Magazine | September 12, 2016, Issue

Birth of the Cool

Fifty years ago this summer, a folk-revival group–turned–rock band had a hit that colonized the airwaves. All aroun’, people lookin’ half dead, walkin’ on the sidewalk hotter than a match head. Still true, gentlemen.

Meteorology and media work together to make the days seem even more inhospitable; the thermometer says x, but the geek, adding factors y and z, says the temperature really feels like x plus 10. X plus 10 screams the weather app and, for oldsters, the front page of the next day’s tabloid. But x is plenty bad. The first Europeans to settle on these shores could not believe the extremes of normal American climate. The cold of winter was more immediately deadly, but summer’s heat was enervating, punishing. For centuries, Americans refused to adjust their habits to the new reality; D. W. Brogan, a sympathetic Englishman of the last century, noted that as late as 1925 William Jennings Bryan caused comment by appearing in court during the Scopes trial in shirt sleeves. Now celebrities take nude selfies for slight or no reason. The sun still regards them pitilessly.

Heat is a lagging indicator; the light of the dog days actually has the same slant as the light of April. But moisture in the air makes things fuzzier; clouds pile up in huge high masses. If you look at the flank of a building just right, the reflected blue in the grid of the windows matches the blue of the surrounding sky, giving a 40-story stone hulk the flimsiness of a stage set.

Glass bounces light like boys burn a grasshopper with a lens for sport; asphalt and pavement hold heat. Dogs get picked up, small ones anyway, by kindly masters, or wear socks on their feet; would you walk barefoot on that match head? Buildings block the breezes that city dwellers once counted on for relief, and that can still be caught on riverfronts, or on certain heights. The ubiquitous sidewalk scaffolding traps the fetid humors of the day. You notice, and appreciate, streets with mature trees, or little parks similarly blessed. My daily walk to my gym takes me down a block that is not dangerous or squalid, simply drab and cheap; the Russian souvenir place closed, a taco shop opened. But on these days its procession of locust trees, 20 to 30 years old, makes it seem like Tara.

How do they do it, the helmeted men laying pipe in holes in the ground? The farmers from neighboring states standing behind their spreads of peaches and tomatoes? Some don’t do it — when some daredevils wanted to play flâneur at the outside tables of my favorite restaurant, the maitresse d’ told them to come inside, she wasn’t going to ask her staff to serve them out there.

Tastes change. Do city dwellers forsake black? There was a piece in the newspaper about the little black summer dress, so not entirely. But the eye craves white. The dog days encourage dieting and temperance. Four-alarm spices, oddly, are okay (they come from countries where heat is the norm), but not anything that sticks to the ribs. And nothing stronger than spritzers, please. I can make my wife make a face simply by uttering the words cassoulet or Malbec. Casual moviegoers go more faithfully. I saw a documentary on Hieronymus Bosch: 90 minutes of demons anally probing men with bird’s heads. No matter: If the theater is cool, hell is outside.

All who can, flee. Two centuries ago the 1 percent discovered Harlem. Alexander Hamilton built himself an elegant little summer house on 30-plus acres, from which he could see the Hudson, Harlem, and East Rivers and, far away to the south, the city of his dreams. The city crept north to embrace it; for decades it sat, wedged miserably between a tenement and the church that used it as a rectory. Just the other year it was relocated and refurbished, in time to greet fanboys and -girls of the musical. Three generations after Hamilton, bearded worthies and their wives summered at grand Catskill hotels. Only one is now left; the beards are still there, in the photographs that decorate the dark-wood-paneled hallways. Current guests give them a glance as they pass, then go back to their devices.

Upstate can get hot as blazes, too, of course, but elevation and shade take the edge off. So do thunderstorms, sailing in from the west. Cow meteorologists predict them; lying down means rain. You hear and see the storms, rumbling and flashing, before they arrive. Someone puts a lid on the sky; a hummingbird sits on a witch-hazel branch, under cover. Nothing; will it miss us? Then the trees shake and the rain comes down in sheets. The gutters gargle, there is that leak in the porch roof again. The whole show may last only half an hour or less, and storms in the grip of summer do not clear the air. But they keep things green, which keeps us hopeful.

One of my upstate friends sleeps in his car. He discovered the trick one night while waiting in the cellphone lot at JFK to pick up a belated arrival. My friend has sleep apnea, beds are no longer restful for him. In the hot weather, he drives his car into the woods, on paths he has made for taking out logs. He rolls down the windows and has, he says, a grand time. If he has to relieve himself he uses an old toilet that he found at the dump and has placed, sans plumbing, in a convenient spot. Birds wake him in the morning. If the night air gets chilly (fat chance!), he tucks his arms inside a sweater. A mouse that has taken up residence in the car has been entertaining him, running back and forth above the windshield. Once he woke up to feel it on his chest; he swatted it away.

We cool any way we can.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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