Friday, May 31, 2013

Summer Time and the Living is Sticky

The forecast today is for mid-nineties in New York City. Summer in the city has always been rough. but in the 1950s, air-conditioning existed pretty much in movie theaters only; everywhere else you had to rely on your imagination to keep cool. This was back in the day before casual business dress, so any poor schlub in an office job had to put on a suit and tie and descend into Dante's Seventh Circle of Hell, otherwise known as the NYC subway system. As sweaty commuters stood cheek-to-cheek reading the Miss Rheingold ads, ancient fans would blow very hot air into their faces at 60 miles an hour. Women divided their time between fighting off gropers and keeping their foot-high beehive hairdos from collapsing in the hot Santa Ana winds.

I guess toward the end of the 1950's, office buildings began to install air conditioning, so at least oppressed employees climbing up out of steamy subway stations could get that blast of resuscitating cold air as they hit their building lobbies. People who weren't lucky enough to work in offices got little relief during the long, hot summers. It was especially rough for people like firefighters who had to don 50 pounds of heavy gear to fight fires, or cops who wore those old-fashioned wool police uniforms that buttoned up to the neck. Construction workers and utility workers also suffered (as they still do today) by not only laboring in the heat, but often in holes in the ground that intensified their discomfort. 

Kids too had to find ways to beat the heat. Going to the beach was great if your parents were in the mood to take you. I remember well the ride to Coney Island, first on the A train from our local Rockaway Avenue station to Franklin Avenue where we changed for the elevated Brighton line. The backs of your legs stuck to the straw train seats as you took what felt like an interminable ride to our destination, Coney Island Avenue. Then a walk up narrow streets past the tacky souvenir shops, then under the shade of the boardwalk onto the hot sand where you did the "beach blanket mambo" (stepping on the corners of other people's blankets to avoid scorching your feet) until finally, looming on the hazy horizon, the cool Atlantic ocean appeared.

Kids found other ways to cool off like going to the local playground to romp in the wading pool. This was a bowl-shaped concrete enclosure with shower sprays of water shooting out of openings around the "pool", which held maybe two inches of water. If you fell while frolicking in this cement death trap, a trip to the emergency room was a real possibility. We also opened street hydrants, or Johnnie pumps as we called them, and created our own little asphalt beach. Kids came pouring out of hot brick houses to play in the street. Sneakers were a good idea to help prevent stepping on rocks or broken glass. (See trip to emergency room.) Unsuspecting cars rolling slowly down the block with open windows were considered fair game. Evil boys used tin cans to direct the stream of the water gushing from the hydrant into 1954 Chevys, and then ran like hell.

If putting a man on the moon was ranked as man's greatest challenge, then teaching summer school physics in non-air-conditioned classrooms to disinterested kids who had already failed it once must have come in a close second. I remember enduring this fate in high school. I can still see the anguished face of the poor teacher who had sacrificed, gone to college, and became an educator in the hope of improving young minds. He was reduced nearly to tears by a room full of young thugs who wanted no part of Einstein's Theory of Relativity and who thought Sir Isaac Newton was the guy they named the cookie after. To make matters worse, the class was given at New Utrecht High School, located a few short train stops from Coney Island. We could almost smell the hot dogs from Nathan's wafting in on the breeze coming through the open window.

Anyone reading this might get the mistaken impression that summers in the 1950's in Brooklyn were terrible. In fact, they were glorious, and I wouldn't trade those memories for anything. (OK, maybe for a red,
Jaguar XKE, but nothing else.)



Children's Craniofacial Association


seashmore said...

Great post!
Even though I grew up in the 90's, we didn't have A/C (my mom's house still doesn't have even a window unit). My dad insisted that if opening all the windows and using fans wasn't enough, we could go to the basement. Thankfully we were only 6 blocks from a lake.

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I lived on the top floor, the roof was tarred and flat, and the heat so intense we would sleep on the linoleum floor because it felt cool.