Memories of a mean season
HERE IN Southern California, the spring usually blends into summer so smoothly that it’s hard to tell the difference. But I remember years ago, 1977, back in New York, when the air turned suddenly thick as smoke and the heat shot up from the pavement like flame.
This girl and I were living together in an apartment the size of a kitchen tile. We knew we were crazy about each other, but we were too young to understand we were in the grip of something extraordinary.
So we went along, the way you do, worried about love and work and money. And hot, more than anything, just incredibly, unendingly hot. We couldn’t afford an air conditioner, and the fan did nothing.
One night, the heat made us so insane, we soaked the sheets in cold water and lay clammy and sleepless atop our foldout futon like a couple of dead fish on the surface of a swamp.
It wasn’t just us. The whole city had been boiled psycho. The .44 caliber killer -- Son of Sam -- was on the prowl, and the press was running wild with it. No one could think or talk about anything else: the heat and murder, murder and the heat. In late June, two young lovers were sitting in their parked car actually discussing the killer when he stepped up to the window and opened fire.
Desperate for cash, I started haunting the crime scenes with a tape recorder, interviewing cops, witnesses, victim’s friends, women who’d cut their hair because the killer liked it shoulder-length, ordinary guys who’d started packing guns, neighbors who couldn’t stop crying. For the life of me, I can’t remember if I ever sold that story. But I remember the fear, dense as the heat, just as pervasive.
The bomb scares from the Puerto Rican liberationists didn’t help either. More than once my girlfriend came home from work early, shaken. And it was not uncommon to find the entire population of a skyscraper milling around on the sidewalk waiting for the cops to sound the all-clear.
The state of the city that summer was best summed up by a cartoon in one of the tabloids. It showed Manhattan sinking into the harbor while the citizens swam desperately for dry land.
But for me, the symbol of that season was my birthday, July 13. We had saved enough to go out to a semifancy restaurant near our apartment. The air conditioning alone was worth the price. Just as we were finishing the main course, I looked up at the window, and I saw the city go out. I remember it as a cascade of darkness spilling toward me until the lights in the restaurant died as well.
The voices all around us murmured “blackout.” And our waiter said, yes, that’s what it was -- oh, and by the way, since the refrigeration units in the wine cellar were down, wine was on the house for the rest of the evening.
Well, by the time we left that place, my baby and I, we were drunk beyond all telling. We went dancing up the sidewalk in one another’s arms, singing at the tops of our lungs, singing that old Gershwin song about how they laughed at Christopher Columbus, and Rockefeller Center and me wanting you, but ho, ho, ho, who’s got the last laugh now? Singing in the dark, because we had worried so much and been afraid so long, and because we had no way of knowing whether we really would love each other like this forever or make our way in the world or even survive that horrible, horrible summer.
That night -- after stumbling around hilariously, making birthday-cake frosting that ended up with pieces of the eggbeater in it -- we were lying passed out in each other’s arms when the phone rang. It was a reporter friend on the West Coast, asking for an eyewitness report of the riots. I staggered to the window and stuck my head out. I saw a man sitting on the stoop of my building softly playing guitar.
“Looks fine to me,” I told the reporter. A few blocks away, angry mobs were looting stores and setting buildings on fire as the bad season got even worse.
My girl -- my only love, my wife -- and I, we sing a different Gershwin tune these days, because when summertime comes, the living is mostly easy. Yet the world is still on fire -- is always on fire somewhere, I guess -- and can still make us worried and afraid even as it calls us to charity and compassion.
All the same, in a life so short, when moments of joy come to you, that creates a kind of duty too. When you are in the grip of something extraordinary, you have an obligation to dance, even while the city burns.