Sunday, July 1, 2018

You need a little poetic license to beat the heat

Center Avenue, Northbrook, June 29, 2018
     Ninety-six degrees? Two days in a row? Pshaw! I remember when it got HOT in Chicago. Such as on July 13, 1995, when the temperature reached 106 degrees, and I wrote the following, no doubt assigned to come up with something diverting about the heat wave.
     That day I walked a block outside, to our dry cleaners in East Lake View. I can still remember trudging back, toting a plastic bag of clothing, feeling as if the weight of the sun were pressing down upon my head. I returned to the apartment and had to lie down, for all the good it did: no air conditioning. The heat was deadly.
    Literally. I was wiped out and I was 35 and in good health. (Poor Edie was five months pregnant). For many older people, it proved fatal, and the hot spell that I had such fun with below was, even as I was flipping through quote books, was killing Chicagoans one-by-one, elderly and alone barricaded in their overheated apartments; 739 heat-related deaths by the time it was over. 
     And yes, I was part of the media, along with the city government and everyone else, who were slow to realize what was happening. Hindsight is 20-20. Even after the scope of the disaster started to come out. I remember wondering if it could simply be the medical examiner's office grandstanding—calling every death in the city a heat-related death, since it was so hot.  A blunder, or a bid for attention made sense. The truth just seemed incredible.
    Anyway, my purpose isn't to replay that disaster. Eric Klinenberg wrote an essential book, "Heat Wave" if you are interested. I was groping for ornate ways to describe the heat, and realized I had already found them. 

     The bad thing about "Hot, isn't it?" and "Hot enough for you?" and all the other variants people feel compelled to say is that everybody already knows it's hot, doesn't need to be told and is sick of hearing it over and over.
     Since poets and wits have been commenting on this for centuries, the following is provided, as a public service, as a guide to more dramatic phrases that can be used in this "fantastic summer's heat."
     A stranger observes that it is really very hot, and waits for your reply. Quote Coleridge: "Summer has set in with its usual severity."
     The person next to you on the bus comments that, as far as warm weather goes, this is unusual. Quote Lowell: "I had not felt the heat before, save as a beautiful exaggeration of sunshine."
     A guy on the elevator expresses displeasure at the heat. Quote Shakespeare: "I 'gin to be aweary of the sun / And wish the estate o' the world were now undone."
     Your hair stylist points out that it's hard to know what to wear in this weather. Quote Jane Austen: "What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance."
     A woman asks "How's about this heat, huh?" Quote Sydney Smith: "Heat, madam! It was so dreadful that I found there was nothing for it but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones."
     Your officemate expresses optimism that the heat won't last long. Quote Skelton: "After a hete oft cometh a stormy colde."
     The grocer observes that it is "hot as hell" outside. Point out that the phrase actually is from Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord's 18th century poem, "Recipe for Coffee" -- "Black as the devil / Hot as hell / Pure as an angel / Sweet as love." Or toss back the phrase in its original French, "Chaud comme l'enfer."
     You're walking along, perspiring heavily, and you catch the eye of someone else, also perspiring heavily. Back to Shakespeare: "Falstaff sweats to death / And lards the lean earth as he walks along."
     Someone bad-mouths the city for being so hot in the summer. Quote Harry Truman: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."
            —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, July 14, 1995


  1. I remember at 6, living at some church/shelter as my mother was escaping, god knows what, proclaiming it was "hot as the devil outside." No doubt repeating g what i'd heard my grandfather say a hundred times. Well, after an hour of sitting in a dark basement with a bar of soap in my mouth and being screamed at for being "a foul mouthed sinner", my thoughts about religion, and its hypocricy, were formed and set in stone.

  2. I have different friends who live in Gainesville, Houston, and Tucson. All by choice. They may be insane. Who am I to say? At the moment, I'm in St. Louis questioning my sanity.

    1. I lived in Gainesville for 17 months. The older parts of town are lovely. Much of that area is in a neighborhood called the Duck Pond. Big old Southern houses with high ceilings, ceiling fans, wide verandas, huge live-oak trees, and big yards with lots of shade. Folks down there know how to deal with the heat, and eventually, evenI got used to it, except for the very brief time I worked for a landscaper. Even in my mid-twenties, that was just too much.

      My wife and I were in Chicago during that horrible time in '95. Probably the worst hear I've ever endured, much hotter than either Florida or the Southwest, because of the extremely high dewpoints (if you want to get a little taste of that, go out to the cornfields in DeKalb County). The heat index at Wrigley was around 125. Bleacher fans were being hosed down, but they never stopped consuming alcohol. My wife passed out after a short time, and had to be revived by security. Being anywhere outside in Chicago that week was like being smothered with a hot, wet towel.

      But it's not the worst cousin was deployed to Kuwait, one of the hottest spots on the planet. People think it's 125 degrees without any humidity. Not so. It's near the ocean. He compared it to standing in front of an exhaust fan that's blowing sand in your face. Every day. For a whole year.

    2. Grizz, my Gainesville friends live near the bat houses and Lake Alice. They're both psychologists, so they work indoors. I've been there in July. It's nearly unbearable.

    3. Yeah, right near the UF campus, which is huge. That area was already becoming suburban sprawl when I lived there in the mid-Seventies, with less pavement but also a lot less tree cover than the shady neighborhoods in the older parts of town. May through September are tough. Subtropical heat and humidity, and thunderstorms almost every afternoon. That part of Florida is also the lightning capital of the U.S. People get killed every year. To this Yankee, summertime in Gainesville felt like being in London during the Blitz.

    4. Ever walk through Payne's Praire to visit the alligators?

    5. Nope. But I did go into that giant sinkhole called The Devil's Millhopper, where it's wet and moist and lush with ferns at the bottom. You haul your ass downward, and then have to climb back out's like climbing a mountain in reverse. Quite a workout if you do it in the summertime, as Gainesville is at about the same latitude as Houston.

    6. Oops...forgot the main thing. While I lived there, a shaggy hippie, nicknamed "Gator Man" would occasionally wade out into Lake Alice and try to ride on the backs of the alligators that lived there, which usually resulted in his arrest. He never got bitten or attacked. They seemed to enjoy the attention.

    7. Certain times of the year they're relatively docile. Still, you shouldn't fuck with them.

  3. I remember wondering if it could simply be the medical examiner's office grandstanding—calling every death in the city a heat-related death, since it was so hot.

    To be honest, I still wonder that. Seven hundred thirty-nine deaths? That's way out of whack with any other year, before or since. Yes, it was hot then, but it wasn't that much hotter than other years.

    Or could that have been the year of honesty, and there was pressure on the ME's office to cool it, so to speak, in other years? There's a history of coroners getting strong-armed not to make findings that reflect problems in the larger society. During the worst years of the famine in North Korea, for example, coroners were just about forbidden to put "starvation" on death certificates, even though that's what happened to millions.

    Not that I'm comparing Chicago to North Korea. For one thing, Trump doesn't think nearly as well of Chicago...

    Maybe I'll just go get that book.

  4. Driving into Phoenix for the first time, 30 years ago, in an unairconditioned Honda. 114 degrees with a dry monsoon(sandstorm) blowing. My radiator cannot handle the load and I am forced to pull over and let the engine cool. In the following weeks and ever since the desert dwellers would proclaim "it's a dry heat". The poet in me would reply, "yes, but the operative word is HEAT".

  5. I actually new two of the people who died in that heat wave. Both were in the same SRO in Edgewater & both were heavy drinkers.

    I also believe that Chicago is more humid than decadess ago, due to two factors.
    1. Air conditioning pours lots of heat outdoors & evaporates the condensate water into the atmosphere.
    2. Far more corn is grown downstate & in Iowa & corn plants "perspire" in a process called transpiration & the SW winds bring that extra moisture into the already humid winds from the Gulf of Mexico.

  6. Corn country isn't all that far away. DeKalb County is a little more than an hour west of the Loop, and less than twenty miles from the far western suburbs along the Fox River. Higher summertime temperatures and dew points (from all those cornfields) are easily brought into Chicago by westerly winds. If they are strong enough, they will kill off the lake breeze, make city dwellers miserable, and send more baseballs flying out of Wrigley Field.


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