Monday, June 16, 2008

Air-Conditioned Anonymity

Listening to NPR on the ride to work this morning performed it usual magic - made me stop and think. An interview with a Floridian native who was cleaning up once again after a storm and living without benefit of electric central air conditioning for a short time sparked a memory of childhood and summertime.

Growing up, our family did not have central air conditioning. We did have central heat by the time I was in the 7th grade as well as a couple of electric AC units that were fitted into a window, but for the most part, our windows and doors were open during warm seasons. My mom would predict dire financial consequences if we turned the AC units on before 9:00 pm of a day, and earlier in the summer than the fourth of July. Dad wasn't made of money, you know.

Sitting in our living room, I could look across the street at the Johnson's house. Every weekday evening, Dale and Janet had to practice their organ lessons, and the neighborhood would be treated to strains of " How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?", or "Yellow Bird". If I sat just right on the front stoop, I could see the Johnson kids sitting at the electric organ, their backs nice and straight, and yellow lamplight spilling onto the music page opened before them and their cotton-topped heads. Fortunately for me and the whole block, the siblings were talented at the keyboard.

Out on their front porch swing, the Sagstetters enjoyed ringside seats. They seldom spoke aloud, enjoying the breeze and the magical communication long-married people understand. It was often embarrassing to say or do something stupid only to realize the two of them had been watching us play all evening. We were never chastized to get off their nice soft cool St. Augustine grass, and it was a favorite place.

Running and playing "Piggy Wants a Signal" at night through several neighboring yards would be accompanied by the zinging of bullets from the guns of the televised ranching Cartwright family, or Topo Gigo puppeting jokes with Ed Sullivan. Occasionally, you would hear a heated husband and wife argument. We didn't pause long to listen to these; even at a young age, we knew it was impolite to do so and would quickly find another yard to gambol in.

Early in the evenings, you could hear pots and pans clanging, and smell the aroma of suppers in the making. We knew who was having fried chicken and potatoes smothered in onions, or corned beef and cabbage, the enticing aromas working very favorably when manuervering an invite to stay and eat. No wristwatch was ever needed because sooner or later, someone's mom yelled for them to come in. We usually took that as a general call to baths for everyone and made our way to our own front doors.

Lying in bed, I could hear dads closing up the garages, pulling the big wooden doors down with a creak of the springs, a slam, then the click of a sliding bolt being latched. A few moms would still be at the kitchen sink, cleaning up the dishes, water running and cabinets shutting. Front yards grew dark, one by one, and the crickets took up their nightly chorus. Late night news would whisper out from an opened window, updates from the jungles of Viet Nam or a commercial encouraging you to see the USA in a Chevrolet.

Today, we live in airtight, closed off houses, with integrated alarm systems and high privacy fences. Cars are driven into garages with electronic openers and closed just as silently behind us. You can go for weeks without hearing or seeing much more of your neighbors than the phantom car departures and arrivals. No children play outside on front lawns, no moms call out familiar names, and no smells of any kind emanate from a screened back door opened for a chance of a cool breeze. Once, I could pedal my bike down my entire street - some 8 or more blocks and tell you who lived in at least every other house. Now, I am lucky if I know the name of more than one or two neighbors.

When Kman and I walk in the evenings after supper, there are no children out playing, no human sounds. Just the hum of powerful outside AC compressors and the occasional pool pump, keeping the water sparkling for unseen swimmers.


tod said...

You might be surprised to know that growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the sixties was very similar. We rode our bikes all through the streets until dinner time, when, one by one we'd return to our apartments. We knew everyone in the neighborhood. All the cops and storekeepers and doormen, all of whom looked out for us. Our parents weren't worried that some nut was going to swipe us in broad daylight.

We were beckoned to see the USA in a Chevrolet by the same commercials the rest of America watched, and we witnessed the Vietnam body count every night on the news. That's one of the most indelible memories of my Vietnam era childhood. That and worrying about the draft as it approached during my teenage years.

I was just thinking the other day about how I used to walk to school with my friends when I was seven years old. Now I wouldn't let my twelve year old walk to school without protection. Sad indeed!

Mildred Garfield said...

When I was growing up we did not even have fans and now that I think of it, I do not remember being hot!

I live in a Condo now and find the living easy, neighbors friendly, mailman knows my name, have a maintenance man to help if I need any kind of assistance. Not only do I have an air conditioned unit, I have fans too. "I have come a long way, baby'"

When I was living in my house I was isolated. Did not know the neighbors, no opportunity to meet new people and was responsible for house maintenance.
When I was growing up did not realize the things that I did not have but I knew I had a loving family and a great neigborhood, we played together,ate together and shared what we had.

The kids today are missing out,they have a great deal of material things but they do not have what we had, that is priceless.


Kimberly said...

While I grew up in Houston with central AC, I do remember spending lots of summer days and evenings outside with the many other children in our neighborhood.

When we moved to Seattle, we bought an old house in one of the older neighborhoods here. The city blocks are small, and the houses were built fairly close together. Air conditioning is not needed in our climate, but the summers are warm enough that we keep windows open 24 hours a day. We hear our neighbors' telephones and doors, their children and pets, their music. I get a little sad when fall comes, and we close up the house to keep in the heat. I wish that, in doing so, we weren't shutting out the sounds of our neighborhood.

Hokule'a said...

yes you brought back memories. I lived in a neighborhood just like that in a suburb of Los Angeles where I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. Only from November (the coldest driest month surprisingly) till January when we would have a hot spell them maybe wed close up but my folks were fresh air people and we lived outside the widows were always open...We all knew each other and played till dark on long summer evenings

Here in Hawaii at least on this street we leave the windows and doors open about the same months at night but days are wide open. I wish I could say we hear happy noises on the block, but we dont... We hear Boom Box cars and cursing and fighting next door and accross the street, and an occasional phone. It looks like tropical pleasentville but I dont "hear" it... I hear chained up dogs and a child I think two streets over that is hit all the time. I would turn them in if I could pinpoint where! There is none of the city background noises that mask sounds so a barking dog can be heard a half mile away in a calm moment. When nothing is happening it is so still that I can hear my own breathing. I hardly ever see children playing outside, I think that is so weird and is another thing we find so odd about this place that we love but do not understand...

Elisson said...

Your post brought me back to my growin’ up days on Long Island. Back then, it was making the transition from “nothing” to “suburbia” and it was still a quiet, comfortable place. A neighborhood. There wasn’t a street in town that I didn’t know, no place where I felt unsafe. We kids would play in the “woods” - the empty lots where no houses yet sat - and would come home when our mothers called us from the back door.

Now I can take a walk in the neighborhood with SWMBO and see one, maybe two people out of doors. Jogging, usually. No time to talk, gotta sweat.

Yeah, I guess our existence is more sterile in some ways nowadays. But I’d sure hate to think of life in Texas before A.C. Holy mackerel. Nine months of sheer hell.

Of course, that’s when only Texans lived in Texas...

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed your post. I'm a Texas girl too and your description of life certainly sounded familiar. What a carefree and innocent time. We had an "evaporative cooler" we used on the hottest days of the summer. Our house had an attic fan that was used at night. I still remember the curtains over the windows billowing away from the open windows when that fan was on. Funny, I don't remember it being so very hot back then.


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joared said...

We didn't have AC either when I was growing up in Ohio and elsewhere. In fact, never had it until about '69 when we had evap cooling in AZ, and got the real AC about 3 yrs later. Yeah, there was more neighborhood interaction those years ago -- if you lived in town.

Peter said...

Today it's increasingly rare to see children riding bicycles. Even as recently as 20 years ago it was a common sight. Not anymore.

la peregrina said...

Growing up in Denver I remember having a portable evaporating cooler (swamp cooler) that would sit right in front of the living room window and then was moved to the upstairs hall at night. Things have changed since then. My sister has a swamp cooler on top of her house and many days she has to turn it off because it is too humid outside for it to work correctly. We never had that problem when I was a kid.