Inside New York City's "Cooling Centers"

by Jessica Machado

Last Friday, otherwise known as the day the sun bludgeoned us all to a weak, cranky pulp, I decided to take the City’s advice and check out those places that TV people yammer on about when temps reach the 4 jillion-degree mark: a cooling center.

I wasn’t sure what I’d find. Would we all be sequestered in an air-conditioned room to play board games? (If so, would there be Boggle?) Would it be like the cafeteria in middle school where I’d have to immediately figure out which clique to sit with, so I wouldn’t get stuck hanging with the duds all day? Would there be footbaths and kiddie pools and Beyoncé-hair-blowing industrial fans for deluxe cooling?

Basically, I envisioned it to look like a school day during an impending natural disaster — a way to distract the innocents while the world ended around them. I was a little bit right.

The city’s Office of Emergency Management website furthers the mystery by listing only the bare basics regarding our cooling centers. To mix it up, I opted not to stay in my hood, putting in a phony central Williamsburg residence. I chose Williamsburg because I figured other like-minded people (i.e. the young, non-traditionally employed who roam the streets looking for something to happen on a random Friday) would seek cooling refuge too.

The OEM gave me five choices in a mile radius. I made Leonard Library my first stop, hoping for a rousing game of Clue, or at least a conversation going about the point of Google+. The other four options were senior centers.

The Leonard Library, at Devoe and Leonard, was as silent as a tomb. On one side of the room, everyday users plugged away on the facility’s retro computers. In a different area, on a cluster of empty tables, a bunch of the twenty- and thirty-somethings — ladies with loose top knots and tribal summer dresses, dudes in DIY-sleeveless shirts — sat with their MacBooks propped up in front of them, tooling around on the Wi-fi, no purchases necessary. One guy had a magazine open to some ad, the sweat from his Buddha belly seeping through his shirt, while he caught some shuteye. Another was smart enough to BYOB, and skittishly carted around a black plastic bag.

To make sure I was in the right place and wasn’t missing out on the VIP air lounge, I questioned the man behind the information desk. “This is it,” said David Mills, neighborhood library supervisor. “I didn’t even know until yesterday that we are a cooling center. Nobody sent me any communication about it.” He said someone had called to inquire the day before, so he thought he’d find out for himself. (Well: I was that someone. Yes, I was already plotting my frugality on Thursday.)

Mills motioned for me to pull up a chair. He wanted to tell me everything he knew about the cooling center that he just discovered he was in yesterday. Apparently if we were in 1970s heat emergency, we’d be hosed. That’s when the library’s 1908 building was most likely retrofitted for air conditioning — also a few years before Mills himself started working in the New York Public Library system, the ninth largest cultural institution in the city, according to him, and where his wife, “his favorite girlfriend” (an inside joke), also works. The two met in library school more than 35 years ago, and she looked quite lovely from the picture he showed me from his wallet. (The glamour shot of his 29-year-old son wasn’t half bad either.)

After our chat, I decided to sit alone and absorb the machine-chilled air. It took two minutes for boredom to set in. I suppose I could’ve picked up a book, but this was my day off.

Just a block and half away was the Swinging 60s Senior Center. Finally, a party! No one was at the front desk when I walked in, so I peeked into a room off from the hallway. In there, a medley of well-matured ladies was markers-deep in a bingo game. “You lookin’ for somebody?” called a smiley septuagenarian in a white polo shirt, sitting down the hall.

“Can anyone play bingo?” I asked.

“You have to actually be part of the center to play,” I was told.

“But I thought this was a cooling center!” I said.

“Is it?” He looked at his pal and shrugged. “Come over. Sit down.”

While he had no idea he was in an official cooling center, Sonny Scali, my new emissary to the coolness, had shown up for the central air too. He’d been there since 9 a.m., he said, much earlier than when he usually drops by. “I mostly come for the buck-fifty lunch.” Really, a buck-fifty? “You’re too young for that too,” he said. I slouched back in my seat, daydreaming about the swirly ice cream cups I’d get for a classmate’s birthday in elementary school. “You got a water bottle?” he interrupted. I did. “The water’s really cold. Go fill up.” I was okay, I told him. “No, you can dump the old water and fill up with new cold water. Go ‘head!”

His buddy, Anthony Petrucci, was also surprised that this place he frequents was an actual cooling center. He said that he’d called 311 in a previous heat emergency and they sent him to a center three miles away. “Those guys in their air-conditioned call center; they don’t even know where anything is,” he said.

Both men agreed that they’ve never seen a non-senior on a brutal day like this at Swingin’ 60s, which was no more full in that moment than it was on a regular Friday. There were more unfamiliar faces than usual — but this was offset by the absence of those who couldn’t make the walk to the center because of the ungodly fahrenheits.

“Okay, I gotta joke for you,” Sonny said, to lighten the mood. “A clean one. It’s a nice joke.” It was a bit long and had to do with a rabbit or something, but it was pretty cute. That’s when I asked his name. “You want my number too?” he asked.

Even though I couldn’t eat the cheap tuna-fish lunch or play bingo, I was allowed to join him and his pals in a game of pool, he said. “You know how to shoot?” I said I wasn’t sure; I didn’t have an alcoholic beverage in my hand.

I followed him down to the rec room. No artwork, no jukebox, no shuffling iPod, but there were three gigantic fans motoring on high speed, giving the place some cred. A few other gentlemen were already down there chalking up. Sonny pulled out his cue from a leather case. This was serious business and I realized maybe it was time to bow out. “You sure, Bella, you don’t wanna play?” he asked. Like a gentleman, he walked me back up the stairs and out I went into the blazing sun.

My last attempt at chillin’ was at the center closest to Bedford stop on the L train. When I walked through the Catholic Charities senior center, a young woman greeted me from an enclosed (bulletproof?) booth. (Do people hold up senior centers?) She didn’t seem at all surprised when I said I was there to cool down (which may have been because my makeup had dripped halfway down my neck and my top knot had sagged into sad schoolmarm territory). Four young people had dropped by yesterday to do the same, she said. “Why don’t you show her around,” she asked of a very tall man in Carhartt.

He led me to the library, where protruding from the wall was the largest air conditioning unit I’ve ever seen (but after walking three-quarters of a mile to get there, I was so desperate and excited, this may have been my “mirage in the desert” moment). Paintings of giant irises and Sears-like floral curtains competed for feminine bravada, but the monstrosity blowing arctic breezes was, without a doubt, the centerpiece. Beneath it, a half-comatose gentleman sat on a couch, most likely trying to rejuvenate his overheated being through direct freon contact.

The final part of the tour was the TV room. The pomp surrounding the moving-picture box put the air conditioner to shame. The TV was on a literal stage, side curtains and all; its audience a handful of ladies in orthopedic shoes. Scoping for the best foldout chair to sit on, I immediately aimed for the two power figures in the back manning the remote control.

“You from upstairs?” the one in the darling vintage smock and turquoise beads asked me. (I later found out that upstairs was a homeless shelter.)

“No, I’m just hot,” I said. “Are you here ’cause it’s hot?”

“Oh yeah, it’s terrible out there,” she said.

As I cooled, I heard the familiar saxophone of my lazy college afternoons — the theme song to “General Hospital.”

“You can change it if you want,” the smocked one said.

“Are you kidding?” I said. “No way! I loooove this show. Wow, look at all the facelifts!”

The ladies and I spent the next 20 minutes comparing notes as if we were columnists for Soap Opera Digest, discussing the travesty of “All My Children” going off the air (“oh that Griffin… mmmm-mmm.”), Brenda’s possible departure (“she’s a pain-in-the-neck anyway”), and what these “stories” are really all about (“the women, they come and go with the men”).

Then, just as I was practically up to speed on the last dozen years in Port Charles, newspeople broke in to remind us of what we were doing there. Apparently we were now victims to the bold, fiery lettered “Summer Scorcher.” Everyone gathered close as a bunch of nerds in suits took turns talking about power outages and record highs. Looped stock footage of not-very-sweaty people running, rollerblading and riding Razors around some park (where?!) played intermittently between the news heads jabbering on and on. A reminder was given to call 311 to find the cooling center nearest to us.

My smocked friend leaned over.

“I’d rather fill up a tub with cold water and lie in it,” she said.

“But, um, you are at a cooling center,” I reminded her.

She raised her right hand and waved it around. “Eh,” she said.

Jessica Machado lives in Brooklyn and has recently been extremely sweaty.

Photo by outofcapecodtonight