Delawareans like to complain about the heat and humidity, but until you’ve sloshed a New Orleans mile in my shoes and felt the squish of sock against sneaker start after a block, I’ll beg your deference. In August the air there converts from a heated gas into a chewable gel, and no cliché about the heat and humidity does the condition justice except maybe one: It is entirely possible for you to cut the air with a knife.
It can’t be just any blade, mind you. A dull knife will not cut the gelatinous atmosphere cleanly. It will merely mash your slice of air into something resembling a lump of putty that is difficult to digest. A filet or paring knife works better, especially if you prefer to breathe in smaller, more digestible chunks.
There is nothing quite like that first blast as you step into the furnace of early morning, fluttering arcs of heat and steam already dancing merrily from the rain forest-thick dew of dawn. By the time you reach your car in the driveway, you feel like you’ve stepped back into your shower, this time with all clothes on, your once-crisp shirt and trousers clinging like another membrane to your glistening skin. You suddenly realize what it must feel like to be an oyster.
Condensation and perspiration merge into one unending sea of salty respiration, so you arrive at work as if you’ve been washed ashore after a shipwreck. Antiperspirants work, but only those industrial-strength formulations used to seal leaks on oil tankers.
Many New Orleanians take their ironing and cooking outdoors after the afternoon rains have left enough steam to power all the locomotives of the early 19th century. Large bowls of rice and vegetables are set out in front yards to steam, along with ironing boards and hampers of damp wash. The vapors rise from the sidewalks and streets in clouds that turn the city into the world’s largest outdoor sauna.
New Orleans in August is the only place in the country where children are rewarded by being sent to their rooms and punished by being sent outdoors. No directive is more chilling to a child than to be told suddenly, “All right, mister, you’re grounded. Now go outside and stay there.”
Swimming pools, popular in the city at this time, are filled with children splashing about, fully clothed, unaware that they had stopped walking toward the pool and actually entered it.
Nights bring some relief: Biblical swarms of mosquitoes—flying piranhas—whose bites take your mind off the heat and humidity. A few minutes enjoying the broil of night is enough to have inhaled, swallowed and otherwise ingested, in anatomically interesting ways (“How did they get in there?”), a sufficient quantity of the little encephala to satisfy your weekly protein needs. In turn, they extract enough blood to fulfill your obligation to the blood bank.
At long last sleep brings another August day to a close. It’s a troubled sleep, though, as if the vague fear borne of this sodden, aquatic atmosphere threatens to complete a metamorphosis of the human form into something better adapted to the surrounding environment.
I do wonder if Franz Kafka had ever spent an August in New Orleans.
Reid Champagne’s memoir, “My Life as a Cockroach,” is yet unwritten.