The humidity in Phoenix hit 40% this week. And while that isn’t very high as percentages go, when the temperature hits 110, the air begins to feel like dishwater that has been wrung out of a washcloth. It’s a feeling that was very frequent in my childhood when summer covered our town with its sweaty palms leaving me with nothing to do but wander listlessly around my own house.
We didn’t have central air conditioning growing up, but we did have two air conditioners. One was in my parents’ room, and the other was built into the wall above my bed. They were like show ponies, only brought out for special occasions. Those special occasions happened to be nights so sticky they made bedsheets feel like plastic wrap. On those nights, my father in all his benevolence would say to me: Turn your air conditioner and tell your sister she can sleep in your room tonight.
It was a feeling of sheer joy.
The air conditioner in my room sounded like a pavement trencher, a growling, cement grinding symphony with three clearly defined acts. The churning angry rattle that meant it was cranking out the cold air, the slight downshift to a less aggressive second gear, and then the short-lived hum of third gear before the angry rattle started again. But as a kid, those sounds didn’t bother me. They soothed me. I looked forward to them. They meant cold air and curling up under the blankets before giggling with my sister about nonsense until we fell asleep.
The next morning we would turn off the air conditioner and keep the bedroom door closed, trying to preserve the cold air for as long as possible (something I did in my own apartment well into my 30s). But eventually, the air would warm which meant there was only one place in the house still cool enough to actually spend time. And that was our basement.
The basement was the in-home escape of my youth. It was both cozy and cool, comfortable and hidden. I would wander around the house looking for something interesting to magically appear. And when nothing did, I would just give up and head down to the basement.
We had a TV down there, a huge 32-inch tube television that weighed 100 pounds, but there wasn’t much to watch during the day. So it sat there like a reflective monolith, its blank screen saying only one thing: No. I itched to turn it on hoping there would be something to watch but I knew there wasn’t. Now I feel quite the opposite of the TV in our home. It itches to be turned on, the millions of movies and shows, begging for our attention as I try constantly to say no.
The basement had a couple of closets and my father’s workroom, a dark catchall of unused tools, a million mismatched nails, and screws, and holiday decorations tucked back by the boiler. The workroom was too dangerous and spooky for me to explore, so I resigned myself to digging through old family photos, playing with legos, or digging through the closets looking for something I had missed on previous explorations. Oftentimes I just ended up splayed out on the couch like a suburban sloth doing nothing at all.
Yes, I was bored. But that was OK.
Today, I have very much forgotten how to do nothing. Truly nothing. Epic amounts of childhood nothing that collapses the space-time continuum and sucks entire days into the ether. Today’s attempts at zoning out are backed by the knowledge I need to spend more time zoning out to help improve the function of my brain. Every minute must be utilized. Every second accounted for.
But the basement enabled that kind of lazy summer lounging that summer should have.
Technology eventually found its way into our basement. A Gateway computer that came in a cow box. A 56K modem that mumbled and hissed as it sought the internet. No longer a place for just nothing, it became my command center for actively exploring chat rooms, creeping around the world wide web and eventually downloading thousands of songs on Napster.
Even with the ungodly amount of hours I spent on that computer creating my addiction to the internet, the basement still had this wonderful “other place” quality. It was easier to get out of my parents’ way.
It was the place I hung out during family parties when I was too young to participate. Where I had sleepovers involving rented movies, Tostitos and queso cheese heated up in a decades-old fondue pot. It was a room of requirement, a modernized 1970s nautical bar with new carpeting, less fake wood. Updated with our older living room furniture now relegated to a second act, the basement partied less and chilled more.
It was always cooler there. Even more so now, in my memory.
I can still feel it.
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