Against air-conditioning | Bleader

Against air-conditioning

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The banality of evil
  • ToddMorris
  • The banality of evil
Scaremonger Tom Skilling predicts a high of 97 in Chicago today. And tomorrow. And Wednesday. I realize this may not be the perfect time to speak out against air-conditioning. But unlike certain Republican presidential candidates, I am not a "well-oiled weather vane." I can take the heat—so here goes.

More than its coconspirators (TV, DVD players, computers), air-conditioning has wounded us socially, torn us apart, and ruined communities, thereby strengthening the hand of our capitalist masters.

Believe it or not, shorties, Chicagoans once spent hot summer evenings outside—in yards and on front porches. It was stifling inside. Outside, there was at least the hope of a breeze.

Being outside meant seeing, and often actually spending time with, neighbors. On the street where I grew up—the 6000 block of South Kilbourn, in the 1960s—parents and the other old people played checkers on front porches and chatted as they sprinkled their lawns, garden hoses in hand, while we kids played running bases and jumped rope on the sidewalk. The Good Humor truck jingled by every night, because there were always people to sell to. Even on a long block like ours, we knew most of our neighbors by name.

My parents got a room air conditioner sometime in the '60s. On the hottest nights, my brother and I were allowed to sleep on the floor in the delightful cool of their bedroom. Our parents only ran the air conditioner at night, at first—electricity didn't grow on trees, we were reminded—and so we still spent most summer evenings outside.

But there's no restraining "progress." Soon, air conditioners were plugging windows throughout our neighborhood, and throughout Chicago, and an indulged populace began relying on them for more than just sleep. Then that smothering totalitarian tool, central air, leaked into the city from the suburbs. Neighborhoods became anonymous places; how could you know your neighbors if you never saw them?

Air conditioners should have come with a warning label about this side effect, although it would have been ignored.

It is true that more community doesn't necessarily translate into more community action. Those neighbors of mine on Kilbourn were a complacent lot. They did as the precinct captain instructed, so as to get their trees trimmed and potholes promptly fixed.

But more community is always at least a threat to those in power. And so just as there's strength in unity, there's weakness in air-conditioning. Why aren't more people rising up angry about the vast chasm between the rich and the rest of us? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the window.

A lot of Chicagoans still get outside in the summer, for concerts and walks along the lake. I'm going to the Sox-Cubs game this evening on the south side, and looking forward, I'm not sure why, to sitting amid 30,000-plus sweaty humans. Thank god we don't have one of those air-conditioned domed stadiums, and that I can't afford a skybox. And that we're still willing to occasionally leave our air conditioners for big attractions.

But the marrow of a city is its neighborhoods. And on a steamy summer night, most of our side streets are dead, the porches and sidewalks empty, the only signs of life the lonely lightning bugs.

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