Jack White -- not the musician but my early-in-life body shop guy off Jerome Avenue, somewhere north of Yankee Stadium and south of Eddie's Bike store -- knew how to deal with the New York City summer heat. He'd pluck a White Owl out of a chest pocket in his denim overalls, strike a wooden match with his thumbnail, which was as large as a clam shell, light up, exhale luxuriantly, and philosophize.
"Can't let it git to ya," he'd drawl, buffing out a repaired automobile fender. "Got to think cool. Stay cool. Be cool.
"Ya see: ya got to be a coooooool cat."
It seemed like it was always sweltering back in the New York summers of my memory. So hot, in fact, that the streets sometimes felt as if they were warm marshmallows underfoot. So hot, my car's gas tank seals would seep leaded Shell gas, which sold for 34.9 cents a gallon. So hot that, on the fan-conditioned Redbird IRT cars, the sweat would cascade from one's hair, down the neck and back and soak the tighty whities.
When we were young kids, up to our early teens, when it was the kind of hot that soaked you through playing flies-up in Harris Field, we'd end our days hanging out on the stoops, or in front of our apartments, on cheap folding beach chairs. There, we'd cavort with the teenagers, who took us little ones under their wings, turned on their transistor radios, and taught us the lyrics to top 40 hits (Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It's Flavor, On the Bedpost Overnight? ) over AM stations such as WMCA, WINS, or WABC. Later, us little kids would chase fireflies, or ride our bikes until we were wringing wet with sweat.
Finally, exhausted, we'd hang out with our parents, desperate to catch some bit of gossip or a dirty word or two. That is, until -- at our parents' command -- it was upstairs we went, to sleep on the fire escape. On the roof. Or on a sheet-less bed, tossing and turning in front of the oscillating Vornado fan, which uselessly blew the hot heavy air this way, and that. This way, and that.
Once we reached our teens, and armed with our new driver's licenses, cooling off during a heat wave meant taking to the roads. In our creaking Mavericks, Plymouth 330s, push-button transmission Valiants, and VW Beetles, us Bronx guys would head to Jones Beach, or, when we were less ambitious, to Orchard Beach. We could always be spotted as Bronxites as we crossed the Jones Beach Sahara of West End 2, dressed in sleeveless undershirts, swimming trunks, black low-cut Converse sneakers and black Banlon socks, carrying towels and huge aluminum cooler chests filled with prosciutto and provolone heroes and cans of ice cold liquid refreshment.
After the bumper-to-bumper trip home and shoulders red with sunburn, we'd shower and - with a quick goodbye muttered in the general direction of our families - head to the block-long banks of phone booths on Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse. Their, we enjoyed the luxury of privacy, huddled in an accordion doored booth, surrounded by hordes of like-minded teens on the make, noisily waiting their turn for their few minutes of personal talk.
Or, we'd drive north to Ardsley, for the simple pleasure of a Flying Saucer at Carvel. Or maybe some hot dogs, corn on the cob and the extravagance of a shrimp boat at Adventurers Inn on Central Avenue.
Or off to City Island we'd go, to catch the oily, diesel-smelling "sea" air. A special treat was heading down City Island Avenue to the end, to Johnny's Reef, for fried clam bellies, fries and ice cold beers. Or, with our dates, to the hippie haven, dessert place of the 70s, The Black Whale.
Sometimes, as I wrote in my Home Front story Carlos and Almond Head Cruise Eastern Parkway, we got in a little over our heads, hanging out with hard case guys who did not shy from violence, and in fact, seemed to invariably veer directly towards it.
"It's all about the journey," wiser heads than mine would advise, sagely nodding at me, years later. And during weeks such as this one, with temperatures averaging 90+, I can't help but think back to those sweltering days of summer, at a time when New York City was on the brink of collapse and we were young, healthy and largely ignorant of the gathering financial storm clouds around us.
Consider these few facts:
• No a/c in our apartments, cars or subways;
• Limited funds for movies, bowling or other air-conditioned venues;
• Refrigerators were small, and the freezer sections were smaller and not that cold - ice cubes were precious commodities and ice cream puddled in minutes.
We survived the heat, humidity and torpor of New York City summers. It was uncomfortable, but that's the way it was. Hell -- it was summer. Summers were hot.
But there was no school. Plenty of kids to hang with. And we were all in the same boat.
We didn't let it git to us, as Jack White would later tell me, finishing off the repair to my precious '69 VW Bug, his head enshrouded in cigar smoke. We'd think cool. Stay cool. Be cool.
I guess, in some ways at least, maybe we really were cooooool cats.