It probably is not much different now. Growing up, when the summer came everyone (well not everyone but most) seemed to hightail it out of the city and go somewhere cooler, greener, and happier. Summers in the city, when you don’t live in a nice luxury (or what now passes for luxury) apartment, can be brutal. We of course did not have air conditioning. It was windows open, hopefully with a screen to keep out the bugs and the flying garbage, and that was it. You were on your own. I remember trying to sleep some nights when we were in town during the summer, and imagining I was in the depths of India on some safari or something. Sweat pouring off of me, swatting at the very sneaky mosquitoes that managed somehow to make it pass the screens (they always made it past the screens), swooping around your ears as you tried to sleep, giving off that vibrating high-pitched tone that signaled an imminent attack; it was a wonder I ever got any sleep at all. Walking the streets, Manhattan resembled a ghost town. Besides the always present traffic on the streets and avenues, the sidewalks held few people, only the sagging, bedraggled sweaty losers that couldn’t get away. I suppose it was a good time to get a reservation at a fancy restaurant you could never get into otherwise, but that kind of thing we simply didn’t do. Who could afford a fancy restaurant, summer or no summer? The fire hydrants on every street would be turned on, by whom I am not sure. I remember when it got really bad, the cops would turn them on to bring some relief to the kids playing stickball on the grimy streets. Other times I remember the Water Department coming along in white trucks to turn them off, and admonishing us to stop wasting water. We all liked the cops better.
Relief sometimes came when you got lucky enough to go to a movie. It didn’t matter if the film was any good at all; it was enough that when you walked into the place, you were hit with a wave of ice-cold air that literally shocked you. By the time the previews were over, you were shivering from the cold, but that was OK because you knew what waited you outside. Back then the movie companies would have marathons of popular though maybe not first run films, and if you had the time, you could escape the heat for a good eight hours spending the day with Clint Eastwood, or Charles Bronson. Movie theaters actually spotlighted their air conditioning, with marketing campaigns that lured you into the frigid dark to escape, and it worked more often than not.
In our apartment, Dad would have a number of box fans going all night long. He would sit in a chase lounge chair most suited for the beach, the couch being way too heavy and warm to sit in while watching television. We would sprawl on the floor laying directly in front of one of the fans, reluctant to move even when nature called. And for a real treat, every once in a while we would take a walk in the evening to Bruno’s bakery on Lafayette street that also served the most delicious, smooth Lemon Ice in existence. We would slurp it up so fast the brain freeze would immediately take hold, making us dizzy, but not enough to stop us from slurping.
Early mornings and evenings were of course the best times to be out and about. In the mornings, shop owners would be hosing down the sidewalks in front of their stores, the breeze from the Hudson River would cool the streets, and the smell of Espresso and freshly baked bread would permeate the Village. Evenings were for long walks, Lemon Ice and maybe taking a fifty cent ride on the Staten Island Ferry, a great cheap way to escape the heat and get a nice view of the city we lived in. Interesting to get outside and look back to see just how big and majestic the city was that we lived in. In our apartment, in our neighborhood, there was no sense of the size of the city; you just lived your life on your own familiar streets. But on the ferry, you saw your home for what it was: a huge metropolis full of skyscrapers gleaming with glass and steel. It was ever-changing, ever-growing; it was those moments when you realized you were a very small part of something way larger, most of which you had never experienced. On those hot summer nights with the welcome breeze the harbor would give, the lesson was unmistakable, like looking up into the night sky and seeing the stars and planets.
And like those stars that dazzle on clear nights, the lights of the city sparkled with promise and awe, as well as a rea sense of proportion. And small as our place was in the great metropolis or for that matter the universe itself, it felt good to be a part of it all.