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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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In July of 1995, at least 755 people died in a one-week span in the City of Chicago. There was an abnormal heat wave, and the deceased were mostly elderly, mostly poor, and mostly minorities. Later, sociologists and public health experts came to the conclusion that with basic city services, most though not all of the deaths could have been avoided. Chicagoans all remember that summer quite clearly and are quick to bring it up whenever complaints of the heat start up:

"Damn, it's hot out."

"Yeah -- but it's no '95."

I remember the nightly news footage of refrigerated meat trucks, donated by a kindly foodstuffs shipper, parked outside of the coroners office to accomodate the flood of bodies. Every night on the news they had a body count. The city was befuddled as to how to handle the crisis, initially countering press accusations of bungling by pointing out that most of the victims were old, insinuating that it was an act of God and not the responsibility of the city.

I haven't been much of a fan of summer since 1995.

I used to pitch quarters with neighborhoods kids before and after work, and usually -- but not always -- I'd let them win. At first it was just a way to get in good with them, so that I could kind of become more a part of the nieghborhood. Their parents appreciated that I'd spend time with the kids, even though we were gambling, because better me than some rough older kid looking to cheat them. After a while, I got pretty hooked and would go looking for these kids -- many of them no older than 12 -- to see if they wanted to play. In the summer, drinking lemonade and pitching quarters for hours on end seemed like the only logical way to spend the day. Eventually I moved out of the neighborhood, and most of those kids either grew up and stopped hanging out or moved, too. I haven't food a good crew to pitch with, and so that brief, enjoyable summer activity is now long forgotten.

I tend to like the winter better than the summer, based on the logic that you can always defend yourself from the cold, but there is no real defense from a hot Chicago day. In the winter you can snuggle up, put on a nice scarf, you look good. Everybody looks good in the winter. Women get rosy cheeks, and men get better complexions due to the tightening of the skin. Winter looks good. Summer -- there's no defense. In this humidity, the shade doesn't help you, and even if you're completely naked the humidity is still choking you. Plus, no self-respecting grown man who isn't at the beach goes in public with shorts and no socks on. Ever.

In my neighborhood, especially my old neighborhood, the heat is even worse because of our proximity to the two coal-powered energy plants. The dense smog seems to trap the heat at about the level of our back door and no number of fans will save us. The sun rises in front of our front window and sets at the rear door, so it is beating heat down on us for all of the sunlight hours. We are also right next to the highway, which adds to the choking smog.

The summer is loud. Because of our proximity to the highway, we get the pleasure of hearing all of the suburban motorcycle joy riders coming in at 3 in the morning at about 120 miles per hour in packs of 10 or 15. Although it is adorable to see all of the little kids running around playing, it is significantly less fun to hear their drunk parents yelling at each other at 20 paces at one in the morning. Maybe some people chalk these things up to the "sounds of the city," but such people would be idiots.

The summer is more dangerous. Of course there is the Fourth of July Weekend, which we're lucky to get out of without a dozen murders. But now that these blue-flashing cameras at intersections have pushed gangs off of the main streets and into the neighborhoods, the gang concentration has increased in the residential areas. Add unbearable heat that keeps people out of their homes and that is a recipe for trouble. And shooting.

Yeah, there's the beach. I do like going to the beach. I love to swim. But the beaches are crowded. Don't get me wrong, I'm willing to brave some crowds to revel in the cold Lake Michigan water as well as ogle beautiful, scantily-clad women. That's the kind of guy I am. But the crowding at the beach seriously drains from your ability to really relax there. Anyway, Oak or North Street Beach are much more fun at night.

And how about this irony -- perhaps the most annoying thing about the summer is all of the complaining. True, Chicagoans never get enough of bragging/complaining about our harsh winters. But we never shut the hell up about our summers.

"You know what it is," we'll say over and over again to anybody who isn't asleep, "It's the humidity. The heat I can handle. It's the humidity."

Luckily, "Hot enough for ya?" isn't really a phrase idigenous to Chicago so we don't have to hear it too much. I'm more likely to hear, "Damn, it's hot as hell out here!" at any given time.

So we gotta put up with that, too.

But I'm a sentimental guy. So I realized while walking down the 3100 block of West Jackson Boulevard why I so dread and dislike summer.

In his book Heatwave, Eric Klinenberg conducted thousands of hours of research to get to the heart of just why so many Chicagoans died needlessly in the summer of 1995. What he found was that the fracturing of our neighborhoods robbed the elderly and the poor of the basic social and community structures that would have otherwise ensured they'd be looked after.

Ever since 1995, when the heat turns up, I'm reminded of those fractured communities and the scared old folks asking complete strangers if they wouldn't mind coming by and checking on them. I think of the almost 800 people who died completely alone and uncared for, forgotten by family and friends who long ago fled for greener pastures. I get the eerie feeling when its very hot outside that people are popping off all over the city, basically suffocating to death in their tiny little corners. Even though there are more people out and about, the summer seems lonelier to me. Even though in winter the streets are more desolate, my admittedly over-active imagination leads to me to think that people are simply staying in their warm houses, with family and friends, huddled up and safe.

Winter is a bully, but summer is an assassin. But on the other hand, there are all the scantily clad women.

Is there something you'd like to see addressed in "Revenge of the Second City?" Email your suggestions or tips to rcgapersblockcom.

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Naz / June 10, 2004 2:14 PM

Great article Ramsin. When I first heard about the heatwave of 95, I was shocked and stunned. Having just come from a country where it averages 90+ everyday, it was a big surprise. Then I had a few summers under my belt and while Malaysia is intensely humid and has the same temperature degree-wise (five minutes walking outside and you're breaking a mild sweat), Chicago feels hotter and more intense. I'm not sure if it's the difference - going from spring into intense heat as opposed to just getting used to it all the time (and having everywhere indoors be air-conditioned) or what but Chicago summers can be hard.

Cherie / June 10, 2004 3:21 PM

Was the song Black Hole Sun playing while you wrote this? Just kidding.
I enjoy your columns primarily because your imagination and thought process is amusingly complex, as though you think in little image vignettes that link together so smoothly.

However, due to the fact that I love the heat to the point that Florida in July is my favorite time to go, I can't say I share your despise of the climate, but I do see your points on the tragedy that can occur, once the summer solstice sets upon us...and as usual, your fact placement was impeccable.
In fact, your writing is so vivid that it just makes me miss Chicago more.

billyO / June 11, 2004 12:18 AM

Ramsin... I know that the city is fractured, and yet during that time I will never forget of a woman who was mourning the loss of her grandfather. They had bought him an a/c unit, and a fan, and had visited him almost daily. And every time they came over, they found both turned OFF, because it was "too damn cold". Then he died. Some people did die because of stupidity on their part. I grew up in Texas, and aside from all the jokes now asserting themselves in everyone's head that's reading this, I will say this: you do *not* disrespect the heat.

Drink fluids, stay in shade, drink fluids, piss, drink more fluids, sweat, play outside, and then drink more fluids. There were several Chicagoans that died along the beaches that did not heed repeated warnings.

Our summers here in Chicago are nothing. Dallas gets humid too (i have no idea why) and every August there were at least 14 days of 100+ temps. I do believe that you are onto something in that there's such a range in temperature. However, being a part of a group of beings who have proved historically time and time again to be one of the most, if not the most, adaptive animal on this planet, there isn't a part of me that doesn't believe that if one pays attention to the weather, be it heat or cold, and takes care of oneself, then you will live.

Love this town!

waleeta / June 11, 2004 2:46 PM

You're an anti-summerite. Maybe because you never, ever take off your jacket.
Don't people die during the winters too? Just wondering. It would be uplifting to know that there's a season in Chicago that doesn't kill. As a friend of mine once said, the 4 seasons in Chicago are winter, winter, winter, and construction.


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