Working outside might not be a workable idea

July 19, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SHVITZING — OUT THERE in the noonday sun yesterday, we find Allen and Craig Hall, father and son, along with two teenage kids along for the grind. They're all standing outside the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, laying down pavement markings on Broadway just below Madison, and shvitzing like there's no tomorrow.

Shvitzing - that's a Yiddish word that crosses all boundaries of religion and race, of class and caste. It means to perspire, to sweat, to swelter and wilt. You want to understand shvitzing, you spend a few seconds inside a steam bath until your nostrils seem to have been set afire. Or, similarly, venture anywhere around the Baltimore metro area this week.

We are now a community joined in simultaneous, orchestrated shvitz, as choreographed by some fearsome weather gods in a particularly foul mood. The temperature hits the 90s, but the experts explain that the heat-humidity combination makes it feel like a hundred. As if we needed experts to tell us.

Out here in the relentless sun on Broadway, it is at least 147 degrees. And the weather forecasters are all saying this is only the start of a particularly bad week.

"Drink plenty of water," says Craig Hall. "That's the one thing you do."

"Right, water. But these guys are young," says Allen Hall. He is 68. "They let me have the good stuff."

He stands there in mid-shvitz, in his T-shirt and shorts. He lifts one delicate pinky in the air and wraps his beefy fist around a bottle of Perrier, whose makers should shoot TV commercials around this scene: Perrier, the pretentious water for real men.

"And me," says Craig Hall, running his hands over a sodden black T-shirt, "wearing this. You know, I think the black shirt is a bad wardrobe choice this morning."

Black retains heat. The T-shirt bears a message across the front: "Trust me. I do this all the time."

"Do what?" somebody asks. "Sweat?"

"Oh, yeah," says Hall. "But" - he points across Broadway, to the nearby school of medicine, "at least we're in the right place if we dehydrate."

The men work for the Whiting-Turner Construction Co., contracted by the city to put down road markings where Broadway construction has obliterated the old lines. They do this year-round. This heat, they tell you, is worse than the coldest days of winter.

"If it's cold," says Craig Hall, "you can pile on clothing. This kind of weather, even if you're out here nude, you'd still be hot."

This, happily, is a theme that runs across numerous conversations in the heat: Why not nudity?

In the 700 block of Broadway, in the heart of Fells Point, carpenter Tom Riemer's part of a five-person crew putting in windows and cornices for a new furniture store. They work for BRE Construction, out of Curtis Bay. There's dust all over the place - just the right irritating touch for such a sweltering day - and only slight relief from a floor fan.

"The best way to stay cool on a day like this?" says Riemer. "Take all our clothes off and jump in the bay."

He's standing on the street, offering instructions to three guys working on the windows one floor up. Heat rises. Up there, a big fellow named Tim Clifton lifts his shirt to mop his head.

"Measure the bull nose to the outside of the green on the cornice," Riemer calls up. Clifton leans his big body halfway out the window, so he's suspended about 20 feet above Broadway. Heat and dust, 20 feet up, the temperature soaring: It's not a great combination.

"Days like this, you drink a lot of water and let everybody take some breaks," says Kathy Windisch, who works on the crew.

"If I see somebody ready to fall out," says Riemer, "I sit 'em down with a cool towel on their head. Or send 'em home. Me and heat don't get along. I lived in Alaska, in Germany, in England. Heat's worse than cold, any time. One time, I had a crew working out in Pikesville, it hit 105. We dipped our shirts in cold water and wrapped 'em around our heads, like turbans."

Along the big Broadway square just above Thames Street, dozens of pigeons sit wilting in the heat. But they're no dummies. They're all clustered in the shade. Melanie Mattoon and Sarah Sebald make their way up the street. They work for Whitman Requardt, hired by the city to measure crowded Fells Point parking areas. Each carries a bottle of water.

When it gets too hot?

"We go back to the office," says Mattoon.

"And sit in the air conditioning," says Sebald.

Sanity must prevail. Inside nearby Jimmy's Restaurant, owner Nick Filipides, basking in the air conditioning, remembers his basic training days in the Army. He was stationed in San Antonio in the sweltering summer of 1967.

"First thing every morning," he recalled, "they'd send us out on a two-mile run. Then we'd get into the rest of the physical stuff. The thing is ... "

He paused for perspective. "Whenever the temperature got to 95, they'd put a red flag up. That meant no more outdoor activities."

Maybe that's the answer: When it gets this hot, no outside work. If the Army can figure this out, why not the rest of us?

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