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In the Spike Lee classic Do The Right Thing, radio jockey Mister Senor Love Daddy sets up the premise of the movie with the lines:
"I have today's weather."
He laughs like a madman. The camera then cuts to an old, withering man lying on a sweaty bedsheet. The weather adds to the misery of a tableau of characters already on edge. The heat and misery build up slowly, trapped in the concrete and the sweaty brows of everyone in the neighborhood. It magnifies already existing differences of race, politics, and class. Spike Lee builds up tension to the edge of violence as the unusually warm day progresses, but violence never arrives, until at the very end.
Austin had over 60 days of triple-digit weather this summer. There was no violence. People completely submitted themselves to the heat. Even the complaints about it were procedural. The weather was something to be mentioned and got out of the way early in a conversation. Occasionally, someone posted an Instagram story about the vagaries of climate change. No one wanted to admit to weakness, to be vulnerable to the whims of nature, so they usually followed up with an Instagram story of them at the locally popular natural spring, Barton Springs. Everything can be solved by going to Barton Springs.
Unlike New York, southwestern cities like Austin have central air conditioning almost everywhere. You could imagine air conditioning as one continuous tunnel taking you from home to your car and then to the office or coffee shop. The variability of air conditioning even becomes its own microclimate. People always carry a crumpled sweatshirt with them, just in case it gets too drafty in a coffee shop or grocery store. If you are unfortunate enough to walk along a busy street, you might encounter someone who is not like you and may see things you like and things that disgust you. This is what happens to the characters in Do The Right Thing. The unemployed, cat-calling black men have to contend with the Korean family that has opened a restaurant in what was once their patented neighborhood. The Italians have to serve the black customers. But, If you move through a long, continuous tunnel of air conditioning, you have to contend only with people just like you. Sure they may look different, but the people in the air-conditioned local coffee shop are just like me. They get the same pop cultural references, carefully wear clothes that stand out just a bit but not too much, and don't balk at a $5 cappuccino. Air conditioning brings a certain uniformity and routine to everyday life around here.
An exception to the uniformity imposed by air conditioning is the poorly used public transit system. Take an air-conditioned bus to downtown Austin in the dead of summer, and you will notice that many bus riders are homeless or mentally ill. Each bus is a little moving oasis for someone who occupies a different plane of reality than me and you.
The comfort and routine of air conditioning give the streets an air of sublime horror. When you see someone walking on the concrete sidewalk at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, you can't help but wonder what went wrong in their life. I have walked along these streets in the summer and asked myself this very question several times - What went wrong in my life that I find myself walking along sidewalks that suddenly disappear?
I recently heard on the radio, in my air-conditioned car, that it would take 100 years for the incomplete sidewalks of Austin to be completed. I hear about droughts and energy crises like whispers in the wind. No one I know materially feels the effects of a drought here. That is for people who live outside air conditioning. I don't even know who those people are. They are faceless and mythical. The violence of the summer in this part of the world is more ambient. It happens out of sight. When the violence is ambient, it becomes casual. I can ignore it, like swatting a gnat that annoys me, and move on with my life set to the perfect temperature. Sometimes, I'll see a depleted lake from a distance and sigh, then take a picture with it in the background. Maybe I'll look back at it one day, and long for the days of sublime horror unfolding in the background.
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