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
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
“Yeah, I noticed,” I said. “Winter’s coming up fast. So how cold
does it get around here in the wintertime?”
“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