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the hottest day of the year
Among my favorite small joys in the world is a thing that happens every four years in New York. Around this time, in the sweaty-tongued heat-struck center of the summer, walking around the streets in the afternoon (or, this year, at ten in the morning), you can see crowds overflowing out of bars, gathered to watch a soccer game. America isn’t good at soccer, and we aren’t in the tournament this year, but it doesn’t matter. It happens each time, and it happens no matter who the team is. The bar will have a few serious fans to be sure, up near the front, white-knuckling drinks in bright team jerseys, but mostly it’s people who have decided for an afternoon to care about something simply because it’s there to care about, because a packed-vein shot of love for something that can’t love you back seems seems like a fun afternoon’s activity. Maybe it’s just that New York has a high percentage of people who are very loud about their pointless and esoteric interests, but more I think it’s that people here, in general, want to be overwhelmed by something. We want, if only for a few hours, to be consumed, absolved of responsibility by something larger than themselves. Bodies and yelling spill out through doors and windows, and entering the bar instantly envelops you in a wave of emotion, high stakes with zero buy-in. For a few hours, caring deeply about something both tangible and sweetly, wholly insignificant is free to anyone who wants to join the game.
I’m watching the World Cup as I write this, and outside it’s nearly a hundred degrees. This weekend was the worst heatwave since 2013, the summer when I met Thomas, when I lived with roommates for the last time in my life, in a nearly windowless box of a room inside a gorgeous Park Slope apartment, in a room that might have once been a fraction of a dining room, with french doors bounding the room on two sides. I got heatstroke at least three times that summer and I would come home and lie down on the low bed that took up nearly the whole room. It was the only time that its windowless interiority was a blessing -- it was dark and cool as a cave. I remember nearly passing out in a subway station that summer, sitting down in my grimy little shorts and my grimy little t shirt against the bright-painted pole just behind the yellow lines marking off the tracks, sweat caking my hair to my neck and my face drained sheet-white. People started at me and I didn’t care. The whole thing was almost a relief, which is not all that secretly how I feel about bad weather, and hot weather in particular. It’s a relief to give in to being disgusting, to have an excuse for not trying, for not keeping it together. The weather excuses us all from all the massive competitions of good moods and appropriate clothing, from who can be the most busy, the most pulled together, the most unconcerned. In the heat everyone is concerned, and everyone is a mess. We turn our underbellies to the sun, we gush fluids no matter how well our emotions stay in check. We leak and howl and squish. New York is a horrorshow in summer, but it’s also most itself, a place like a bratty college kid who never learned to try to be happy instead of interesting, who never learned to think in terms of stability instead of the next party. Everything here is temporary, rotting, held together with tape. The summer reveals this place to be a joke. Nothing stands up to the heat. The trains break down, the air conditioners barely work, the streets clog with people, and it suddenly becomes obvious that the grass even in the lushest parts of the parks is thin and bald and dusty. Grand avenues turn into sun-bleached deserts. It’s awful. I hate it. It’s kind of great. My mom moved here in 1973 and said the place was nearly unlivable, that the trash piled up along the side of the streets like hedges, uncollected, visibly stinking up the daylight, but that it was also like a party no one knew about, that the reason it was good despite the filth was that no one was looking, that no one cared.
Almost everything I love is something that allows me to be invisible. The heat is yet another one of those things. Bodies emerge but people fade, scrubbed out to the haze at the edge of the view. Like every kind of extreme weather there is a holiday sense of permission about it. Go ahead and stay out late, have another drink, spend more money, say the thing you shouldn’t say out loud. It’s too hot, no one will remember. There are no secrets in a heatwave; everything breaks down, wears its insides on the outsides, the mush of our bodies pouring out through all the tiny holes in our skin. My second date with Thomas happened in the heatwave in 2013 to which our mayor compared this one yesterday, while warning us all to check on our neighbors and not go outdoors. I wore a white linen dress; he wore a suit and nearly sweated to death. We went to the old Campbell Apartment and sat in front of a gigantic industrial fan that someone had dragged into the bar’s beautiful interior, our drinks stirring like tiny lakes disturbed by wind, and stayed there until they turned all the lights on. My best friend from college came to visit me on a week off from her medical residency in Idaho and when she said “see New York is the same as it always was” she pointed up at the fanciest building in my neighborhood and I saw that she meant the shitty wall-unit air conditioners jutting out of the side, that in this historic grand dame of a building rising into the sky like a confectioner’s cloud castle and practically dipped in gold, there still wasn’t even central air. A whole place without amenities, a whole place that refuses to offer anything, that thinks you should be grateful, where fancy bars drag industrial fans inside to stand in for an AC and everyone burrows inward looking for caves. My air conditioner in my apartment in Brooklyn had broken the day of that date and Thomas tried to convince me to stay in his hotel because it had good AC. Instead I stayed out with him until four in the morning and gave him a speech about what we were doing and how he needed to get his shit together. I am not at all this sort of person usually, but it was extraordinarily warm.
Of course all the new glass monstrosity buildings in the city have central air now. New York has done a great job of setting itself up so that you can move here and not have to live in New York at all. Perhaps it’s merely that I’ve come to a point where I have to admit that whatever I have made the word for this city mean is not really what it means anymore. Every street downtown now feels like a mall whose theme is the place where I got my heart broken in my twenties. Once anyone could be invisible here; I could dive into a crowd like it was the ocean, let the water close over me and be lost from view. People, including the ones who move here, think of this as a place where people move to get famous, but really it’s a place where people move to be invisible. It more effectively erases us than anywhere else could, or at least I want to believe it still does, that this old definition still holds.
Making other people invisible is impolite. The cornerstone of politeness is making things more about the other person than yourself; all you have to do to know how to make small talk is ask questions of the other person rather than volunteering information about yourself. Of course this is a way to be invisible, too. Small talk, if you’re good enough at it or just desperate enough not to be seen, is a way to vanish while standing in plain view. The relief of talking to a very self-involved person is the knowledge that all you have to do is throw a series of the right underhanded pitches and you can stand there relieved and absent, obscured like the unfinished background figures in a huge painting. I used to choose people for how effectively they would allow me to disappear, for how little they would ask me to be seen; I’m working on it. My friends now mostly notice that I’m there, but I don’t exactly like it, and maybe I never will. Perhaps the best thing about my marriage is that it functions, sometimes brutally, as a mirror. This kind of accountability is horribly uncomfortable, like itching all over, all day, love as the emotional version of having to stand up and sing by yourself at karaoke night. Heatwaves and cities like New York are both, blessedly, like the self-involved person at a party, a thing interested only in itself, into which one can fully and effectively vanish.
This is what I like about sports, too, about the big collective events like the World Cup. There’s a shared relief about self-involved people, about big awful filthy cities, about heatwaves, and about Sports with its category capital letters. All of these are escapism, a kind of narcotic. One could say that I moved to New York in order to not have to be accountable for my actions. If no one was looking, if no one cared, how could I be accountable, to whom would it matter? Who would even know, if I fucked up, if I failed, if I didn’t get out of bed for a full day, if I was not the things I am capable of seeming to be in the first sparkling hour of polite conversation? I could hoard consequences in a small room and then walk out into the city invisible and imaginary. The anonymity of a large city absolves one of responsibility in the same way headfirst-love with a very self-involved person can. Our actions don’t count if no one notices them. A heatwave is a temporary permission that feels much the same, a Purge-like holiday sense similar to that of three days weekends and snow days. It is possible to live a whole life seeking out heatwaves, to make your name for love or for home the excuse the weather affords you to live as though nothing counts, as though the world’s horrors and discomforts might pass you over as long as you manage not to be noticed, not to be the subject of any conversation.
But the heatwave, and to some degree all of these experiences - the city, the people, the sports - are cleansing, too, burning away the things we pretend to be, the fussy decorations we put up in place of a ground-floor self. It’s too hot to pretend to be anything when the weather goes above ninety. Imagine for a moment if you could live without secrets. Imagine if being invisible were not a way to hoard secrets but a way to shed them like sweat. Think of how the heat makes everyone seem naked and yet simultaneously makes bodies matter less, makes them just bodies, just facts of motion in space. Think of the things you hate that you secretly crave. Think of the relief of finally getting sick, of letting your body know better than you. Think of a bar in summer with enthusiastic strangers packed in together, all cheering for a team they mostly didn’t care about three hours ago, united in caring deeply about something that doesn’t matter at all, while the heat haze shimmers behind them, sweating all the beauty out of the view.