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Four walls and a nuclear reactor core


When I decided to move a couple of years ago, I sat down and made a

list of all the things I felt my new place would have to have for me

to be happy.


First on the list was central air-conditioning. For some reason,

my body tends to run a few degrees above normal, and I’ve been known

to perspire watching commercials for Ortega chilies. I had to have

central air. Nothing else would do.


Also on the list were such life-sustaining basics as an in-house

washer and dryer, a dishwasher, security parking and a Trader Joe’s

within walking distance. I wrote these demands down in all

seriousness, not realizing how much I’d been spoiled at my last


I picked up the Sunday paper and began cross-checking the

apartments available out there against what I was capable of paying.

L.A.'s housing crunch was in full swing, and I quickly began


realizing I wouldn’t be able to afford what I wanted unless I was

willing to commute from Central America. So, grudgingly at first,

then frantically, I began crossing some of the “must-have” amenities

off my list, then revisiting the apartment listings. Items that just

minutes earlier I had considered deal-breakers were tossed over the

side like luggage from a sinking yacht, and still I found nothing

within my price range. Eventually, every item on the list had a line

drawn through it. I bitterly scrawled at the bottom of the page,


“Must have four walls and a ceiling.”

After some reflection, I added: “Walls negotiable.”

With this new, more reasonable outlook on apartment hunting,

things began to happen. My friend Elizabeth was also looking to move,

so we joined forces and soon found a nice two-level, two-bedroom

apartment in a reasonably pleasant neighborhood. It had none of the

amenities I had initially demanded, including the big one -- central

air. Instead, a great, brown boxcar of an air conditioner jutted out

of the downstairs front of the apartment, just below the window.

But come on, this isn’t Tucson, I assured myself. This is L.A. How

bad can it get? We took the apartment.

On the day I was moving in, I asked my new next-door neighbor,

Pat, if the place got hot in the summertime. Pat grimaced.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” he replied, “it gets hot here. Some days it

can get really hot here.”

“The air conditioners work, though, right?” I asked anxiously.

Pat grimaced again. I didn’t like the look of that grimace. It was

the grimace of a man who understood suffering all too well.

“Oh, sure, they cool the downstairs up pretty good,” he said. “But

the air never quite makes it upstairs. It can get bad. On some days,

I just go and get a hotel room, or I wouldn’t be able to sleep.”

Oh no, I thought to myself. But Elizabeth and I were already too

committed to back out now, so I figured I’d just have to live with

what came along.

As the days progressed into June and the daily temperatures

steadily increased, I began to suspect that maybe Pat had overstated

things. Sure, it got a little warm inside, but nothing too bad. Then,

one day I arrived home from work, anxious to get inside because it

was really hot and muggy out. I opened the door and immediately

thought I’d stepped into a scene from “Backdraft.”

“Oh my God!” I shouted. It was so stiflingly hot inside the air

literally shimmered in front of me. Unable to believe that this could

be caused by mere weather, my mind immediately assumed one of the

upstairs rooms was ablaze.

“Fire! Fire!” I shrieked, and ran to grab the TV. “Elizabeth!


Elizabeth ran downstairs. “What fire? Dude, it’s just hot, OK? We

just need to open some windows.”

I stared at her with wide eyes. “But -- how can we live like this?

People die from this kind of heat!”

“No one’s going to die from the heat! Just relax and open some


I went around the apartment opening every window in the place. I

opened the back door as wide as it would go. Then I went upstairs. If

downstairs was an inferno, upstairs was a nuclear reactor core.

Earlier in the week, I had put up some movie posters in my room with

adhesive tape. The posters were now on the floor, the adhesive having

liquefied right off the walls.

Gasping, I opened all the upstairs windows, then ran back

downstairs. Still, it was unbearable. Finally, I turned on the old

air-conditioning unit.

The air conditioner groaned like an old man waking up from a coma.

It shook and shuddered, then switched itself off. Desperate, I turned

it back on. It made a low, moaning noise, coughed dust and leaves

across the living room floor, then finally kicked on.

Soon the room began to cool off, and after awhile the place

actually began to feel capable of supporting human life. “Well, thank

God for that,” I sighed, and walked upstairs. “Oh my God!”

Upstairs, someone had turned off the coolant valves in the

reactor, and we were in meltdown. Apparently, the old air conditioner

didn’t actually cool the air, it just pushed the hot air up into my

room, where it was now a balmy 105 degrees. I ran downstairs.

“I can’t live like this, Elizabeth, I just can’t,” I muttered.

“We’re going to have to get to get out of this lease.”

“We are not getting out of this lease,” my roommate said firmly.

“Look. We’ve got a nice place here, and I’m not giving it up because

you can’t take a little heat. So toughen up!”

I sighed. Despite the heat, Elizabeth was right and I knew it. The

truth was, the apartment was reasonably priced and in a nice

neighborhood. Unless we were willing to pay more for rent, and we

weren’t, this was as good as it was going to get.

Getting adjusted to the apartment’s heat that first summer was a

major challenge. Despite all the oscillating fans I bought and all

the tips given me by friends (“Keep the lights off as much as

possible” “Shut everything up tight when you leave in the morning to

trap the cool air in!” “Buy a barbecue grill and cook outside!”), I

was never able to get my room to a comfortable temperature the entire


The heat in the apartment caused me to curtail certain activities,

such as movement. All evening, I would sit in front of the air

conditioner watching TV or reading. Going upstairs before 11 p.m. was

an impossibility. Sitting motionless in that bubble of artificially

cooled air, I kept imagining I was an astronaut, trapped inside a

bio-dome on the surface of Mercury.

Eventually, summer moved into fall, and, one miraculously

beautiful October night, I walked into my bedroom and realized the

air temperature actually felt brisk. I had survived my first summer

on the equator.

A short time later, I ran into my neighbor Pat as he was taking

his trash out into the alley. “Looks like the leaves are getting

ready to fall,” he said, gesturing to the castor trees in front of

our apartments.

“Yeah, I noticed,” I said. “Winter’s coming up fast. So how cold

does it get around here in the wintertime?”

Pat grimaced.

“Well, I’ll tell you ...”

* DAVID SILVA is the editor of the Rancho Cucamonga Voice and the

Claremont-Upland Voice. Reach him at (909) 484-7019, or by e-mail at