The plight of the central air-challenged

New York is the land of the haves and the have-nots: Those who have central air conditioning, and those who don’t.

The divide is stark. On the subway, there stand impeccably coiffed commuters while I struggle to hide the puddle of sweat pooling under my feet.

What heat? They seem to scoff. I still have goose bumps from my overactive centrally air-conditioned high rise on the corner of You Can’t Believe How Much I Pay for It and Just Because I Can.

The central air-challenged can dare face the wrath of the humid, heat island-laden New York summer, as long as they don’t mind lying in bed, hot air blowing across their sweaty limbs from an open window and two fans, one of which rattles loud enough for the person on the other end of the line to ask, “What is that?”

I did just that last week amid a heat wave.

Some nights it was cooler outside than it was in, the temperature in my apartment building rising the higher up I ventured. For the top-floor dweller, which would be me of course, it was gradual torture.

It didn’t help that my small room absorbs heat like a black sweater in the desert. Or that my window can only open as far as a block of wood can take it, given its absolute lack of ability to hold itself up.

“UGH,” I heard my roommate say not too far from where I sat.

He lay in bed with the lights off, his feet touching the floor.

“Are you… depressed?” I asked.

He’d had a rough day, worsened only by an arguably even rougher time installing our window units in our respective rooms. What initially seemed like our answer to the oppressive heat became nothing short of a tease.

Minutes after turning on our air conditioners, one of us fist-pumping in the noticeably cooler room, the power died.

Three times this happened, and each time the circuit breaker was unappeased by a change of outlet, an unplugged this or that, a lower setting. Three times we were doomed.

The first two instances I emerged from my room, laughing it off. “Must be a fluke,” I said. But by the third time it was clear it was a fruitless mission, the building far too old to simultaneously power two window units.

We talked to each other from our own rooms, too defeated for niceties.

“Are you sure it’s not unfair?” he said.

I’d just told him he should have his on for the night. I’d had an easy day and, despite it all, was in a great mood.

I paused.

“It’s fine.”

So there I was, wide awake at 4 a.m. unable to fall back asleep.

I’d say I tossed and turned, but that would have required too much energy. The sweat glands in parts of my body that I didn’t even know had sweat glands were working the night shift.

Memories of outages from simultaneous hair-drying with the former roommate resurfaced. If the circuit breaker couldn’t even take that, what made me think it could withstand two air conditioners?

My mind eventually wandered elsewhere.

I had delusions of camping out in the office. Of riding the air-conditioned subway ad infinitum. Of proposing to someone so long as he (or she) ensured we’d have properly insulated and cooled apartments in sickness and in health, and that we would move in together in that instant. Of mermaid transmogrification. Of cohabiting with my penguin brethren of the north (in the Bronx Zoo, that is).

When it’s hot, everything else is usurped by this predicament. Tossed aside are paying bills and cleaning the room you’ve neglected for months due to working too much and being out too much when you do find the time.

Googling the best places to position your fans and achieving sufficient airflow takes precedence. Which is what I did for hours, before and after my insomnia.

I was a barely functioning zombie for the rest of the day, though I somehow managed to churn out a story. I then decided to stay out that night long enough to render my body too tired to care about anything else but sleep when I returned.

It was an effective but costly endeavor. I’m still tired from it all.

Before you praise me for being an awesome roommate (which I am) and a lovely humanitarian (guilty, again), trust that my deed will not go unnoticed.

Just know the next time I have a crap day, and it’s ridiculously, sweltering hot out, my roommate better come bearing an inflatable pool, a bucket of rocky road ice cream, and an amazingly choreographed rain dance complete with artificial, strawberry-scented droplets.

He just doesn’t know it yet.

Edit: This entry made it to WordPress.com’s Freshly Pressed: “The best of 375,963 bloggers,404,641 new posts, 414,724 comments, & 98,932,991 words posted today on WordPress.com.”

Thank you for all the great comments! 

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64 thoughts on “The plight of the central air-challenged

  1. I can’t even IMAGINE this plight — I was once in New York City in July, and it was literally raining humidity without a cloud in the sky. I have never felt so uncomfortable in my life!

    I wish you luck — now and throughout the summer. But just think, some amazingly insightful writing may come from the sleepless nights, right?

    🙂

    Mikalee

    • This is true and fitting. Writing is suffering, after all. I’m crossing my fingers that this week’s highs of 70- and 80-something will stay awhile. You know it’s pretty bad when I refer to a totally gray overcast day as beautiful weather.

  2. I’m afraid I can relate. My partner and I lived in Haiti last year, where often we had no electricity—therefore, not only no AC, but no fan either! It was infernal. I eventually found a tiny battery operated fan on a trip home to the US–but damn–batteries just won’t power AC–even our generator didn’t work when there was a diesel shortage. Alas–very hot!
    Thanks for a fun, if infernal, post!
    Kathy

    • That sounds terrible and much worse than my week of misery. You’d think after growing up in the Philippines I’d have some kind of muscle memory of withstanding ridiculous heat, but no. I’ve been spoiled by the wonderful world of air conditioning. My name is Karen, and I’m a wuss. Thanks for visiting.

  3. Hahaha…found your blog on Freshly Pressed. Loved this post! It made me laugh. I’ve never been to NY, except to switch planes, but I hear that it really is unbearable hot and humid during the summer. I can only imagine. I went to New Orleans last year, and I thought I was going to die. (This coming from a girl that lived in Arizona!)

  4. You managed to write very well despite being exhausted. Congratulations on Fresh Pressed.
    I have faint memories of living without central air before my family moved into a newer house. I used to camp out in my sister’s room because she had a window unit and I didn’t.

    • I didn’t manage to flesh this out until last night, when it was a cool 65 degrees out. It was glorious and conducive to forming coherent sentences. Good tip. I might try camping out in my roommate’s room if all else fails.

  5. No air-conditioning in my house. Of course, it’s not often we get to see the sun in Britain. When we do have a heatwave, we all boil! The last place I worked, aircon always seemed broken in summer and on in winter. It’d be below zero temperature and not only would the aircon be on but someone across from me would have a big fan blowing on them.

    Great article.

  6. I am lucky to be one of the central-air haves. Living in Baltimore, we are dealing with very similar conditions. Despite our unit in the basement, charged with delivering coolness to our living space, we struggled to get through last week as well. I hope the past 7 days are not indicative of the next 3 months…selfishly for my sake, but also for yours. Nice post and congrats on FP!

    • I envy your havedom. My boyfriend actually lives in Baltimore, and he at times taunted me with comments like, “It’s so nice and cold in my apartment. I need a blanket.” I promptly reevaluated our relationship. Here’s to cooler days.

    • That would be absolutely genius. If Uniqlo can have heat-generating clothing, why can’t we have cooling clothes activated by bodily fluids? Someone somewhere has already patented this, I just know it.

  7. I love this post – found via Freshly Pressed.

    London has some hot nights but nothing on that order of magnitude. Although, the big kicker for me when I lived there was being in a ground floor flat and thus not able to have any window open. That’s pretty uncomfortable. And I swear the tube trains are a health issue in the summer heat – very little ventilation, let alone aircon.

    My worst night ever was the Borneo jungle with only fans. It was 38C and fans just didn’t cut it with the steaming humidity. So I have some inkling of your pain but at least it was just for a few days.

    • We have transplanted Londoners in the office, and apparently bragging to friends back home about how hot it is here is the thing to do. One new transplant was surprised when people responded to her excitement over last week’s 100-degree weather with, rather than envy, disgust. I don’t know if I could take perpetual gray, but living in an oven isn’t my thing either. Happy medium, please!

  8. Love your post, nice kind of comic humour that you add to your own pain.
    Would you take the conrast? Yesterday in the Northern half of the UK we had to use our central heating yesterday, it was that cold, windows shut, doors closed, and pouring with rain all through the day.
    The house does get quite cold, I know this is no help to you but I want you to be aware of how much we all suffer in similar ways.
    Ah but the dreaded wet patch of sweat, I was in your City over New Year and I did get to thinking about how hot it might be in the Summer months. I was thinking that as my ears were almost severed from my head as the biting wind of the Hudson hit the top deck of the tour boat on my sightseeing journey.
    PS. We don’t have air con here, we just don’t need it as it’s always on the cool side, we leave that for them London types….

  9. I can relate. I was without air conditioning for a while last summer. It’s an absolute necessity here in DC! How did we ever live without it. The AC is working great this year and I hope it goes without incident this summer. Please, please Mr. AC keep working.

  10. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! Love your post–as a late-50s woman living in humid Atlantic Canada I feel your pain. I spend the summer soaked to the skin without doing ANYTHING at all! Makes life very uncomfortable at times, for sure. Maybe you need to find a different apartment now that you’re becoming famous…LOL Hope you get to use the air-conditioner tonight.

    • Ah, Freshly Pressed fame, while thrilling, is fleeting. I am sure to be forgotten tomorrow. Luckily, I get $10 per comment, so please keep them coming. I need central air!

      (Sidenote: I may or may not be lying. The heat has gotten to me.)

  11. As a Southerner without central heat or central air (small apartment in a historic home), I feel your pain! Kudos on not letting the heat stifle your creativity, which has always been a challenge for me!

  12. I grew up in Philadelphia in a tiny, west-facing row house on the corner of Working Class and What’s A Garbage Disposal and I recall those nights all too well. August is misery in a place like that. Sometimes I think that east coasters without money love fall not only because of the fall color but because AUGUST IS AS FAR AWAY AS IT WILL EVER GODDAMNED GET in fall.

    My mom still lives in that house, and at the age of 77, she FINALLY has an air conditioner — a loud, box-in-the-window air conditioner that is better than anything we had when all of of were living there. That roaring window-bound monstrosity is a luxury for her. At least she can eat and sleep in relative comfort, despite the noise.

    • It’s amazing how quickly you can tune things out, though. When I first moved in, my radiator kept me up at night in the winter. A week or so later I forgot all about it. That rattling fan I mentioned in the entry? I only notice it when it’s pointed out to me. I’m sure your mom is relishing her newfound comfort. Good for her.

  13. I was sweating reading your post! I have no a/c either up here in the CT sticks and inbetween counting sweat droplets on a hot night, I count how many tree frogs murmur in the humidity in their hot country pond. Great post.

  14. i live in iowa…last week we had 3 days straight of 95-102 degree weather, and very high humidity. my hair could have nested a robin and some eggs, my body was perpetually sweaty, and cool showers were a must. and air conditioning.

  15. Wait!!! You have air conditioned subways?!??!!!!! What luxury!! What advance in technology!! Here is London we chug along in overpriced and under-performing victorian tube lines where there is no air conditioning to be had anywhere. Not at the stations- not on the trains. Some even have limited opening windows. I am in awe.

  16. Congrats on your Freshly Pressed status! We’re in Toronto, and we get some pretty notoriously steamy days. Currently, we have a south-facing apartment and a floor unit a/c beast. On the very worst days, it’ll cool you off if you stand right next to it. Reading your post reminded me of suffering through summer in Ottawa with nary the thought of an air conditioner (my loudest roommate was also a hippie). We’d sit in the living room with every window cranked wide, trying to move as little as possible, gasping from the humidity. Ah, college life!

  17. I’ll trade your humid apartment and cultural hub (New York) for my air conditioned small town suburb with little to nothing to do in the city.

    Honestly, I’m a bit spoiled by comfortable living.

    Thanks for the awesome read.

  18. I’m sweating as I read this. I live in San Diego where most of the time, we don’t need the air conditioning. But there are those hot weekends where it’s unbearable. I can’t even imagine how you do it without air if I’m complaining about a measly weekend without air. Days like that I just sit in my car!

  19. I was smiling the whole time I was reading your post. Partly because it was entertaining and your writing is great, and partly because I was brought back to my younger days on Long Island sharing my bedroom with my two sisters and sleeping with the window open hoping for just puff of air to find its way into the room

    Don’t worry, snow will be

  20. This hits close to home. Last year I moved to the lovely Old NE district of St. Petersburg, and while the houses age make them great to look at, it also makes them too old for central air. My windows are permanently open, usually with two fans swinging full bore. (Overhead and oscillating.) Driving down the street today the temp read: 106.

    Keep telling myself, “I love FL, I love FL…”

    • I’ve always preferred old houses with character to condos devoid of personality. Last week, though, I found myself saying on more than one occasion: Screw character. Condos have a/c. I want to go to there.

  21. Funny, I have been missing the city a great deal lately and your post reminded me of one thing I don’t miss at all. I remember well living in a walk up and feeling more defeated with each step as the heat raced me up the stairs and filled my tiny, crowded apartment before I could step through the door. I had a similar apartment in which I could not make toast and coffee at the same time! I never dared an AC unit. Good luck this summer and keep writing!

  22. Here in Australia, we only brand new places are have central air. My unit in central Sydney has 3 split systems. They are on for most of the summer because I, like you, simply can’t cope when it’s 40c outside and even the breeze is hot. Air cond is like an oasis. I wonder how the greenies are going to cope when we all refuse to eat rather than give up our air cond!

  23. I remember living in a house with old wiring. Once my mom paniced because she had the window unit and the microwave on at the same time, in the same room! That could have easily blown a fuse. Now we have central AC, but don’t need it much here in norhtern IL. Usually a ceiling fan is enough. They can be almost as good as air conditioning and are much easier on the fuse box.

  24. I love this post. I thought I was the only person who became unable to cope in the oppressive heat. Seriously, I can’t sleep if my fan goes off. I once slept through a nearby tornado, but if the fan goes off my eyes snap open!

    It’s so nice that you respond to so many of your comments.

  25. After the monsoon-like rain that drenched my small town relentlessly yesterday, I a little taken aback that New York would be so hot right now. Though I was once in Toronto (which I understand to have a similar over-heating plight come summer) in January and walking around downtown in just a t-shirt, which was even more surprising.

    I guess endless popsicles, iced-foot baths, wet towels (I like to put one across the back of my neck when it’s too hot for sleep to be forthcoming), and minimal clothing are all in your future. Best of luck to you!

  26. I’ve spent many years in NYC; Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn. Staying cool in summer was always an issue. Having to change clothes numerous times in a day. Body spray and deodorant always in my pocketbook. Running under the kid-sprinklers in the playground. Going to the pool in Sunset Park. Eating large amounts of shrimp ceviche. Running in and out of designers stores which blast A/C out into the streets, hoping not to get pneumonia for the 2nd time. Dying to get the hell outta’ NY.

    Finally did. Just moved to France. But, guess what, most don’t use A/C’s here. x_X
    My building was built in the effing 1400’s.
    Going green…..

    Loved this post! Thanks.

  27. Oh, wow. You described my plight last week in Philadelphia. Two roommates and the top floor of the building makes for an unbearable night…actually a week of unbearable nights. Hope the temperature drops, if only for your sake!

  28. Brilliant post, it made me think twice about complaining about my sweltering walk home in an er…measly….23C (UK)! I was in New York this time last year – I pretty much only had the energy to utter a “phooooof”! Love your writing style.

  29. I can completely relate, being in West Michigan, the “Great Lakes State.” Heat + humidity = ugh!

    I often think of those pioneer women, trudging behind the oxen cart in their head to toe attire, making the trek across America in this heat. No wonder the average life expectancy was only about 42.

    You were awfully sweet to your room-mate. 🙂

    Cheers! MJ

  30. Last summer a heat wave hit Ottawa where I was living and baked us with 42-degress-in-the-shade sunshine for about a week. My boyfriend and I were living in an upstairs apartment at the time with broken central air that we had been assured when we moved in (April) would be fixed within the month. NOT. Too broke to buy a window unit, we lasted out the week by filling a cooler with a couple bags of ice and magyvering a lid for it so that we could rig up the fan to blow into the cooler and shoot cold air at the bed just long enough for both of us to fall asleep comfortably. Hurrah!

  31. Congrats, girl!

    I will email you my AC advice–it’s the only way we can bear it. And if all else fails, drop me a text and come on over. No central air but we manage ok. It’s worth the 2 block “hike” lol.

  32. I was hooked from the first sentence. New York is the land of the haves and the have not’s in so many more ways than just A/C, isn’t it? I never thought if it like that. I love the way you made me completely understand the way something like a broken air conditioner in the sweltering summer can consume every inch of your brain. And I love all the little thoughts that cropped up inside your head while you tried to sleep or think of a life Before and After the heat wave.

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