Ford’s Sensorium
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Ford’s Sensorium

Prospect Park

NYC in the summers

I felt like writing tonight, so…

It is unfashionable to express this, but I love New York City in the summer. Tonight I sat outside on the balcony and used our electric grill (less illegal than other grills) to make dinner. Our fancy electronic meat thermometer read 94 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s before I put it into any meat. I was just very happy out there, atop Coney Island Avenue, breathing in the soot and drinking a beer. The summer here is nothing like pleasant, and it smells bad and your clothes and lungs are covered in particulates. Lots of people try to leave every weekend, for beachy weekend places. We’ll go somewhere in late August but otherwise the whole family is here every weekday, every weekend.

In the winter, and fall, things are crisp, and the light falls softly and everything is in taupes and grays. In the spring the city looks like its most postcard self. But when it’s 101 degrees and you walk down a treeless and hot corridor of Madison Ave or 5th Ave, or go down Flatbush Ave in Brooklyn, every street becomes hypersaturated and hallucinatory. You feel the sun on your face, your clothes on your skin, your shoes on your feet, your hair on your head, and your phone in your pocket.

There’s no good way to dress. There are women in expensive gauzy outfits that would fold up to wallet size, and men who are great at suits. Shades of salmon come out of hiding. But the rest of us, who aren’t really summer dressers, have to make do with various draperies, with little chance of success. You’re judged for going for comfort and baring your legs or (if male) wearing sandals; you’re judged for choosing discomfort, too. You can never deal with the back of your neck, so you’re always at least a little burned, and you need blue aloe-vera goop steadily at hand. You become hot to the touch, and thus another source of heat.

You can go inside a subway or bus or store or office and be frozen. Or a movie. It’s pleasant but your body knows it’s temporary. Also, all of this cold is being dumped back onto the sidewalk, or into the subway tunnels, as exhaust. So when you step outside the blast will hit you. That city-defining blast.

The parks are green, jungly. Prospect Park is muddy and filled with people staking out tiny, temporary estates for parties and reunions. They have complex tents and dozens of rental chairs. Whole thousand-yard stretches of walkway are covered in a low-hanging gray barbecue haze that hurts your eyes and nostrils.

Sometimes you think you are going to die. Last year, during the office summer party, we went to a park in Bay Ridge and had to all cluster under one long branch for the shade. Then we walked to a bar at high noon and it was all uphill. It was bad going. At one point I broke off from the group and bought a half-gallon of water and sat outside and drank it. I felt sure that I was going to die right then, and I welcomed this. But then the shade and the hydration did their tricks and I made it to the bar, drank more water, and let many hours pass until I cooled down. I took a car home and slurred my words and slept like I was in a bed of gelatin.

When you go to the further parts of the outer boroughs, there’s still lots of color. I live pretty far out in a mixed Pakistani-Bangladeshi-Jewish-South-American-Mexican-Caribbean-Black-White-Other neighborhood so you see things like the big Bangladeshi banquet hall holding a quinceanera party with a man selling cologne outside while a mariachi band plays and the sign reads DELICIOUS KULFI. Neon signs are relatively rare, but they’ve been supplanted by super-candlewatt LED nightmare visual-screamy signs. I love this. I feel like I won the lottery, when I walk home past the light-up signs that say LOTTERY in wavy red-white-and-green.

You know how ancient Greek and Roman art, the sculptures in marble, were painted to be lifelike? This is one of those AMAZING HISTORY FACTS. The paint wears off and the marble remains, and that’s what gets dug up 1,500 years later. For example the arch in Washington Square Park could feature a brightly painted George Washington, but instead it’s yet more shades of marble, as if the sculptors wanted to make a ruin. If you want to see George Washington in color, you need to pay to see Hamilton. At least we have the Staten Island Ferries, named for lesser politicians, which bob around like tangerines, or the Statue of Liberty in tarnished key lime. When I walk around Manhattan sometimes it seems like Times Square is a pan into which all the color drained.

I think that’s why I love NYC in the summer: Out the window of my bus is the East River and I can’t bear to look at it because it’s ceaseless white light; the rivers become light; the buildings turn white; the skyscrapers shine like torches, and why would torches burn in the afternoon; the playgrounds have signs warning people not to touch the rubber mats; and tourists trudge damply from sight to sight, whimpering, parched, holding on to scaffolding for support, only to find its metal rods are hot to the touch. Natives are faring no better. The city sometimes spins itself as a place that was dug up and preserved, a monument to itself, but the summer makes it obvious that it is still alive and corrupt, with that strange sour glow that, since everyone agrees it’s terrible, insufferable, exhausting, and awful, must at least somewhat represent the true face of this place.

A collection of sensations (to see what sticks)

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Paul Ford

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