Going native requires one to love heat


DURING THIS stretch of hot weather I have been trying to behave like a native. I have been trying to ride around in a car without air conditioning. I have opened the windows, rolled along, and tried to make every traffic light, to never stop.

If you halt, the air stops moving through the car windows. Put another way, if you stop your un-air-conditioned car in Baltimore during the summer, you fry.

Unless you are from here, that is. I don't know what it is about being born and bred in this area that makes people feel they don't need the cooling effects of automobile air conditioning. But all over town, even on broilers like yesterday, you see folks in late-model cars with their windows rolled down.

Maybe eating all that crab meat gives the natives a tougher skin or shell. Maybe years of breathing the hot, humid air gives folks a frugal nature. They would rather take the heat than spend the money to run an air conditioner. Maybe they are thinking such lofty thoughts that they don't notice their bodies are on fire. I don't know what it is. All I know is I don't have it.

If auto air conditioning is a test, a way to distinguish the natives from the "come-heres," I flunk. I have lived here 20 years but still worship air conditioning.

This view of Baltimore-area natives is, of course, a vast generalization. A more objective view would be that some, not all natives of the region, couldn't give a hoot about auto air conditioning. But I am past objectivity. I have been riding around all week in a stifling car and all I can think about is finding some shade and a cool beverage.

I did not willingly put myself in a rolling inferno. When I bought the car, a Ford Taurus station wagon, back in 1993, the air conditioner worked fine. For several summers my family and I would ride around town in the station wagon with the windows rolled up and the air conditioner turned on, even though this behavior marked us as "outsiders."

But this year, the air conditioner stopped working. I took the car to two mechanics. One said $600, maybe more, to fix it. Another said probably $1,200. The consensus seemed to be that the condenser, the accumulator and probably the hoses of the air-conditioning system needed replacement. In short, the air conditioner was shot.

One mechanic suggested I sell the car "in the winter," when air conditioning wouldn't be needed. Another suggested I call the Ford folks in Michigan and ask them if it was normal that their air conditioners lasted only five years. So I did.

The woman who answered my call to the Ford customer-service line yesterday grieved with me over the loss of my air conditioner. And she agreed with me that $1,200 was a lot of money to spend on a 5-year-old car with 78,000 miles on it. But she also said that as far as warranties go, the death of the air conditioner was my tough luck.

This week I got a ride but not much sympathy from a fellow I work with. I will call my colleague "Cool Bob." Cool Bob is a native of Baltimore. I noticed that as he skillfully maneuvered his Honda through late-afternoon traffic, he rarely had to come to a stop. The breeze was always blowing through his car windows, which were rolled down. His car had an air conditioner but it was turned off. Cool Bob told me he rarely feels the need to run it.

I wondered if he secretly feels that people like me, who need auto air conditioning, are lacking courage, or "coolness."

If so, he is right. I gotta have it. Luckily, the air conditioner in my family's second car is working. So now I have a plan. I will get up early in the morning, so I can be the first one out the door and beat my wife to the air-conditioned car. Some days my 17-year-old son will want one of the cars. On those days my wife and I will share the car with the air conditioner and leave the "hot" car at home for our son to drive.

I figure the kid he is young and fit and can handle the heat better than I. Moreover, he is a native.

Pub Date: 6/27/98

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