The thrill of the chill

Jul 7, 1999 at 12:00 am

I can barely hear the Lizard of Fun over the dull roar of two window fans, three floor fans and the motor of the wide-open refrigerator. "What?" I shout, wiping sweat from my ears. "I thought you said something."

"I did," yells the Lizard. "I said it’s freaking hot."

"Thanks for the weather report," I reply, trying to fit myself into the refrigerator. "It’s not bad if you pretend we’re in Hawaii."

"Easy for you to say, freak girl. You’re warm-blooded. When the temperature gets higher than 98 degrees, you’ll think your own body is cool. We cold-blooded types can’t control how hot we get. I think I’m gonna boil!"

"You could join me in the fridge," I suggest.

"You could break down and buy an air conditioner," the Lizard replies. "Unless you want to be one of the casualties of this damn heat wave."

"Naah, what we need is more icy comments from you," I say.

"What we need is a big-ass AC unit that kicks out the Btu."

I look at the bowl of ice cream I scooped just five minutes ago. It’s turned into vanilla fudge soup. "You say they just sell those things over the counter?"

"Wahooo!" shouts the Lizard, and dashes to turn on the AC in the car. "You drive. I’ll control the defroster."

We head to the nearest suburban cluster of strip malls, home to a half-dozen or so chain stores identifiable as possible air conditioner points of sale. Target. Kmart. Home Depot. Home Quarters. Builder’s Square. ABC Warehouse. Best Buy. Service Merchandise.

"Is a dehumidifier the same as an air conditioner?" asks the Lizard, scampering through the aisles. "Because that’s all I can find. Also fans. Do you think they’re hiding the air conditioners in secret storage rooms? Are they only for select, preferred customers? What happened to my frequent-AC-buyer punch card?"

Empty-handed, we dash between the car and the stores, from one puddle of conditioned air to another. It feels like going from the swimming pool to the sauna and back again.

"I think we’re outta luck," says the Lizard as we walk into Home Depot. We’re greeted by an array of ceiling fans, floor fans and empty shelves where the air conditioners used to be.

"Two and a half weeks ago, it was like the running of the bulls in here," says the Home Depot salesguy. He shows me a copy of the newspaper advertisement which lists the units that were long ago snapped up: everything from a $300 portable window unit to one that costs nearly $700 and spews out 25,000 Btu of chilliness.

"Okay, what the hell is a Btu?" I ask.

"A Big Temperature Um… um… I dunno," says the Lizard.

Turns out Btu stands for British thermal unit, a measurement of heat. Live humans produce an average of 390 Btu an hour just sitting in their Barcaloungers, and 550 when they’re walking slowly, say, between the air conditioner and the beer fridge.

"Stop!" pants the Lizard. "Don’t move! You’ll make it warmer!"

"If we had an air conditioner, we’d be removing Btu," I point out.

"Well, dandy," says the Lizard, disgruntled by the heat and the lack of purchasable coolness. "Looks like you’re not going to get to try out that Tae-Bo exercise video this weekend after all. You make one extraneous move and I’ll kill you."

Back in the chilly car, the radio news reports record energy consumption from all the air conditioners being used. It’s followed by news of a massive blackout in New York City, where 200,000 people went without power – or air conditioning, or refrigeration, or (gasp!) television – for 19 hours. Other heat-afflicted cities had rolling blackouts, where neighborhoods took turns going without power for 20 minutes at a time to ease the drain on the energy company’s resources. Businesses with interruptible service agreements were having their power switched off just when they needed it the most ("Sounds like whoever thought up that idea already had heat stroke," says the Lizard).

"You know, I’m starting to feel like wanting an air conditioner is a bad idea," I say hesitantly, as we make one last stop. "It seems environmentally irresponsible – isn’t yet another air conditioner, spewing hot air into the atmosphere, just going to make the problem worse?"

"Hey, I’m supposed to be the green one around here," says the Lizard, hauling out what might be the last available air conditioner in metro Detroit from behind a stack of long underwear. "Jackpot!"

We cash in the empties from the car trunk, pay for the unit, and scurry home. The moment we’ve struggled the air conditioner into the window, the house feels miraculously cooler.

"See?" says the Lizard, triumphant. "Doesn’t that feel better already?"

I take a deep breath. "It actually feels comfortable," I say. "I had no idea it would work so well."

The wind picks up and a heavy rain begins to fall. "See, it works great!" says the Lizard. "Now, just wait’ll I plug this baby in. … "