Enduring Baltimore's heat

One day at a time, one night at a time


As the temperature soared to 100 degrees in Baltimore yesterday, Josephine Harmanson and some of her children cooled off outside their rowhouse in the 800 block of N. Monroe St. Like thousands of city residents, they live in houses that lack air conditioning.

"You just pray that it gets a little cooler. And not complain," Harmanson said. "Complaining doesn't change anything."

Most of Harmanson's neighbors on her side of the street have air conditioners protruding from second- and third-floor windows. But Harmanson said her home's electrical wiring can't handle the extra burden of whirring window units. After last summer, she gave up.

"Every time we plug in the air conditioner, it cuts everything in the house," she said.

Harmanson and her six children have learned that the best way to beat the heat is to get out of the house. Yesterday, she braided a teenage neighbor's hair under a red maple tree in front of the West Baltimore house as two of her young children sat nearby in white plastic deck chairs.

"That's why I come outside," she said. "When it gets like that, I try my best to just tell [the children] to go, go outside for a while. ... Go outside and just let me sit here for five, 10 minutes and get myself together, because it's hot and I'm frustrated and I'm irritated and I know you all feel the same way I do."

As the sun blazed, more of Harmanson's children sat by the front steps, chomping ice cubes, waving at passing cars and soliciting horn blares from passing delivery trucks.

Harmanson and the children take the heat in stride. The children splash in a plastic molded baby pool in the backyard, drink water, Kool-Aid and iced tea and walk to get snowballs from Mr. Fred's stand at the end of the block.

Inside the darkened house, a handful of electric fans and the television were running. One child, Jenelda, lay curled up in the corner of a beige sofa watching The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy on the Cartoon Network, two stationary fans aimed in her direction. Her favorite character, though, is SpongeBob SquarePants, she said.

Elizabeth Stokes, Harmanson's mother, who also lives in the house, came downstairs in a housedress to get a glass of water before getting ready for work. For Stokes, work is a welcome relief: In the evening, she helps prepare chicken in the fresh meats section of Holly Poultry.

"I wear three sweatshirts, two paints of pants, three, four pairs of socks," she said. "It's the freezer really."

Out by the front steps, Rosalie Artis, 15, sat with her mother and their neighbor, Stephanie Richardson, who lives three doors down. Richardson - known as Miss Princess - has air conditioners in her home but said she prefers the shady spot in front of the Harmanson home.

A few minutes later, Jacob Harmanson, 3, emerged from the house, coolly and sparely dressed in a pair of white Rescue Heroes underpants.

"Every time he puts on clothes he doesn't do nothing but sweat, sweat, sweat," Harmanson said.

Jacob sat quietly on the sidewalk and looked in the basement windows at the family's two pit bull dogs, ChiChi and Sunshine, who were kept in out of the sun.

"I think it's really a double standard and discrimination that women can't walk around with their shirts off," Richardson joked. Across from Harmanson's home, on the west side of the 800 block of N. Monroe St., only two houses have window-unit air conditioners.

The sidewalk was empty throughout the morning and early afternoon as the sun shone brightly on the house fronts. Harmanson said people on the sunny side of the street simply stay indoors until the shadows shift to their side of the street. But with the red maple just in front of her house - the only surviving tree on the block - Harmanson has some respite from the sunshine all day long.

At Harmanson's home the upstairs bedrooms were particularly hot, and Monday night, as the heat wave continued moving into the area, she had her children sleep in the dining room. She spread blankets on the floor and let them sleep amid the fans, leaving the front door open for a while so a breeze could blow in from the street.

It can be especially challenging to keep the family comfortable overnight, Harmanson said. But for her, it's the coolest time. Late at night, she sits beneath the maple tree and pats her feet on the sidewalk.

"About 1 o'clock, everybody was sleeping, I went and sat out on the front steps," she said. "I sat out there until about 3 o'clock [yesterday] morning. It's peaceful and quiet. That's my quiet time."

"You always do that?" Jenelda asked, looking up at her mother.

"Yeah," said Harmanson. "When you all go to sleep."


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