In this heat, the air holds everything. It contains sewage and sweat and metal shavings and gray fine dust. It forgets nothing, not the garbage that rots in the can, not the dogs and (or the men) that ever took a pee on the sidewalk. Nothing can hide from the heat of this air, and the people who walk in it try not to fight it, they expose themselves to it, roll their sleeves to turn t-shirts into tank tops — but no amount of flesh will reveal relief.
The fire-tongue air has weight, it has heft and it is against you. It wants to push you down.
And down they go. Construction workers, in t-shirts with sweat semicircles in the front and the back, take a break in the shade, legs splayed out, cradling purple bottles of Gatorade. A young woman collapses, EMTs kneel beside her, and a doorman runs to get her some water. The water drips drips drips down from countless air conditioners.
This is New York City in heat, in the wave that’s grasping the Northeast. The heat index will top 103 today, and it will break records, they say.
We travel in the summer because summer has historically been a season for dying.
Heat still kills more people than other natural disasters. Those that die mostly won’t succumb to hyperthermia, which is, when you get right down to it, death by cooking.
Mostly, heat kills by stressing the heart and other vital organs, especially those weakened by other conditions. In the past, summer heat held other dangers, for instance, in late 19th century New York City, tenement dwellers seeking relief from the night heat often rolled off of roofs and window sills to their deaths. Around that time, too, were the many illnesses that worsened in summer, from malaria to cholera. They were once thought to be cause by miasma – bad air poisoned by decay in the summer’s heat. In reality, it was insects that were the culprit, although are of course more active in the summer too.
The heat is worse in the city than in the country. The “heat island effect” — when permeable vegetation is replaced by impermeable development – was observed as early as 1776. When Thomas Jefferson was president, he argued that cities should have alternating squares of greenery to relieve the heat and its evil effects. But local governments didn’t like the idea of wasting space that could be put towards more economically productive use. Also, the idea that the heat affected people equally was politically and economically fraught in other ways. Heat provided one of the favorite arguments justifying slavery: blacks could withstand heat better than whites due to their tropical ancestry, the theory went, so without conscripting black labor, there would be no wealth in the form of cotton or rice. Of course, points out William B. Meyer in his book Americans and Their Weather, “Summer in fact was as deadly for slaves as it was for their masters.”
It’s not the fact of heat that’s a problem, it’s the way we relate to it. The weather is morally neutral, reminds Meyer, it’s people who get ideas about forcing people to work in the sun, or to live in unventilated tenements, or in this day, the physically compromised in unairconditioned apartments.
The heat does feel like an entity, but it’s neither malevolent or benevolent. It’s a circumstance, and one that requires wise reaction — lest it break us before it finally breaks itself.