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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 42.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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How I learned to love the heat wave -- and saw Madison as a tourist
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I was astonished to look from my room's window, back toward the humdrum neighborhood I've lived in for a dozen years, unnoticing.
Credit:Jay Rath

By Monday, July 2, we had already been hitting the 90s every day for six days in a row. But I didn''t mind -- at least not too much -- because I had fans on constantly. In fact, they were so effective that I had somehow, miraculously stopped sweating!

I didn't know it, but I was experiencing heat exhaustion -- if not worse.

The management company that runs the place where I live forbids air conditioning. I own one, but it was stored in a hall closet. I'd bought it when I first moved in, never suspecting that it would trip the circuit breakers within minutes, every time I tried to use it.

And even if I wanted to try to live with a few minutes of A.C. at a time, my landlord imposes a hefty fine for trying to do so. (The neighbors and I have been back and forth with the city of Madison building inspector and the Tenant Resource Center, and nothing can be done.)

I'm freelance, so I work at home. My sleep schedule had turned me into a Central American. I'd get up at 4 a.m., do as much work as I could, and then siesta through the hottest hours of each day. Even so, the effects of heat are cumulative; without any real relief, I was growing sicker and sicker without even knowing it.

I'm not a complete wuss. Until recently, I'd still done my regular three-mile run early each morning, before it got too warm. But confusion is one of the symptoms of heat exhaustion. I was certainly confused, increasingly irritable, and I was getting very little work done -- although major deadlines were piling up.

Other people check Facebook multiple times a day. I was checking The Weather Channel's website hourly. I'd check the daily forecast, 10-day forecast, hourly forecast, note expected humidity levels and use another website to calculate the heat index. I'd anxiously compare all the local television meteorologists as they came on the air each day.

I finally became suspicious of my health when I noticed red marks on my chest. One Wikipedia entry later, and I knew I had heat rash, which I previously thought was reserved for infants. (The next day I started having cramps, yet another symptom.)

As I looked ahead at the 10-day forecast and saw several 100F days, I knew that I had to do something. I have five windows facing the southwest, and every day my indoor temperature exceeds the outdoor temperature by at least five degrees, even with everything buttoned up early in the day and with the blinds drawn.

Add around another 10 degrees for the heat index, and I knew I'd cook.


Chapter 2: The Heroic Two-Block Walk

I started to look for a hotel. I doubted I could afford one, but I figured I had no choice. It was either that or stay another two days at home and then check into a hospital. After a little research, I hit on the Concourse -- just a little more than two blocks away. I called, explained my situation and immediately got sympathy, a reservation and a special rate. I could check in the next day.

Turns out I wasn't the only one. During my stay I ran into a couple with a lot of luggage. They live on Jenifer Street. "Our power went out," they said, sheepishly, before I explained my own situation. I felt as if I had just met fellow soldiers battling the oppressive Army of the Humid Sun. We were all in this together.

On Tuesday, July 3, I sat at home, anxiously awaiting the 3 p.m. check-in time. I made a list of what I wanted to take. I knew the hotel was so close that I could easily walk back in minutes, but the temperature and humidity made it feel as if I would be swimming from one island to another, far in the distance. Once I got there, I knew I wouldn't want to leave the hotel anytime soon.

I checked in with a backpack and a laptop. I had a few changes of underwear and a fresh shirt, a shaving kit, a swimsuit and that was it. I looked like an unshaven puddle, but the desk clerk, who knew why I was there, could hardly have been more welcoming.

Then into the elevator, up to room 811, and then to the air conditioning unit, which I immediately dialed down to 64 degrees. I needed it like it was medicine. Heaven.

I had a notion that I likely smelled like a county fair, and not the nice part with the rides and 4-H exhibits, so the next task was to shower. Then room service. I hadn't eaten much lately -- too hot -- so I decided on chicken soup. I was shocked when the tray with the nice little miniature carnations in the nice little vase arrived. The soup smelled and tasted like canned tuna. Oddly enough, so did the bacon cheeseburger I ordered that night.

I was pretty ticked off, and I almost called the front desk to complain, but I had a suspicion that maybe I wasn't tasting things just right. I put the hamburger in my room's small refrigerator. Hamburger pixies must have visited overnight, because the next day it smelled and tasted great.

I drank as much water as I could, and then I had the first good night's sleep in days, dozing to radio remembrances of Andy Griffith, who had died earlier in the day, not of heat stroke.

The next morning, the Fourth of July, I was a little dizzy and cramped. It would take another day for that to pass. But I felt a lot better, and with along with my improved spirits came guilt; it was foolish to spend money at a hotel when my own place was so close. But guilt vanished after I walked home to pick up more clothes and to transfer some computer files. At 6 a.m., my building was still holding all the heat from the day before. I was covered in sweat within minutes. But at least I was sweating again. (A neighbor later told me that, at the peak of the heat, she could barely take two steps in her non-air-conditioned apartment without wanting to throw up.)

It felt so good to get back to the Concourse, that throughout the day I'd go on short walks outside, just to feel the contrast when I walked back into the cool of the lobby. The desk clerk -- the same one who had checked me in -- understood, and laughed along with me.


Chapter 3: Welcome! Now Go Home

It's difficult already to recall what last week was like, now that we all have survived it. At the time, with wildfires in the west and power outages in the east, it felt as if the whole country were in flames. And if you didn't have air conditioning, your primary emotion was hopelessness.

I have relatives who invited me to visit them out of town, but I had to stay in Madison because I was rewriting and expanding an Isthmus cover story. Isthmus news editor Judy Davidoff, horrified that I had no relief, kindly offered me some open office space. But I knew I needed air-conditioned sleep, as well as air-conditioned work. After my first early-morning trip back home, I never again questioned a single cent of what I was spending at the Concourse. It was a bargain.

And I got a lot done. During my brief stay I filed three stories with two different papers, completed a 20-plus page job application, and even started to tinker again with an unfinished novel. I got up to 21 laps a day in the hotel's pool and, after the first day, never, ever watched a local forecast. It no longer mattered. I was free.

And I began to see Madison differently.

Let me share a little secret about those of us who live downtown. We tend not to like you. Any of you. And by "tend" I mean "at all."

When I first moved downtown, it must have seemed a magical place, but that's so long ago that I can't remember. To me, it's just where I live. While the rest of Madison enjoys our downtown concerts, markets and festivals, to us you're simply in the way. We're just trying to get to the grocery or dry cleaner's.

That sounds impossibly rude, so let me explain. Imagine 5,000 or so people visiting your own neighborhood, twice a week, every week of the spring, summer and fall. After a few years, you might get a little testy, too.

But now I was no longer living downtown as a resident. I was living as a tourist.

I am one of those odd people who really, really, like hotels. I like everything about them. I like the little soaps. I like the little shampoos. I like the impossibly white towels and I even like the ice machines. The only thing I didn't like about the Concourse was the full-length mirror in my room. (I really must start to watch my diet.)

But more than that, I was suddenly surrounded by people who were seeing downtown Madison with new eyes. Mine became new, too. I was astonished to look from my room's window, back toward the humdrum neighborhood I've lived in for a dozen years, unnoticing. I thought it was so beautiful that it would break your heart.

Then I closed the curtains. The outside heat was coming off the glass something fierce.

I liked meeting the tourists. There was a couple from sultry Atlanta who were aghast to learn that I lived here and had no air conditioning. Some grandparents from Minneapolis agreed that the hotel pool was only slightly more humid than the outside air. And then there were the flight crews.

For some reason, on Thursday night the Concourse filled with uniformed American Airlines personnel. You can scarcely come up with an image more emblematic of travel. The lobby was always full of people coming and going, but braid on navy blazers underscored that this was a place where everyone was new, going somewhere, having small adventures.

Friday was romance day, as multiple wedding parties checked in, dressed up, and did their various pre-wedding things, giggling -- and cursing the weather when they had to go outside in tuxes and formal dresses.

My native Madison snark didn't entirely go out the window. After I ran out of the stack of magazines I eventually brought over from home, I dug into the hotel's tourist literature. Madison Magazine puts out a hardbound "Visitor's Guide" that includes a three-day itinerary of exploration. Day two is about "Westside Madison," and notes that "Madison's wealth of diversity is your greatest quandary today, so choose your afternoon activity." Recommended activities include trips to such diverse attractions as the Cave of the Mounds, University Ridge Golf Course and Hilldale. Quandry indeed!

The title of the Greater Madison Convention and Visitor's Bureau's "Official Visitors Guide" reads like computer code: Madison: Going>Beyond>VisitTM. Under the "How to Localize" heading, which advises one to "Shop Like a Local," you learn that at the Dane County Farmers' Market, "shoppers amble around the square in a clockwise formation," which is not only dubious usage but is also untrue. Pity the poor farmers' marketer who tries to swim upstream like a salmon; it's counter-clockwise, of course.

Still, I got the hint. Live like it's all new. And for me, it really was. Like so many downtown residents who have grown inured, I hadn't been to one of the Concerts on the Square in years. I went last week. Caught the end of the show when they shot off the cannon and then did a Sousa march for the 4th. Got a little misty.

I even went to the farmers' market. I ate a cinnamon roll. I spent a lot of time watching people. I ran into lots of old friends. I walked up and down State Street a half dozen times.

I now love the heat wave, or at least how it changed me.

It's never too hot, if you have air conditioning to return to.


Chapter 4: All's Well That Ends in Air Conditioning

The heat finally broke, and before my bank account did, I returned home. Everything's already starting to fade, but I'm going to try to hold onto my tourist eyes as long as I can, and always see everything as if it's new.

We had 11 days in a row above 90, all but two of them 95 or higher, three of them above 100, and God knows how many more that felt that way, once you added the heat index.

As I unlocked my door Saturday, carrying my backpack, laptop and a sack of dirty laundry, I heard a strange whirring coming from my neighbor's apartment. Odd. Anyway, I'd had everything unplugged while I was away, so the first thing I did was to connect everything back up. But before I turned anything on, I thought about that sound.

I checked the hallway closet. Then I checked with my neighbor. Turns out I was right.

In defiance of the landlord, in my absence he had taken my air conditioner. Without my apartment drawing power on the same circuit, it seemed to be working just fine.

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