No Sweat

A Phoenix neophyte vows to survive summer without A/C

This summer will be my first in Phoenix, a simple statement that seems to come with a built-in drum roll. Say it to anyone in the Valley, and you'll get a suitably dramatic response:

The heat is like sticking your head in an oven.

Or living in a blow-dryer.

Our weather has its fans.
Our weather has its fans.

Or, as one guy told me, "You're going to die."

But I like to think I'm ready for it. After all, I spent a year in the steamy swamp that is Houston, Texas. And, as I've been known to boast, I did it -- mostly -- without air conditioning.

When I left the Midwest for Texas, I'd never had a place with central air before, and it never even occurred to me that I should find one. I leased a wonderful apartment, a big old charmer that my new co-workers insisted should be out of my price range.

"You have hardwood floors?" one woman asked. "And high ceilings? And you're paying how much?"

It wasn't until after she'd congratulated me that her eyes narrowed: "Wait a minute. Do you have central air?"

No, I said, innocently.

"Well, that explains it."

Houston, I learned quickly enough, prides itself on having the worst weather in the country: gloomy gray skies, a hurricane season that occasionally washes houses right into the bayou, and the muggiest weather anywhere.

Everywhere I went, people asked how I liked their city.

"It's great," I'd say.

"Wait 'til summer," they'd reply. Then they'd start cackling.

Once I made the mistake of telling one of those cacklers, an old Southern belle, that I liked the heat. "Oh, honey," she said. "It's not the heat. It's the humidity."

But while I'd chosen my apartment out of ignorance, eschewing my window box air conditioners soon became a matter of pride. They say this town is humid? I thought. Well, I come from the land of ice and snow. If I can swim in Lake Superior and drive on black ice, I can certainly stand one lousy summer without air conditioning. It was part Protestant frugality, but also part masochistic one-upmanship. You think your summer is bad? Well, I'm hardly even noticing it.

For a while, I hardly did.

And then June became July.

The air hung so heavy, I felt stuck in a dreamy haze no matter what the time of day. Even downtown Houston took on a surreal quality. Its skyline, previously a series of aggressively harsh lines, seemed to sizzle by mid-morning. In the afternoon, it dissolved right into the smog.

The streets were always empty. It seems that, after one too many humid summers, Houston's planners gave up on trying to create a vital urban streetscape, as planners are supposed to do. Instead, they built tunnels, and so Houstonians duck into the cool dark channels below their office buildings for lunch and shopping. I swore I wouldn't use those tunnels, but after a few weeks of walking alone through the wet muggy heat, I did.

And I stopped running, for the first time in a decade. I said it was the air pollution. I was lying: It was just too darn hot.

One Saturday I walked to a party two blocks from my apartment. By the time I arrived, I was drenched in sweat and my hair was as wet as it had been pre-blow-dry. After one drink, I discovered my friend Craig had disappeared. He was too sweaty, another friend reported. He'd walked home to shower and drive back.

It got harder to sleep at night.

In the last week of July, I invited a friend up for a nightcap and offered her a pour from the bottle of Cabernet on the counter. "Sarah," she said, sweat dripping off her nose into the hot liquid, "I can't drink this. It's too hot up here." And this was a girl who liked -- really liked -- Cabernet.

The next night I turned on the bedroom box. It was heaven, a blast of cool that sucked the moisture right off my drenched limbs. I thought, Okay, in the Midwest, we turned on the heat when it got cold. This is just like that.

But this seemed different. I grew up believing air conditioning was for the pampered. By running a window unit for seven hours straight, I felt like I was joining a class of people I'd been raised to disdain, the sort of people who didn't mind $100 electric bills if it meant they were -- that word despised by masochists and Protestants everywhere -- comfortable.

And so I spent the rest of the summer turning on the window box when I got home, then switching it off at bedtime. I'd often wake up at 5 a.m., roasting, and turn it back on.

I justified it by saying it wasn't really air conditioning; it was just a fan, a fan that cooled things down and then was switched off. It was a stupid game, but I kept playing until late September, when the heat broke and everybody emerged from the tunnels.

I felt like a failure.

When I moved to Phoenix last fall, my Houston friends were convinced that I'd find Arizona summers most pleasant in comparison to their hell. No one in Arizona agreed. When an editor explained that people in Phoenix sometimes die, literally, from the heat, I assumed he was talking about old ladies and anorexics. But I felt a twinge of worry.

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