Fun in the Sun

Commentary: In Exile

It was 98 degrees in New York today, one of the hottest days we’ve had all year. Several businesses have been distributing donated bottled water to the local homeless population. Elderly folks have been keeling over dead in their homes. There are fire hydrants open on many blocks, spraying water on kids and construction workers. In this un-air conditioned apartment, even my fish are showing signs of listlessness.

I’m off work this week, thanks to the fact that few people buy magazines in the summer. We put out double issues and then we take a week off every month — one in June, one in July, one in August. I spend my days in the park buying beers from the guys who circulate with gym bags full of tepid Rolling Rocks. Those who can afford it are off in the Hamptons. The rest of us are surrendered to the heat-radiating concrete and traffic.

Depending on the season, this is one of two cities. In the winter, everyone scurries around with their heads down, their hoods up, and their scarves pulled tight around their faces. For four months, you hardly see anyone at all. But the summer is a whole different story. Just the opposite story, actually. All anyone does is see each other. Everyone’s standing at the bus stops, sort of blankly staring at whoever happens to be standing in their line of vision, as if they weren’t even there.

Perhaps it’s because everyone is practically naked. How could you not look? It’s all exposed shoulders and calves. Everyone’s looking for someone to absentmindedly talk to about how hot it is, to ask if they can remember the last time it was like this. Everyone’s trying to top each other, with classic New York competitiveness. ”My flight to Vegas was cancelled,” someone said to me, ”because the temperature hit 117 degrees and airplanes aren’t built to fly in temperatures that high because, theoretically, temperatures that high don’t actually exist.”

But while everyone’s checking out each other’s skin, one thing few are checking out is big backpacks. Everyone except for New York’s Finest, that is, who were pulling random people aside the other day at the Staten Island Ferry. A quick, unscientific observation on my part seemed to indicate that the NYPD was searching approximately one out of every 107 bags there. These were bags getting on the ferry going to Staten Island, mind you, lest anyone should be smuggling a dirty bomb out of Manhattan’s densely populated financial district to the city’s largest landfill.

The cops are obviously on higher alert than the rest of us. Another thing that happened the other day was a bomb threat that evacuated Penn Station for an hour, and the National Guard practically had to force people out onto the street. Once they got them there, most of the vacated travelers stuck as close to the building as possible, trying to catch a few breezes of Freon from the revolving doors. No one seemed very concerned about a bomb.

It’s so hot that you can almost see the sweat on the brow of Karl Rove, or John Roberts, or the Cairo bombers — whoever it is that we’re after this week. So many big news stories at once in this weather should be disallowed. Spread them out, with the really big ones breaking on Saturday, so that we can read them leisurely and at length on Sunday morning in the Times with lots of analysis and commentary, and maybe a tie-in crossword clue (”Karl Rove is a big, fat _____” Four letters).

I spent this afternoon making cold pasta salad and selling a couch, which I helped the buyer move down four flights of stairs in a building built in 1901, when people were littler and stairs were not built for moving couches because there were no couches. We had to ask people to open their doors as we went so that we could angle the couch into their apartments, the only way we could fit it around each corner. Why is everyone in my building home at 3 p.m. on a Monday afternoon?

Most likely the same reason as I am. Everyone complains about how dead the city is in the summer, that there’s nothing going on. But who wants anything to go on in this heat? What could we possibly do? The city is filled with tans and sweaty armpits (you can see them as people flag down their cabs) and malaise and bottled water and a loss of ambition. Everyone’s taking time off and leaning on their shovels, staring blearily at each other.

I can only take so much fun in the sun, and forgive me, but I’m already looking forward to Labor Day. A sweater right now sounds like hell, but with this apartment hotter than that anyway, I’ll just lie here and stare at the ceiling.

Will Doig writes from his self-imposed exile in New York City. He can be reached at wdoig@metroweekly.com.

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