The Best (and Worst) Thing That Ever Happened to Us_lowres


August in New Orleans serves as a perennial rebuke to the sugarcoating supplied by the aging memory. You might be able to convince the replacement generations that many things were better in the old days (manners, singers, boxers). But you cannot, can never, convince yourself that you were better off before Amana entered your bedroom.

Remember? In the old days, your mama sometimes made you go outside to cool off. You and your brother slept on the floor in front of the opened front door. Your grandma sat in the kitchen and fanned herself with the cardboard fan advertising the neighborhood mortuary.

All gone now, mercifully vanished into a seashell's noise, the hum and whine of unseen parts, the torrential rush of the disembodied machine. Sweating from every window, besliming every alleyway, beckoning all with the promise of relief. Inside, we learn to turn up the radio and the conversation and, most of all, turn down the thermostat.

Once upon a time, before everyone had to have one, the possessors of air conditioners bragged about it. Certain movie palaces boasted of their coolness in newspaper ads. The neon sign in Kolb's window promised it, and the one in Mandina's still does. Come on in. It's August and the food is hot and the air's as cold as the draft beer.

In those early summers, the advertisements for artificial climates often proclaimed "air-cooled." Where did "condition" come from anyhow? No matter. It's overwhelmingly appropriate because at this point in the collapse of Western civilization, it is the expected condition of our lives -- at least through the months of May through October inclusive. We will exist only in orbits of condensers, compressors and cooling coils.

Think not? Think again. Is it not true that if your church lacked central air, you would change churches or even creeds? If the neighborhood school lacked the necessary BTUs, do you doubt your children would demand home-schooling or foster parents? In point of fact, unless you are one of those who spends their time outdoors pursuing union wages or speckled trout, you probably spend your entire life in a controlled climate except for those sweltering minutes when you are en route from one air conditioner to another. This usually involves a car, which is, of course, air conditioned even as fuel costs huff and puff past $45 a barrel. Once, we inhaled hot air and joked about our "440" air conditioner: four windows down at 40 miles per hour. Now, our best friend would get out of our car if the AC broke -- and we'd be right behind.

Not that the coldness of air conditioners is a perfect cold. Have you ever been around a unit not your own that was on the proper setting? Not very likely. There's vapor condensation on the single-pane windows outside, but inside you need a pea-jacket and hot water bottle. Or else in the name of greater economy, the temperature-controlled climate feels like you're in Addis Ababa at high noon. And, hot or cold, the air of an air conditioner is mechanical air, which means it's born stale.

What other changes have been wrought by the comfort cooling of the citizenry? Well, architecturally, everything has changed. Whitewashed roofs are now black-tarred, and who cares? Once upon a time, designers thought about window and ceiling size, exposure, and the setting sun. Now, they'll build the whole thing out of glass and have large flat surfaces on the roof besides.

The encyclopedia says that an early form of air cooling in India involved hanging wet grass mats over windows where they cooled incoming air by evaporation. Since then, AC has been no particular friend of things that grow. In days of yore, certain trees and shrubbery were tolerated in the proximity of the abode not only because they looked nice, but because they offered shady coolness in mid-July. No longer. Those things now offer only refuge to caterpillars and landscapers, and they shed. Crank up that purring little chainsaw; every subdivision should resemble Arizona. In a land of window units, who needs hickory?

And speaking of needs, drive past our town's older housing stock. Note the handsome front porch with the graceful swing and the inviting rocker. In fact, a plethora of porches, front, back and side. Yards, too, front, back and side. All empty now, deserted by those conditioned by air conditioning to stay out of the sauna whenever possible. Once, these New Orleanians dabbed on deodorant pads and doused on Florida water and took their places in yards and on porches, integral parts of the city's summer community. No more. Push that needle down to 68 degrees. Hear that whirring tenor roar to life. It won't be long now. Inside, people acclimate to a climate passing through evaporator coils, fins and drains and heat pumps. Air conditioning. How did we ever live without it?