The big chilly

It has sped up our work lives, forced us to wear sweaters in July and robbed us of the chance to sweat. Down with air conditioning!

Published July 2, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

This is the time of year I go half-crazy -- not from the heat, but from the cold. And it's not because summer came late to New York. In June, as outside temperatures barely nosed over 70, my office (at a swank, almost spanking-new tower in midtown Manhattan) was chilled to a degree that seemed appropriate for a Chardonnay or a shrimp cocktail -- or a morgue, for that matter -- but not a workplace full of living bodies.

And I'm not the only one rubbing my hands together to keep warm. One co-worker says she can't concentrate on her job: The numbness in her body is spreading to her mind, she claims. Another dreams of throwing an ergonomic chair through one of the sealed, 18th-floor windows, just to get a bit of sun-kissed air. I'm a lucky part-timer, who, by Wednesday, is anticipating the toastiness of my apartment with all the glee of a 5-year-old who hears the ice-cream man coming. It's summertime, after all -- aren't you supposed to be hot?

Apparently not. Air conditioning is widely acknowledged as one of the most significant inventions of the 20th century; many glibly celebrate it as a marvelous machine that keeps us from sweating. This is significant, given Americans' phobia about such bodily functions, though I think there's something bigger at stake. Those millions of window units and central-air systems are so taken for granted, we can't see air conditioning for what it truly is: a subversive force that has robbed us of summer.

Only a pop song would claim that just because it's summertime, the livin' is easy. It probably never was -- but at least it's different. Air conditioning resists this fact with unsubtle, often overdone blasts of cold air, negating the very essence of the season, eliminating the need for those activities and rituals that surround cooling off.

To me, this is the most palpably appalling thing about it. Some would have you believe that life in the southern U.S. is not possible without AC (never mind all those even closer to the equator who make do without it). But generations of pre-AC Southerners developed an entire, quite civilized culture around keeping their cool -- even the architecture was designed to catch every stray breeze. And a single breeze should be a big deal in what ought to be a lazy, languid, sensual season. There should be continuous glasses of iced tea, and giddy gratitude for thunderstorms after a heat wave, and spontaneous soakings by any means possible (sprinklers, fire hydrants, kiddie pools and so on).

Cooling down also includes the pleasure of walking from 90 degrees into a frosty grocery store or movie theater, which I enjoy as much as anybody -- at first. But then the novelty wears off, the chill sets in and the goose bumps pop up. That is, unless one remembers to carry a sweater everywhere, which is really fun when it's 90 degrees. Moreover, a routine series of icebox-to-oven transitions throughout the day is rather grating -- both environments become equally irritating. A whimsical friend speculates that if all the air conditioners in New York were simply redirected outside, it's possible we wouldn't need them inside.

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Alas, large-scale climate control is still only for comic-book villains. We just zealously direct those energies inward: According to the Air-conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI), AC is a $20-billion-dollar-a-year industry; and TU Electric, a utility serving about a third of Texas, says 96 percent of its customers have AC -- for 85 percent, it's central air. Even in the Midwest, air conditioning has achieved an 85 percent saturation rate, with 55 percent of it central air.

Certainly, air conditioning is crucial for some things. For instance, computer chips and pharmaceuticals, those linchpins of contemporary society, can't be produced without it. But do these loud, energy-hogging, atmosphere-warming machines need to be so ubiquitous, and so overused? In a country where "more" and "better" are synonymous, it seems the answer is yes. It makes one wonder if AC is addictive: Once a person is accustomed to a particular level of cool, anything else seems positively oppressive (in my apartment building, one window unit was roaring away on nights when the temperature dipped to 50). Even at its best -- that is, when used judiciously, to create a temperate environment -- AC is the great neutralizer, creating the same dull interior climate, 365 days a year.

Thus, clothing gets neutralized, too. "Air-conditioning has made it so that people no longer dress for the season -- they dress for the occasion," observes Gail Cooper, a historian who recently published "Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960." In the workplace, this means suits year round, for those whose jobs require them -- and it's a common assumption that the heavier attire of higher-ups determines the office climate, leaving secretaries and others to do a reverse Mr. Rodgers and don cardigans when they get to work. Far be it for the Suits to doff their woolen armor, roll up their shirt-sleeves as in days of yore and actually look like they're working.

Yet even if everyone dressed identically, some would still shiver while others sweltered. We have the technology but can't seem to get it adjusted right: According to Cooper, engineers' efforts to divine a heat-and-humidity index that represents universal "comfort" have been -- surprise -- fruitless. AC puts everyone on the same setting. That creates a lack of choice, which, as Cooper discovered, is the single most hated thing about air conditioning. Of course, if I were in charge, I'd please the thin-blooded people and let everyone else complain about the heat. It's summertime, I'd say. You're supposed to be hot.

A pipe dream, I know. Because there are other reasons for the over-chill in American offices: For instance, some computer equipment needs extra-cold AC to run properly. Could it be that those who lord it over the thermostats also believe this to be true of their human resources? We are still meat, notwithstanding our increasingly intimate relations with technology, but is there perhaps an unspoken belief that a chilly environment keeps workers on their toes, running at maximum efficiency? After all, David Letterman, a control freak if there ever was one, must have a reason for keeping his TV studio notoriously frigid.

Indeed, if cold equals peppy and perky, heat just breeds sluggishness. Nowadays, only a mega-blizzard can bring a city to its knees -- but things used to slow down some in the summer, and occasionally, they'd grind to a halt. Pre-AC office workers were sent home when the heat/humidity index reached a certain point; Washington lore says that governmental bureaucracy only blossomed when federal office buildings got air conditioning. Even in New England, factories shut down in August, giving workers the month for vacation. Europeans still do this -- Paris is famously empty in August -- but in the United States, only the soigné citizens of the art world adhere to this policy.

In a recent issue of The New Yorker devoted to the supposed summer-reading tradition, Adam Gopnik dared to say what many have been thinking for years: The American summer is fabricated, fanciful and almost totally fake -- just like the American Christmas. Indeed, we wistfully base the ideal summer on our memories of having had three months' freedom from school as children; in the adult world, however, time is money, and two weeks' vacation is standard -- only academics and the wealthy get a real, ideal summer (and even among the latter, the breadwinner often stays home to work).

The rest of us remain dependable drones year round. AC "helps improve our productivity by providing us with a better working environment," boasts a press release for ARI's "Air Conditioning Appreciation Days" (July 3 to August 15, in case you care). Ed Dooley, the institute's VP for communications and education, sounded even more fatuous in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "Thanks to air conditioning, you work 12-hour days," he said. "Isn't that great?" Yeah -- 'cause at least we're not sweating, Ed!

The primary benefits of AC have insidiously turned out to be related to work, not comfort. By creating a world where we don't have to alter our lives with the seasons, air conditioning has effectively wiped out our last good excuse for doing nothing: being hot. (And as we all know, nothing is more reprehensible than doing nothing.) In this regard, AC was a forerunner of beepers, cell phones, faxes, laptops -- all those inventions that blur the line between making us more productive and simply making us work more.

Cranked up on AC, the capitalist machine can function everywhere at a continuous, uniformly brisk clip, reinforcing the belief that the fate of the free world hinges on endlessly upward-spiraling economic indicators. Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are long gone. Now there's just the crazy part: the same old workaholic stress, now seasonless, enveloped in climate-controlled "comfort." Which, for some of us, is crazy-making in itself.

By Julie Caniglia

Julie Caniglia is a freelance writer in New York.

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