Local Dispatch: Cool city-dwellers face real challenge beating the heat

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As a child, I looked forward to my annual summer vacation with the zeal of a Crusader attempting to reclaim the Holy Land.

There was seldom a cloud in the bright blue sky and no yellow school bus to whisk my younger siblings and I away. Languorous breezes rustled green cornstalks at regular intervals. They seemed to speak to me:

"Carpe diem."

"Remember your sunscreen."

"Don't tease your brother."

Our days were spent running through sprinklers or plucking fresh snap peas from a garden bursting with fresh produce. There were Barbies to send on imaginary road trips, and Transformer toys to battle the epic forces of evil upon the lawn. It was Indiana, Pa., in the mid-1980s. There were real-world battles somewhere out there -- Iran-Contra, famine in Ethiopia, nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. Somehow it all seemed so far away.

My last few summers brought me to Pittsburgh, which possesses its own share of enchantment (and this does not include rush hour on the Parkway).

One can hike the trails of Frick Park. Catch a free concert at Schenley Plaza or Hartwood Acres. Stroll along the North Shore where the city lights are reflected in the still waters of the Allegheny, a view so beautiful as to rival the Seine of Paris.

What is there not to love about summer in the city?

Well, just to name two: heat waves and tiny apartments in buildings where tenants remain largely anonymous to one another.

Many apartment-dwellers get to know one another only through a shifting constellation of auditory and olfactory information, perceptible through too-thin walls and open windows. 3B, for example, has a penchant for chicken curry, death metal and late night arguments replete with crashing dinner plates. And 7A? The smell of fresh Lysol and Domino's pizza and the sound of deafeningly loud Steelers games.

Propriety demands that one navigate the sensory bazaar that is a summer heat wave in the city with a certain kind of decorum. As anybody who has ever had to schlep up the steep portion of Negley Avenue on a 105-degree day can attest, this can be difficult under duress. Our last heat wave would make even the most sanguine of neighbors a little kooky. (Imagine Fred Rogers arriving home to his tin can tinderbox of an apartment, throwing his trademark cardigan and most likely malodorous walking shoes at the first guest to knock upon the door.)

I'm sure there are effective ways to stay cool, calm and collected. One might, for example, install an air conditioner or a few window fans. Caveat emptor: I've not been lucky with this route. After 10 minutes my air conditioners have always begun to smoke, sputter and speak in tongues, like something from "The Exorcist."

And the window fans?

Forget it. They cause an already-fragile situation to further deteriorate by sucking in noxious odors from below. While "Name That Smell" can prove an amusing game for intrepid apartment guests, it can also have the untoward effect of reducing one's social circle considerably.

"Cranberry scones!" a game participant shouts, wistfully.

"Fresh lavender with a hint of tuberose!" responds another, without a hint of irony.

"Carbon monoxide from the Oakland bus with an infusion of rotting potato scraps, infused with eau de diaper from the alley dumpster?"

Bing, bing, bing!

Last year, I tried to solve my overheating problem by getting into hot yoga. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. After about half an hour of twisting and turning, flanked by classmates in spandex hot pants, all I could think of was Dante's "Inferno." In this famous Italian poem from the 14th century, the author undergoes a journey through the nine circles of hell, surrounded by heat and humidity and contorted souls.

Eventually I gave up. I purchased a gym membership and a Citiparks pool pass. At first, I feared drowning, sunburn, staph, athlete's foot, electrocution. After a few visits, I came to understand the only thing one should fear is fear itself. And, perhaps, young children in snorkel masks and flippers.

And at long last, I did find nirvana -- in the form of a water-sprinkling, towering mushroom at the Bloomfield pool on a three-digit degree day.


Marthe Weyandt, an Indiana, Pa., yoga instuctor and former Shadyside resident, can be reached at martheweyandt@yahoo.com. The PG Portfolio welcomes "Local Dispatch" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein: 412-263-1255.


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