So, Seattle is apparently experiencing its new normal: we've had sunny days and temperatures near or above eighty for a couple of weeks now - and it's not even official summer, much less Seattle's traditional start of summer, July 5. All this glorious weather means sandals and t-shirts at work and corn on the cob and watermelon on the patio, hot sidewalks and vigorous gardens, and that distinctive aroma of water evaporating from concrete that evokes summer like nothing else for a city boy like me.
As I have walked around my neighborhood this warm spring, that smell, and the feel of the heat in the air and the sweat under my hat, have spurred a very particular memory of a summer long ago and on the other end of the country, back when I was a kid in Brooklyn.
New York City summers are a type of monster all their own. While we know that "90 degrees and 90% humidity" is pretty much a myth (at least as far as North America is concerned), New York summers can get awful - hot, humid, sticky, and, when I was a kid in the sixties, stinky with smog. (I guess it's gotten a bit better in that respect, anyway). Of all the things about New York that I might have missed since heading west 37 years ago, summer has not made the list.
And yet I find myself thinking about one particular summer day every time the temperature rises. I guess I was 11 or 12, and my sister Norma Jean 13 or 14. We were babysitting our nephew Daniel, my other sister Linda's son, and he could not have been much more than one, certainly not more than two yet. I'm not sure why we were minding him: our mother was the usual caregiver when one was needed. But this time, it fell to me and my sister - or more likely to my sister, and I was just along for the ride.
We packed up Daniel in his baby carriage - I would call it a stroller but that would evoke the streamlined nylon and magnesium frame apparatus of today, not the massive, chromed contraption that we struggled with. Besides the baby, we piled it high with toys and baby food in little jars and our lunches packed in empty margarine tubs and new-fangled plastic baggies and a couple of cans of cheap soda that had been stored in the freezer so they would still be nice and cold when it came time to drink them.
We journeyed down to a park - I'm not sure which one, but I would guess McKinley Park. My sister lived on 65th Street and 15th Avenue in Bensonhurst, not far from Regina Pacis Church, and when I checked Google maps to refresh my decades-old memory for this post, this seems like the likely place; it's about a mile and half from the apartment my sister lived in then, and that feels about right.
(I also discovered that the block-wide empty concrete schoolyard where my brother-in-law Gene (Daniel's father) used to throw a spaldeen so far to exercise their crazy Irish Setter Brandy now has basketball courts and a playfield and huge inlay map of the U.S., but that's a different rumination.)
We must have spent most of that sunny summer morning and afternoon in the park - playing, and letting Daniel play, or nap, or whatever it is little kids do when you take them to a park. Norma Jean must have fed him - and probably ate some of the baby food herself, as that was a predilection of hers for a while that carried on to when she cared for her own child. We ate our baloney sandwiches and Wise potato chips and whatever else we had and drank our sodas and then played some more. And then, hot and sweaty and exhausted and out of provisions, it was time to head back.
The slog back to my sister's apartment was interminable. It may have only taken a half-hour or so, but my recollection is that it took forever and a half. The distance is nothing now - I walk a mile to the stop just to catch the bus to head to campus - but for two kids pushing an infant in a pre-war baby-buggy along the sidewalk and up and down curbs, it seemed like an overland trek. We were hot and tired and thirsty. Being kids, we were also penniless: there was going to be no stopping in at a deli or candy store along the way to buy a bottle of soda or a Yoo-hoo. There was no choice but stumble on, like Bruce Bennett in Sahara after his half-track breaks down.
I think I first noticed the smell: that distinctive aroma of water evaporating from concrete. Then I saw it: our salvation, a fire hydrant that was leaking. From that black and silver pillar, that appliance of wonder, ran a small but steady stream of water, forming a small puddle in the cracked sidewalk and a little stream running down the gutter, pushing in its current small bits of light, dry litter. I took one of the empty margarine tubs and held it under the stream; slowly, too slowly, it filled with clear, cold municipal water. I would like to think I gave it to Norma Jean to drink first, but whether that is fact or over-ethical memory, I soon enough had my own share.
It was the best drink I had ever tasted in my short life till then, and few things have tasted so good since.
We stayed at the hydrant for a few minutes, drinking and refilling our makeshift cups, sprinkling some water on sleeping Daniel. We were both as sure as only the moral certainty of youth can grant that had we not found this wellspring, we would have died before ever reaching Linda's apartment. Such a horror had barely been averted; but the day was saved. Refreshed, we completed our transit.
So, the beginning of summer for me is not merely the prelude to picnics and bike rides, swimming and barbecues, trips to the beach and badminton in the park. Every ray of sunshine glinting off my sunglasses, every degree of Fahrenheit over 80, every heat wave radiating from the bright gray sidewalk - each of these is a reminder of how simple our needs really are and how sweet it can be to fill them simply.
As with a drink of cold water.