One Summer Day

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Sunbathing on a city rooftop. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021. Very warm here in New York: 92 degrees as I write this Diary at 10 p.m. Humid, as they say, but really just a heavy blanket of hot air. I went to an early dinner with a friend at Sette Mezzo. Dining outside, which is the new fave for many New Yorkers, was suddenly passed on. Their outside tables were empty. Inside it was full. From the looks of it we’ll be wanting to eat inside for at least the next few days.  Meanwhile out in the northwest — Portland and Seattle — they’re experiencing first-time records in heat.

Saul Kovner’s One Summer Night, 1946.

Every morning when I go online I check out a site called Ephemeral New York for my morning New York history lesson about our fair city. Yesterday’s was particularly timely. Entitled “One Summer Night on a New York Tenement Roof, it featured a painting by Saul Kovner,“a Russian-born artist who came to New York City in the 1920s … and set up a studio on Central Park West … Kovner captured gentle yet honest scenes in all seasons of urban life, particularly of working class and poor New Yorkers. In 1946 he completed ‘One Summer Night,’ a richly detailed depiction of tenement dwellers seeking refuge from the heat in a pre-air conditioned city.”

For those of us who came along in those years, it serves to remind of the days before air conditioning which everyone everywhere had to find the simplest, most sensible way of feeling comfortable, if not cool.

In a very real way, all present were closer to the dictates of Mother Nature. There was no one to curse or accuse for this reality and it was easy to see everyone was in the same boat — if they weren’t standing under a cold shower or even better (and rarer in those days) a cold swimming pool.

As Kovner’s painting demonstrates, it was an entirely community affair with often mainly sleepless nights (followed by exhausting days). Despite the thermometer, it certainly enhanced the sense of community and neighborhood, bringing people (forcing them as it were) closer together in a way that no longer exists in the city.

Now, of course, you’ll see very little of that search for relief as technology (air conditioners) have greatly altered our lifestyles. Although with this kind of summer heat, even with the AC working overtime, we all look forward to when it cools off a little and we can go out and enjoy the city life undrenched with perspiration.

Washington Square Park just a few years ago. Photo: JH.

Coincidentally, yesterday morning, I accidentally came up upon a Diary contrast that had occurred in New York lives six months before on Tuesday, January 5, 2021, which captures our New York seasonal reality during the pandemic:

It was “Cold and blah, a grey day mainly. What you can expect from January even if we’re not snow-and-icebound. I had a very early dinner at Sette Mezzo outside. There was one other table. Next door at Bella Blu there was one other table. Inside the restaurants are, of course, empty.

We tend to look at this situation which defines New York life these days as just the-way-it-is. I don’t look at it quite the same way. I look at it as the hundreds of thousands of jobs (as in work) now stopped. These jobs are for those of us who rely on them to feed and shelter ourselves and our families (and our animals).

History as in the history of civilization tells us what happens in situations like this. No money, no fun, no kidding. That’s putting it very lightly. And nobody wins. Nobody. I often wonder if our leaders give a thought to that. But then, of course, that assumes they’ve read history.

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