Sending a chill up the spine

Weather: Keeping cool comes down to this -- wearing a tastefully hued horseshoe around your neck.

August 11, 1999|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

This is the part of the ad in yesterday's newspaper that first intrigued me: "Can't live without air conditioning?"

Amen, brother, I thought. Not this summer. Not when every day feels like high noon in Nicaragua, minus the street riots.

This is the second part of the ad, the part that made me wonder what is happening to us as a people: "Wear a Personal Cooling System!"

This time I thought: Oh, I don't know ...

The ad, it turned out, was from Sharper Image, the gizmo chain with more than 85 stores nationwide that has made a fortune convincing people they can't live without an oscillating foot stool or a telescope the size of a ballpoint pen or a phone made of polypropylene that looks like a zucchini.

"When it's blazingly hot, don't you dread leaving the air-conditioned comfort of your own home?" the ad chirped. "Now you can ... stay comfortably cool -- and avoid heat stress -- when walking, mowing, gardening, watching sports or concerts ... just about any activity, anywhere."

Accompanying the ad was a photo of a young woman wearing the, ahem, Personal Cooling System around her neck.

It looked like she was wearing a plastic horseshoe.

I don't think any of us -- you, me, even someone who plays professional horseshoes, if there IS such a thing -- wants to walk around with a plastic horseshoe around our neck.

But this woman seemed to have no problem with that look.

She stared directly into the camera -- proudly, serenely -- as if wearing a plastic horseshoe was not only the most normal thing in the world, but even ... fashionable.

And she did look cool -- well, cool in the sense of "not warm."

Plus the price wasn't too bad: 49 bucks.

So I drove over to Towson Town Center and parked the car at 14,000 feet on Level W or whatever of that horrid parking garage, and made my way to Sharper Image.

(Earlier, I had placed a call to Sharper Image headquarters in San Francisco to find out how the Personal Cooling System was selling.

("It's selling well," said a company flack, Kirsten Johnson. "It's one of the top sellers in our stores."

(I was afraid to ask what the top-selling item was. Probably climate-controlled bedroom slippers that play the theme from "Fiddler on the Roof.")

Anyway, at the store, it turned out that the Personal Cooling System comes in two colors, a loud space-age silver and a more demure granite.

I went with the granite, operating on the theory that if you're going to wear a horseshoe around your neck, wear one in a color that might possibly blend into your shirt collar.

Providing, of course, that you actually have a granite-colored shirt in your closet. Which I wasn't sure I had.

But, still.

Before leaving, I watched an infomercial that was playing on a monitor set up by the Personal Cooling System display.

The infomercial showed all these people proudly and serenely wearing their PCS's.

It showed golfers, walkers, gardeners, moms pushing baby carriages in the hot sun. They were all smiling, every one of them.

And they all looked so ... so comfortable.!

By this point, of course, I was nearly throwing my American Express card at the sales clerk.

At home, I tore eagerly into the PCS box and was happy to see that the instruction booklet was not as thick as a NASA flight manual, the way every other instructional booklet is these days.

According to the booklet, the PCS weighs 10 ounces. It runs on a single AA battery.

All you do is pour a little water into the water chamber until the sponges are soaked, shake off the excess water, and you're good to go.

"A tiny, quiet fan creates a gentle breeze and evaporative cooling," the newspaper ad had said.

The instructional booklet was even more seductive: "If you've ever felt the relief of draping a cool towel across your neck or forehead on a hot summer day, then you've experienced the concept behind this Personal Cooling System."

I thought: Oh, yeah, baby. They're playing my song.

It wasn't the best day to test a new Personal Cooling System -- instead of blazing hot, it was a comfy 80 degrees with no humidity.

But if Edward Jenner had waited for perfect conditions to test the smallpox vaccine, we'd still be dropping like flies in the streets.

So I filled the PCS with water, slapped that baby on "Hi" and put it around my neck.

Then I headed for the hottest place I knew -- my tool shed.

Even on a nice day, it's at least 95 degrees in my tool shed. As soon as you open the doors, it feels like a rice paddy in Vietnam.

And if the heat doesn't kill you, the paint fumes will.

In any event, I hung out in the tool shed for a while.

And the Personal Cooling System worked ... OK.

The breeze blowing from the cooling port in the back didn't do much.

But the whole thing did keep my neck cool, which sort of kept the rest of me cool.

Hey, at least I didn't pass out (although then I guess you'd have to blame the paint fumes.)

The thing is, no matter how efficiently the PCS works, no matter how well the cooling plates and cooling ports do their job, it's hard to overlook the essential problem with this device.

And the essential problem is this: you look dorky wearing it.

This may well indicate a character flaw, but I myself could not proudly and serenely wear the Personal Cooling System out in public.

Because I knew that wherever I went (and no matter what color shirt I wore) people would see me and think:

Why is this man wearing a plastic horseshoe around his neck?

And that is not something I could live with, no matter how hot it gets.

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