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an incomplete taxonomy of air-conditioning
ranking different types of cold air in no particular order
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Shopping mall air conditioning
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This one is first because it’s the platonic ideal of air-conditioning, the air-conditioning to which all other air-conditioning refers. Anyone who puts an air-conditioner into a space is trying at least in some small way to turn that space into a mall. The mall is too robust a metaphor, too convenient a point in any number of arguments, to ever hold a fixed meaning. But whatever the mall means, air-conditioning is at the heart of it. It is the thing that makes the mall the mall.
In London, I have sometimes ended up, through a process that felt not entirely voluntary, at the Westfield Mall. Westfield is perhaps the single most American place I have ever been, including anywhere actually in America. Malls, of course, exist outside of America, and so does air-conditioning, but whenever I go into a heavily air-conditioned mall in another country, it’s like hearing someone across a crowded room speaking California-accented English. All the sins and traces of where I’m from, all the things I carry despite efforts to put them down, rise back up, a sick and easy homecoming.
Westfield is like if a mall dressed as a mall for Halloween, like if three malls stood on each other’s shoulders in a trench-coat to try to fake their way into a job as a mall. Everything in it is too blank and too white and too vast. Everything at Westfield seems to want to make you comfortable and actually wants to make you angry. Soft music is always playing, and a child is always throwing up near you, and something is always on sale. You can always smell food and the food smells just ok yet still makes you hungry even though you’re not actually hungry. London has very little air-conditioning, and possibly that’s because Westfield is using the entire city’s supply of it.
Everything at Westfield is about want, and nothing is about bodies. Mall air-conditioning is the dream of being able to want things without having to admit it is your sticky, sweaty, soggy body doing the wanting. This is the same dream as money, desire unweighted and without human consequences, always sowing and never reaping. When I leave the mall, for a few minutes I am overjoyed to be back outside in the weather and aware of my own skin. Outside, it’s a thrill to be able to experience consequences again.
That’s what the body is, after all: an endless slapstick staircase of consequences, banana peel after banana peel. We accumulate our own lives and eventually they show on our faces, in our posture, in our torn-up feet and our bad knees. Mall air-conditioning says all of this is optional. Mall air-conditioning is the opposite of the body. But perhaps the best thing about mall air-conditioning is that if I spend enough time in it, I emerge to feel grateful for my own horror-show of a skin sack, happy to stand outside in the bad humid air and sweat about all the consequences of everything I have ever done.
The air-conditioner in the window in my small apartment
Everyone is trying so hard, and everything is so much harder than it should be. I hate to be sweaty and I’m sweaty all the time. Whenever I’m really jealous of someone I decide that they must be one of those people who doesn’t ever sweat. There isn’t any way to romanticize being sweaty, or rather there are lots and lots of ways, writing and television and pornography and pop music and all of them are lies. In hot weather everything is a body, even the stuff that isn’t a body is a body. Every surface in my apartment accumulates dust and all of the dust sticks to my body and tells me that I’m disgusting. Our homes are where there is no escape from ourselves. Everything is too familiar, everything is too weighted down with history, and all of it sweats so much.
A window air-conditioner in a small apartment is about trying so hard and not quite getting it right. It is about the long days on the couch, the drowned afternoon in the heat when I should do something but I do nothing instead. It’s hours at a desk where nothing happens, in front of an unyielding screen that refuses to help. It’s the way that comfort and self-sabotage often look so similar and sit so close together that it can be impossible to tell them apart at all.
A window air-conditioner in a small apartment is about temporary relief, and awkward mercies. It’s about love, its long ongoing, what it carries and what it leaves behind, how it continues, and what its bargains are. Love is early on and at a distance is clean and cool like a cold shower on a hot day. Up close and when it’s gone on for a long time, it’s like the least ventilated part of a tiny apartment. We are so sweaty in here together, pressed up against each other, in long love flush with the horror of our own bodies. The window air-conditioner is loud and sometimes it works but even when it works it one part of the apartment is too cold and one part is too warm. Installing it is dangerous and leaving it in the window blocks the view.
Everything we love is a bargain; every place we stay means giving up on something else. Each time I decide what matters to me, I shut down the world smaller. Each time I am lucky enough to choose which room I go into, I close the doors on other rooms and other places. Love is a cramped, sweaty room where the air-conditioner is trying its best but can do nothing. It is what we accumulate in these rooms when we stay in them, the sweat and the dust, the bodies and their consequences, the frustrated roar of the fake cold air machine that can do nothing about it.
The air-conditioner in the window at a house-party
Oh, but sometimes it’s so good to fail. Sometimes being disgusting, being none of the things we were supposed to be, just feels so good.
A friend once said that the reasons people love you are always the exact opposite of the reasons you think people love you. The stuff you think is lovable about yourself is usually the stuff that your friends grudgingly tolerate. She said this at a party in an apartment with a low ceiling where I was wearing tall heels that I hadn’t taken off inside and when I had stood up the little lights strung across the ceiling had gotten caught in my hair and I had started across the room taking multiple strings of lights with me and two people had had to help get me untangled. I don’t believe love works like it does in a movie but I think sometimes at a party the lie that any part of life is like the movies gets to hold for maybe an hour or two. That’s the point of a party, and the light in it, and the air-conditioner in the corner that never works at all.
The little window air-conditioner in a city apartment can do nothing against the crush and swarm of bodies at a good party. It shouldn’t be able to. We love people most when they embarrass themselves, when they show their soft bellies, when they feel least lovable, when the sweat stains print on their clothes and the party decorations get caught in their hair. The failure of the window air-conditioner at a house party is this sort of wide-armed love. Failure makes room for grace; grace and love and failure crowd into the kitchen at somebody else’s house, trying to hear the good gossip.
It all seems like such a bad idea. Why pile into a room on a hot day, why try to have a conversation in a loud place, why eat in front of other people, why wear high heels inside a house, why set yourself up for embarrassment, for disappointment, for the tyranny of all the precarious objects in a room? Why do any of this at all? Why go to a house party on a summer day when you know the AC won’t work?
But that’s what makes a party a party, and that’s what I missed about parties when nobody could have them. All the most disgusting things are the best things. The reasons not to go to a party are the same reasons we want to go to parties. We are all discomforts to one another. The best synonym for love is inconvenience, and no one loves you for your grace or your elegance or for all the times you managed not to embarrass yourself. It’s not a party if you aren’t sweating; it’s not a party if the air-conditioner can do anything about it.
The air-conditioning on the New York City Subway system in summer
I hate almost every single thing about the subway and every time I am on it I am aware that if and when I ever leave, these stupid trains that are either suspiciously clean and or unthinkably filthy will be the thing I miss every day. At the 123 stop at 72nd, sometimes the two trains on each side of the terrifyingly narrow platform pull in at exactly the same time and sing a triad in unison and it’s like being inside of the brass section in a symphony orchestra.
At its best, subway air-conditioning is painful, but that’s what I want from it. On a hot day, I step into a train car with its long bank of baby blue seats and feel sure that the sweat on my skin is going to freeze into a coating of visible ice. Lately the air-conditioning in the subways has been a bit less punishing, and I hate it. I don’t think it counts as air-conditioning at all. The subway is unkind because everything here is unkind; sometimes I worry that the only way any of us can understand love is as the motions and rituals to which we have become habituated.
Office building air-conditioning
I am unqualified to write this because I have rarely had a normal job, but I have had just enough of them to know that air-conditioning is perfectly capable of disliking you personally and letting you know about it.
Central air in a big suburban house
The only real house is someone else’s house. In someone else’s house, it is always cool on a hot day. Someone else’s house is someone else’s family and someone else’s family is a wide clean kitchen island with a bowl of fruit on it, and the hum of a lawn and a pool outside the window where the sunlight glitters. Distance from things removes their threat and sands their edges. What I remember of the parts of my childhood I spent in leafy suburbia is other people’s parents, and other people’s homes, and how those homes seemed to be air-conditioned in a way my own air-conditioned home never was.
I realize now that these houses were no better—not cleaner, not kinder, not more beautiful, not cooler on a hot day—than my own. What made them air-conditioned was that I didn’t live there. It has been long enough now that when I think of the house I grew up in, I think of it like one of those houses, the cool kitchen island, the cave-like living room, the sunlit backyard. But that’s just because enough time has passed to turn that house into someone else’s house. I no longer experience it as the place where I accumulated worry and clutter, but rather as a place where someone else lives, which offers only relief and cool air. This is, I suppose, the process of nostalgia: turning your house into someone else’s house, turning your memories into someone else’s memories, turning yourself into a character in a story. Fictional memory pumps invisible fake air in the room until all of the sweat dries and every surface is cool to the touch.
A box fan or several box fans
The box fan doesn’t do much but the almost-nothing it does often feels better than all of the something that the air-conditioner can do. The box fan is a room where the doors are open to the garden, letting in the weather and the big green outdoors beyond. The box fan is dirt under fingernails and muscle aches after a long day of meaningful work. The box fan says everything that is horrible about your body is also everything that is magnificent about your body, and that on a summer day when we feel disgusting is also when we are most alive. It says the body and the brain are the same thing and can sing in harmony. It says a whole lot of big stuff, frankly; it seems pretty sure of itself for a plastic item that cost $30 at Target.
Years ago I was at a party in the middle of the summer in a big apartment in a part of Brooklyn that’s fancy now but wasn’t then. Either the air conditioner had broken or there wasn’t one, so we found a bunch of box fans and ran them all at once. They did nothing, but they made everything better. We put all the liquor bottles in the freezer and would get them out and pass them around, pressing them against the backs of one another’s necks. It would be, for a moment, perfect bliss, and then it would be nothing at all, sweaty again, the problem unsolved. Box fans don’t solve the problem but they feel like a party, and like the momentary relief of a frozen vodka bottle on the back of your neck. They insist that summer is actually happening, and that your whole life is actually happening to you, here in the heat, in the room that smells like sweat, in the open door, in all the green and swarming static air.
The air-conditioning in a rental car
In the airport parking, the air-conditioning in the rental car comes on full blast automatically, and smells like new car smell even if the car isn’t new. It’s the leather upholstery, or it’s the cleaning chemicals, or it’s the heat outside, or it’s the fact that the car doesn’t belong to you. New car smell is wasteful and selfish and a reminder of all the rewards of being wasteful and selfish. New car smell knows that nobody makes bad bargains for a bad reason. A rental car in an airport parking lot smells like the false hope that you could fake your way all the way out of a problem; it smells like making the promise that tomorrow you are going to wake up and everything is going to be different. It smells like believing that the things that hurt you might in your own hands heal you. New car smell is a lie and sometimes, maybe, we all want to be lied to. Or at least those of us who like new car smell and rental car air-conditioning do.
The air-conditioning that I imagine they have on the spaceships in Star Trek
Of course television isn’t real, and Star Trek isn’t real, and space isn’t real, and so I have no idea what the inside of a starship feels like. It feels like nothing, because it doesn’t exist. Having said that, I also feel certain that the Star Trek starships have the best air-conditioning that has ever or will ever exist.
Space travel in the Star Trek shows is the opposite of space travel in reality, which is an unending nightmare of logistics, first and foremost concerned with the inconveniences of the body, its weights and its fluids and its potential for disaster. But the space-travel future that Star Trek imagines is one in which no one sweats unless they want to. The ships with their painted vistas of stars across their enormous picture windows are a hotel room on an expense account. They’re your rich friend’s parents house. The whole world becomes the couch, and the couch is always the couch in a furniture store, and never the couch in your home.
Every time the future arrives it doesn’t look like the future, but that’s because we expect it to feel new, rather than already heavy with all that it has accumulated on its way here. Science-fiction, with its moons and its spaceships and its enormous couches, keeps dreaming that one day we will leave everything behind but the air-conditioning, checking our phones in a cool dark room with the stars splashed outside behind a thick pane of glass, forever.
A ceiling fan on high
I wish I could ever trust anything that makes me feel good without an obvious cost to it, but I am convinced at any moment the ceiling fan is going to fly apart and kill me, and the more effective it is at cooling down a room, the more convinced I am of its intent to murder.
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