Blindfolded, deafened, gone for more than 30 years, I think a native could return to Louisiana in the thick of summer, depart a plane at Louis Armstrong, inhale once and know exactly where he was. Despite the cliché, there is “something in the air” here, yes mostly humidity and probably some indisputable carcinogens, but something else in that first sauna breath you take–The one that wets your lungs with tiny beads of moisture and probably all your other organs too. That first thankless inhale of steam disguised as air: it’s as distinct as the creeping surprise of the Vegas lights after endless, sleepy desert, unmistakable as the New York City skyline, tangible as the feeling of velvet soft sand on your feet in Destin, once again–it’s always the same. Maybe there’s where the comfort lies. No one ever doubted New Orleans is one city in the country with what we’d call ‘personality’, which is rare in itself, but that you can feel this elusive, geometric charm and how quickly it engages with you, within your first breath of arrival! It’s one reason I love calling this place home. I like the certainty of knowing just where you are. It’s maybe why Percy’s The Moviegoer is so perfectly set in New Orleans (and surrounding areas) for Binx Bingsley, whose fear is being a nobody, nowhere, or anywhere. He wants to be Somebody, Somewhere. And that characters angst always resonates with me when I’m doing something so Louisiana particular. Even it’s just arriving at the airport.
This is not to say there is charm in 98 degrees with 100% humidity and a “feels like temperature of 112!” laughs the thick banged weather lady. With certainty, this place is a gym sock in the summer. I’m writing from inside a gym sock. The cicadas drone outside, another distinct assurance you are where you think you are, their shriek understandably creepy to newcomers, but I think they’re mostly carrying on about the heat, like the rest of us. There’s also the two weeks of swarming termites, and cock roaches, and mosquitos the size of so and so, but it’s all a part of the agreement of summer and survival and Louisiana. You do actually have to make sacrifice to live here, bear things other places do not and would not bear, but somehow it adds to the solidarity of being a citizen here, like you must earn it if you weren’t born in it, and if you were, you might not see any novelty in what I’m mentioning at all. Maybe it’s that I didn’t always live here, had to re-gain my Southernness that I appreciate otherwise somewhat awful things, but even awful things can be special.
The weather is usually such a boring topic of conversation–a fill in topic with people on an elevator or someone you have absolutely nothing in common with. “Gosh..it’s so hot outside.” “Oh my gosh, I know, I was just telling Jerry here that I soaked through my shirt yesterday and you could see everything!” But the heat of summer in New Orleans isn’t weather. It’s air that was once alive and now is dead. Stagnant with no mercy, demanding that you find the least amount of clothes to wear while maintaining some amount of dignity, which has always been hard to do, but comes naturally to true Southern Belles. Especially the elderly ones with the delicate hankies for their brow. The ones with the good stories, who have almost literally seen it all. Their growling, thin-lipped faces, hardly tainted by the heat, probably look at people like me and mine in our cropped, spaghetti-strap tank tops and cut off jean shorts and think “What a shame. The decay of the Southern Woman.”
While it’s true my mom and grandmother actually did walk to school in the snow, Southern women lived when donning multiple layers of clothing was basically required, even in Summer. And if that weren’t enough, they persevered without air conditioning. How? Why? How? This makes me feel like even more of a pansy than I already consider myself, which is pretty high up there on the pansy scale. I call the air stagnant now, but how can when I have the ice-cold relief of entering an air-conditioned building or house, where I then actually get cold and require my handy feather-weight Gap cardigan! How did they do it? After three summers, why didn’t they head for Cali? They must’ve seen telegraphs about 75 degree weather year round! I imagine New Orleans on a beach and think it’d be by far the greatest city of the world, but of course, Louisiana could never ‘happen’ in California. We’re mossy and swampy but formal and demure, not palm tree’d and beachy and board shorted. And yet, we live on a coast. Which is disappearing! The excitement of it all!
It’s not just the stagnancy of air, but of people. Here in the dead pit of Summer, you see them in their cars at stop lights, tired eyes squinting because despite whatever direction they’re facing the sun always seems to be in their eyes, shining at them. Yelling if it could. If you took a photo of one of these persons, and I have been this person, it would be in black and white, evoking the feelings of depression-era photographs, and the caption at the bottom would have one word: “Why?” Condemned. That’s how they look. One degree from driving off the next bridge.
My house can’t cool off during the hours of 1 and 3. The AC just can’t keep up. Monty lies on the tile and pants the entire time, not even bothering for me to play with him because neither of our bodies could withstand the exertion while being smothered by a steam shower we never asked to take. You always forget how intense this heat is. “It’s just this humidity!” any tourist will tell you. And actually most locals will too. Despite the extended Louisiana summer unfolding somewhere near to this climate for at least the last hundred years, and it’s still boasted like humidity is new to the menu. Like El Nino is just making things crazy! And yes I know, we’ve had some actual El Nino and last year was the hottest year on record. But still, the difference between 92 and 96 degrees is slightly felt when you’re out under the sun. Even the Wal-Greens clerk reminds me, “Try to stay cool!” and I answer the same thing every time, feeling like I’m out of the fifties. I’ll do my best! Then I walk self-consciously to my car thinking how stupid a response that was.
Have we been commenting on the heat for the last 127 years? It’s possible. Nothing wrong with recurring conversation topics that survive the decades. I guess I’d rather not get into politics with the Walgreens clerk as I’m buying deodorant and Head and Shoulders. And why do I care anyway? This is just turning ironic because now I’ve written 1500 words on a subject I am questioning the very interest of and expecting somebody to read and find this interesting! Oh jeez. We’ve gone meta. Anyway.
I used to think Summer weather here was basically miserable, except that it provided an atmosphere appropriate for swimming, nearly required for swimming, which I have always loved. But I’ve come to appreciate it in new ways for a few possible reasons. One is probably because I’ve been feeling better, and when I think of the Winter, how I was sick and stuck indoors, cold with no recreation, I’m just glad it’s here– in all its steamy, hot-breathed glory. Whenever I return from a trip and step outside the airport, the first breath is almost the opposite of one. First you lose it, then you breath it back in, and this misty breath will always evoke home to me, and I feel grateful for the oxygenated relic. Maybe because I know or assume it will always be there- June through September at least- and it’s something you have to tough out. You don’t get to stay and party for free. Lot’s of people will come and go, speak about intolerable heat with good reason. And that makes me like it more. You know you have a clan of people who you’ll endure this heat with for four months, as though heat itself were some sort of natural disaster. And there’s a communal, club-like feeling to this. OK clearly I’m reaching. It’s not special, I know. For God’s sake, I’m talking about breathing air! I’ve just never encountered the immediate, difficult, distinctive Louisiana air anywhere else, or anything close to it. Louisiana has its own texture and smell and density, the tension of our past/present invigorates it as much as the coming summer storms. It’s all in there. I don’t have the answer for how. But Gary Zuckav says that the Universe is alive. He says there is an “earth consciousness that guides the cycle of life.” When I think of the ocean and all its functions and how it knows to operate certain ways, these words make perfect sense. At the airport breathing, (gasping) sensing something more than air, waiting for my ride, I hear his words with perfect clarity.
Health, Happiness, Heat
And this humidity!!