Anyone over the age of 25 who lived in Chicago in the summer of 1995 cannot forget one particularly cruel stretch that July, a heat wave which led to approximately 750 deaths over a period of five days.
As part of grappling with daytime highs that reached 106 °F, record humidity levels, and nighttime lows that never dipped below eighty degrees, the city’s infrastructure literally crumpled. Power outages were widespread and long lasting.
My elderly Italian grandmother, who lived in the Ravenswood neighborhood on the North Side, never saw a need for air conditioning, and even if she had possessed a window unit, it wouldn’t have done much good without electricity. As an immigrant and survivor of the Great Depression, she didn’t really see why my younger sister and I were whining. “If you’re hot, go sleep outside,” she offered.
At 17 years old, and on my way to beginning my senior year at Lincoln Park High School, I was literally coming of age, and melting while doing so. The idea of sleeping on the street (the hyperbole of a teenage girl) in full view of everyone was almost more than my easily mortified girlhood could stand. Forget about the public safety aspect.
But the thought of trying to get any rest without the benefit of wind or a box fan soon rendered staying indoors impossible. So my sister and I grabbed Max, our very unfortunately large and hairy 140-pound golden retriever, and headed for the Great Outdoors. To our surprise, Nanni wasn’t the only one to suggest to her family that they make their beds under the stars. Our stretch of Wolcott was littered with bodies of all socioeconomic strata trying to achieve rapid eye movement. Natural misery is the great equalizer.
Those of us who braved the elements even enjoyed a little entertainment in the absence of television or radio: cars sinking into the street’s blacktop, which buckled before our eyes.
The only detail which prevented the heat wave of 1995 from feeling like the end of the world was the certain knowledge that this was Chicago. Winter must and would come again. (Becky Sarwate)