As thermostats across the city climb past 100 degrees on the Tuesday afternoon after the Fourth of July, Richard Daniels sets off on a four-block trek from his apartment to the corner of 14th and U Streets NW. It’s hardly a quick jaunt: A two-time stroke victim, Daniels uses a wooden cane to guide the painfully slow movement of his two pigeon-toed feet through the sweltering afternoon.
More than half an hour later, when he finally reaches the automatic door button at the Frank Reeves Center of Municipal Affairs, Daniels is sweating profusely. He grabs the green-and-white-striped washcloth that hangs from his shirt collar and mops the perspiration from his forehead.
Though the TV is warning people to stay out of the heat, Daniels has his reasons for leaving home. “When we turn on the air conditioner, [the landlord] goes up on rent,” he explains. Usually, he cools off at home the old-school way—lying low and spending quality time in the bathtub. But today, when temperatures cleared the century mark, Daniels decided to put his tax dollars to work.
Like many other D.C. residents who enter the Reeves Center, Daniels has come with a specific request for a municipal service. Unlike most of them, however, he gets what he wants without waiting in line, filling out paperwork, or even getting the runaround. He simply moseys over to a black vinyl chair in the front lobby and takes a seat. He’s already receiving one of the D.C. government’s best-kept secrets: socialized air conditioning.
Traditionally, the District has hardly been a strong proponent of the Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared.” Snowstorms—even small ones—commonly cripple the city for multiple days. Nary an action plan is in place to deal with terrorist strikes. And only last month, federal officials warned that thanks to Y2K bungling, the city might be stuck back in the 19th century when the calendar flips ahead to the year 2000.
Yet when it comes to scorching-hot weather, D.C.’s got you covered. Every time temperatures soar above 95 degrees this summer, the D.C. Emergency Management Agency will convert the halls of the city’s bureaucracy into officially designated “cooling centers” for the masses.
Firmly ensconced in this chilly corner of District largesse, Daniels orders up a cold Crystal Springs water from Americorps volunteers Becky Mattano and Jackie Elek, who staff the Reeves cooling center from behind a large table. Elek grabs a cup, scoops some ice, and pours from a large water cooler a few feet to her right. The public trough has mineral water in it, too.
But despite the beverages and a prime location in the Reeves Center’s front lobby, Mattano and Elek have had a hard time attracting the greater community. A steady stream of people flows in and out of the U Street doors, but fewer than half come over for closer inspection. Some run straight for the cooler to avoid any conversation.
“At first we were saying hi to everyone, but then people started giving us scared looks,” says Mattano, who originally hails from Wisconsin. “City people, I guess.”
The cooling center assignment ended up being a good one for the Americorps staffers, who live in the former nursing home complex in far Southwest known as D.C. Village. As of today, the Americorps program has air conditioning in only one room of the building. The night before, 30 corps members squeezed into that room for a respite from the District’s summer swelter.
Two men sit alongside Daniels. One—not exactly a model of heat-conscious dressing—is outfitted in a worn gray wool suit, fedora, and overgrown beard. He might be mistaken for a Hasidic Jew except for the numerous plastic bags planted near his feet. The other man, with a Jimi Hendrix ‘Fro and sunglasses, is conked out with his face in his lap.
After hanging a few signs to drum up business, Elek and Mattano search for other devices to draw the crowd in. “We have another table. We could play cards,” Mattano suggests.
“We could do craps or blackjack,” Elek adds. That mention raises the eyebrows of Daniels, who smiles affirmatively.
“You got cookies?” asks a man in an orange T-shirt and jeans, who accepts the offer of a drink. No, only water, Elek says. As consolation, she offers him a leaflet. “Hot Weather Spells Danger,” it reads.
Over the next few hours, Mattano and Elek ponder a few important questions and make some profound observations. “What is the difference between mineral and spring water?” another man asks. The question stumps all.
By and by, Mattano and Elek receive a few cases of Poland Springs water in 12-ounce bottles from Bobby Smith, who’s busily unloading still more bottles from a large brown RV labeled the “District of Columbia Emergency Management Agency Mobile Command Unit.” When I ask permission to take a peek inside, Smith denies it. “I have to take this upstairs; it’s peak delivery time,” he says. Smith says he’s ferrying the cases up to Emergency Management Agency headquarters on the eighth floor. But isn’t the water for the five cooling center locations?
Mattano and Elek say they’d like to learn more about the District in their last couple of weeks before graduating from Americorps. “They have a cafeteria, a Ben’s Ice Cream, and a card store,” says Mattano about the Reeves Center. “But all the public bathrooms have no toilet paper.”
Foot traffic is slightly heavier at One Judiciary Square, where Americorps volunteer Christel McNeil is stationed in front of the reception desk. Unlike the folks at the Reeves Center, McNeil says, the largely suits-and-dresses crowd at 441 4th St. NW has been lining up eagerly for the freebie.
McNeil says most comers have been polite, but there have been some exceptions. “One woman just said, ‘Can you give me one of those waters?’ No ‘thank you,’ either,” she says.
Other Judiciary Square denizens get in a huff when they find out the bottled varieties McNeil is dispensing aren’t cold. “Ooh, this is hot,” declares one woman in a business suit, carrying a Fendi handbag. “I need some ice to drink it.” But everyone takes McNeil up on her offer. Because most people who walk in have business in the building, the cooling center seems to be a water subsidy for the mayor’s office, the D.C. Council, and their staffs.
Meanwhile, at the Congress Heights Community Health Center cooling center over on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, Americorps volunteer Justin Bennett does his best sales job on the few people who wander into the building to do business. “Is anyone interested in some water?” Bennett pleads with two men. “Poland Springs—one of the finest waters from Maine. You have to keep hydrated.”
Sporting a blue “Pork: The Other White Meat” apron and yellow ruler suspenders, Chett Hines wanders over to the table from the credit union in the Reeves Center. Elek offers him a cool glass of water. “Now, what’s the catch?” asks Hines, who works as a cook at St. Elizabeths Hospital.
Hines accepts only after an explanation, but he says his job isn’t too bad even with the summer heat. “You know what they say,” Hines smiles. “If you can’t stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen.”
“The heat’s more psychological than physical,” Hines adds. “The mind has a lot to do with it.”
“You want to know my secret?” Hines asks me, leaning in. “I sing Christmas songs. How can you talk about heat when you are singing cool songs?”
Hines grabs another glass before he leaves. “Remember,” Hines says, heading for the door and breaking into song, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” CP