionerWhen I was a kid, every year my dad would pull the behemoth window unit from the basement and insert it into the dining room window. We had a three-bedroom house in the suburbs. Not that we could afford it. But it was a big house in a nondescript neighborhood. Our neighbors were salesmen and a few lawyers. Many, like my dad, had lifetime jobs with corporations. It was the 1960s and 1970s, a time when job security meant everything to the American working class. My dad had a pension and three weeks of paid vacation a year.

We were also about the only family on the block that didn’t have central air. I remember the way my dad used to say it. His eyes would get all dreamy and out of focus, as if he were looking into Eden. Central air. That was a pinnacle to achieve, a place to be in life. You were a nobody if you didn’t have air conditioning. You were almost nobody if you relied on a window unit.

The air conditioner was rated in tons. I don’t know what kinds of tons, maybe of ice. Our window unit was listed as a ten-ton air conditioner. I used to think of ten tons of ice, melting away as someone fanned the furnace-hot summer air over it. To me, the air conditioner was bigger than my dad. He couldn’t wrap his arms around it. Through it, I comprehended what machinery could do to human flesh if a person got in the way of it.

Anyway, he waited until well into June before installing the air conditioners. He would wrestle this thing up the steep flight of wooden steps that ascended from the damp and dark basement. I was supposed to help. Most of my effort went into holding doors open as he maneuvered the huge boxy thing around from the basement door into the dining room. Then, with all the heft he had in him, he angled it up from the floor into the window. Once there, it hung precariously on a metal rack that seemed too small to hold the thing up. As a matter of fact, we were forbidden to play outside underneath it for fear it would fall out the window onto out little heads.

He lowered the window to the flange on top of the unit and let it free. Likely, now that I think about it, it was the window sash that held the thing in place all those years. The metal stand wasn’t doing it and I remember one time I violated the play-free zone and saw that the air conditioner was really just hanging in space, its body an inch off the metal rack.

He sealed up the space on either side of the air conditioner with pieces cut from cardboard boxes and bits of wood. He pulled the drapes down around the unit, cutting off any natural light from reaching the dining room. In the gloom, he stepped back and after plugging the thing into the 220-volt outlet placed there just for an air conditioner, flipped the clunky dial to “max.” It growled to life, settling into a steady, loud hum. His day was complete. He stood in front of the air vent and soaked in the cool breeze until his shirt, sweaty and sopping from all that effort, dried out.

We cooled the whole house with that air conditioner. A series of fans pumped the cool air in the dining room around corners into the living room, where we could watch vapid television in comfort. In the evening before bed, we moved the fans around to direct the air down the hallway and into the bedrooms. My parents’ room took precedence and they took in the greater part of the air coursing through the house. My sisters’ bedroom got some. My brother and I in the back had to do with a tepid puff.

This orchestrated event happened every year until my dad decided, well, what the hell, and left the air conditioner in the window for the whole year. There it stayed, from about 1976 to 1983 when my parents’ sold the house and moved to Reno, Nevada. We never did enjoy the luxury of central air, but we had an air conditioner, which was a whole lot more than many people had. In Reno, the heat is dry and every house has central air. My dad even mentioned it once when I talked to him on the phone one Kansas City hot day. “Yep,” he said. “Central air.” He was in heaven.

When they moved away, I lived in midtown apartments without the benefit of air conditioning. My first place was two-bedroom at 43rd and Warwick. I lived with two other guys who took the bedrooms. I inhabited the solarium, which as some point in the far-distant past had been a screened in porch. Converted to a windowed room some generations ago, I had light from three sides. I could open the windows and when I did, they stayed open from April through October, except in heavy rains.

That summer people died in Kansas City from the heat. Not just a few casualties like we get every year, but scores of people. I had a fan that blew furnace-hot and muggy air over me. Fortunately, I drank heavily during that time of night and passed out every night. Otherwise, due to the heat, I never would have gotten any rest.

I went from one apartment to the next, each without air conditioning. I made do with a fan I dragged around Midtown with me for over a decade. I sweated through one summer and then another. The one place that had central air was a basement apartment where I lived for a year with a guy who was as much a drunk as I was. The place was generally cooler than outside and because we were poor, we rarely ran the central air.

In 1996, I moved into my first house at 2604 Madison. It was a 600-square-foot place that I loved dearly. Sometimes, especially when I look at the junk collected in my basement, I wish I still lived there. The place had central air. A compressor-fan unit sat outside as big as a truck. It was old and cost me dearly when I ran it. Since I had two rooms, I generally lived on a window fan I kept stuck in the front window.

Now, I live in a nice, modern, almost-new house (built in 2004). Because the place has the best insulation and super-efficient air conditioner that money could buy in the 2000s, we run the air conditioner all the time. I keep wanting, threatening to get a whole-house fan installed in the hallway, but I never do. The place is ill-equipped to live on outside air, so we always have either the heat or the air conditioner running. And it’s cheap. Our largest summer bill in the 12 years we’ve owned this house was $75 bucks.

But today the air conditioner went on the fritz. For some reason, the outside compressor-fan thing isn’t running. The outside temperature peaked at about 98 degrees today. I talked to an HVAC guy today and he had me shut the whole thing down. Because of the insulation in this house, we are living in 84-degree heat. You’d think, however, we were poor refugees the way we’ve complained about not having working air conditioning.

That is, until I sat down to write this essay. As I’ve contemplated our plight, I’ve had to think about what a great station in life we’ve achieved. We don’t have a window unit. We’re not dragging around an ancient fan from place to place. We have a couple of fans moving cooler-than-outside air around the house. Despite our discomfort, I think, we are comfortable. We could be in a place where we had to rely solely on outside air to keep us from overheating.

The air conditioner will be fixed. And the fact of the matter is that we have the means to pay for that.

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