The agonizing heat of late July

With no air conditioning, nights were spent out on the porch

July 22, 2011|Jacques Kelly

The last week in July is Baltimore's agony stretch. That's an observation honed over years spent complaining, suffering and waiting for August. I looked out a window facing the roofs of East Baltimore. It seemed as if a prankish engineer had turned on steam vents. Baltimore was hissing heat and humidity.

I think of an old July stretch, of how the harbor smelled and its color after the Boston Street packing houses dumped tomato skins in it. Even my family's Guilford Avenue home seemed to object. All that wax laboriously applied to its wood floors over the winter simmered in the summer, producing a scent that combined with wallpaper and plaster walls. We kept the house dark in those days and it was well-ventilated. But my chamber was on the third floor, facing south and east, and under an asphalt roof. The neighbors used to observe, tellingly, that we didn't even use electric fans.

As children, we often spent a long summer day at the movies, in the theater's precious commercial air conditioning. This was pleasant, but we still had to come home.

To make matters worse, there was a family birthday celebration. My uncle Jacques, for whom I was named, arrived on July 27. He loved his mother's homemade Baltimore-style chocolate cake, but there was a house rule of no chocolate or baking in the summer. The kitchen was bright and sunny, and I think my grandmother's rich chocolate icing would have melted like butter.

This situation wasn't all bad. We called upon Fiske's, the wonderful confectioner on Park Avenue near North. Those were the days of highly personal service. There were also house charge accounts or, in a pinch, a cash-on-delivery order. Accordingly, on July 27, the blue Fiske truck arrived. The delivery guy set down a chocolate cake, also Baltimore style, with yellow cake layers and two distinct styles of chocolate, one a butter cream for the layers and a darker chocolate for the outer icing. The ice cream was delivered packed in dry ice. It was always harlequin: pistachio, chocolate, vanilla and orange water ice. This was about the only good thing on July 27.

As delicious as that birthday dessert was, there was no getting around that the day was often brutal, one that otherwise delightful Baltimore rituals could not help.

The last few days of July are the time when the lightning bugs peter out and the cicadas have yet to start sawing away, a sound that means summer is in the seventh inning. But the last week in July was an inning that seemed to never end.

The nights, though technically not as long as winter but interminable in terms of uncomfortable sleeping, were made only a little more bearable by staying up late. We and our Guilford Avenue neighbors lived on our front porches and sat in wicker chairs or swaying gliders. Some people whooshed themselves with paper fans.

Back in June, when the lamplighter came to turn on the street gas lights, some people used his arrival as the signal to turn in. But on a hot July night, this meant nothing. Sometimes my father would break the inertia with a 10:30 p.m. trip to the corner drugstore for lemon phosphates and the first edition of this newspaper. Even our gentlemanly neighbor, Clarence Dankmeyer, who ended the evening by wishing all, "Good night, pleasant dreams," seemed a little less enthusiastic.

An Orioles game at Memorial Stadium helped pass the time. We'd be on the porch and could see the reflected lights from 33rd Street. When the game was over, we'd discuss the extra traffic on 29th Street. Then as now, Baltimore offered adrenalin driving situations. A string of police cars or multiple fire engines at 11:01 and we'd be off on foot to see what was happening. It gave you something to talk about in the morning.

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