From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. It is just so hot. That's my big thought. It is just so hot. And so, together, everybody. One, two, three. Everybody.
One, two, three.
Ah, that's better. Here at the Holstein Park pool here on Chicago's West Side. Here in Chicago we've had some truly horrible days this summer, days where the air has had a kind of meaty thickness it is so humid. No wind off the lake. Thank you very much, Mr. Weather.
Torpor sets in. Torpor, actual torpor. After jumping into the swimming pool, Vanessa, Elizabeth, and Patrice do one bracing lap, and then spent, hang on the side inert for four hours. Next to the pool, the lifeguard that everybody is in love with, Adrian, lays on his side among a group of intensely captivated 12 and 13 year old girls, plus a few little boys. Not one of them can move.
Sing that one song, a kid asks.
Nah, [SPEAKING SPANISH] my Mexican song?
Yeah, sing it.
[SINGING IN SPANISH]
Adrian looks up at the group.
See, what? Armondo, are you falling asleep? I'm lullabying you to sleep?
For real, man.
Who can blame Armondo? Who, for that matter, can get up the energy to give a damn in this heat? Today on our program, what to do in the hottest heat of summer when you're not sleeping right and simply walking to the car or the bus takes it all out of you. And you know that you're not thinking straight and there is not a thing that you can do about it. We know what you did this summer. Our program today in three acts.
Act One, Just Three Thousand More Miles to the Beach. In that act, Scott Carrier on a road trip. No air conditioning. Too hot to stay in the car, too hot to get out of the car.
Act Two, It's Not the Heat, It's the Humility, in which we move into an environment that is so fantastically, oppressively hot that the people there have convinced themselves that sweating-- sweating by itself-- is actually getting something done.
Act Three, You Can Have Your Cave and Eat It Too. Sarah Vowell brings us the story of a national dispute involving a cave, a sandwich, park rangers, scientists, and, yes, always good for a laugh, the world famous United States Congress. Stay with us.
Act One: Just Three Thousand More Miles To The Beach
Act One, Just Three Thousand Miles to the Beach. Like so many summer stories, this one from Scott Carrier, starts with a whim and ends with a whimper.
It was summer, the middle of a hot summer. I drove to San Francisco to visit a friend and escape the heat, but when I got there, almost right as I got off the Bay Bridge, my truck began to die. It lost its power, and I could barely make it up the steep hills. I was stalling traffic, throwing out big, black clouds of smoke, forcing people to cover their faces and walk on the other side of the street.
It had never been a good truck, always a collector of bad luck-- dents, cracked cylinder block, broken clutch push rod, broken brake lines, and smashed head lights. All sad stories.
I considered driving it to Fisherman's Wharf, taking the plates, ceremoniously shooting the horse, and walking away from it. But then, I slept on it, and in the morning I thought, maybe a mechanic can fix it, someone who actually knows about engines.
I pulled into a Quick Tune, and a guy there put it on the scope. His name was Chien from Vietnam. He didn't speak a lot of English.
He said my EGR valve was working too hard, putting too much oxygen or not enough oxygen into the combustion chamber, but that he'd fixed it by plugging a vacuum hose with a spark plug he'd pulled out of the garbage.
The car more power. Right now more power, OK?
Now, he said, the car had power. And he was right. The car did have power. I got on Interstate 80 headed toward Sacramento doing 85 miles an hour going back home to Salt Lake City.
But then in Sacramento, I saw a sign that said US Highway 50, Ocean City, Maryland, 3,073 miles, and I took the exit. 3,000 miles. Not that far.
I knew there was a strong possibility that the spark plug in the vacuum line was only a temporary fix and that the engine might lose its power at any moment, and I'd have to walk away from it. But it was summer-- the middle of a hot summer-- and I didn't have anything better to do.
Highway 50, where it runs across the Basin and Range, is known as the loneliest road in America. It's an old route, probably ancient, first used by white men in 1849 on their way to Sutter's Mill, then the Pony Express and the Overland Stage in the early 1860s. Mark Twain rode the Overland Stage in 1861, and he hated this particular stretch across the Basin and Range. He said it was worse than the horrors of the Sahara.
That's one reason it's so lonely out here. The other is that almost all traffic to the coast now follows Interstate 80 to the north or Interstate 15 to the south leaving this huge open space containing 100 separate mountain ranges and 150 separate basins, sort of like the surface of a golf ball.
On a clear day, on this part of Highway 50, it's easy to see 50 miles in every direction, sometimes 100. But it was a summer of forest fires, seven million acres burning throughout the inner mountain west, all caused by dry, violent thunderstorms that blew through in June leaving smoke in their wake. Then it got hot and windy, and every day just got smokier and smokier to where in the morning and evening you could stare straight at the sun, to where it was like you were living through the final days of a dying planet.
From the desert of the Basin and Range, Highway 50 enters the desert of the Colorado Plateau through sandstone canyons, like from the Planet of the Apes, across the Green and Colorado rivers and then following the Gunnison River up the Western Slope of the Rockies to Monarch Pass, crossing the Continental Divide at 11,000 feet.
My truck ran with the check engine soon light blinking on and off, gasping and coughing its way over the pass. But it made it up and over, and from there it was downhill for 100 miles along the Arkansas River-- people in kayaks running the rapids-- to the town of Pueblo on the Eastern Slope of the Rockies looking out at the Great Plains.
I stopped there to see a friend, Albert [? Pichak ?]. We ended up in his backyard where he showed me his rock collection.
Here's some rainbow obsidian, really beautiful stuff. I'll strike a little chunk off if I can find my sandstone. OK. It's not safe to do this without some sort of protection, because it's very sharp and you can get cut. See. You can see the color. It's really a beautiful stone.
It's a black rock, but at a certain angle to the sun it reflects-- what colors do you see there?
Green, blue, purple. Here we go. Is that amazing or what? When I first started flinting that thing, I thought that obsidian came in black and black, you know. It's amazing the colors that you can see.
I find that it's like a meditative state working with the stone. It gives me a sense that there's more to everything around us than just-- more to stone than just being an inanimate object, that actually there is energy with it, that when you make something, that energy is transferred to it.
Albert made me a five inch Clovis spear point, black obsidian that reflected tiny rainbows in each chip and groove, sharp as a razor. I put it on my dashboard hoping its energy would somehow transfer to my engine.
From the Rocky Mountains, Highway 50 runs across the High Plains in sort of a connect-the-dots between small farming and ranching towns, mainly Hispanic, a landscape once famous for buffalo but is now famous for cantaloupe. Leaving Pueblo, the weather was partly cloudy, 90 degrees, and low humidity, but it became hotter and more humid with every mile to where in central Kansas it was over 105 and very humid, no clouds, a little wind. And it had been like that for a long time, several weeks anyway. The fields of corn, six and seven feet tall, had turned brown. The stocks and the husks around the cobs were dry as a bone.
To deal with the heat, I poured water on my clothes and drove with the windows down, and I sought refuge in Walmarts on the edges of the small towns. Every town had one, although some towns had Walmart supercenters, a disaster for Main Street, but they were like oases to me. I'd go in and get hit by a wave of cold air that was like jumping into a mountain lake. It took my breath away.
I'd take a cart and walk through the aisles selecting items like a sleeping bag, a fishing rod, 100 feet of rope, spray paint, watercolors, a six-quart cooler, power drill, clock radio. And then, when the cart was full, I'd backtrack, returning everything to its place on the shelf. If I concentrated and thought carefully about my selections, the whole process would take a couple of hours. Then I'd get back on the road and drive through the sweltering heat.
My truck, surprisingly, ran without overheating, but I was so hot, I went brain dead. At one point, I found myself off the highway driving along a back road going east, but I couldn't remember how I'd gotten off the highway. I came to a small town, and there were some cars parked in front of a bar. The sign at the bank across the street said it was 106 degrees.
I'm Sam Kennedy, and I live up around Big Springs, and we're in Overbrook, Kansas right now.
I'm Crystal Kennedy. I believe this is our 16th day of over 100 degrees. We haven't had weather like this, they say, since 1936.
We're getting pretty well burnt up now, pretty dry. I've got beans that are probably five foot high and they're probably the size of buckshot right now because they've all burnt.
And the chickens are panting. They stick their little slitted tongues out and huff and puff. And my bees, they were just all over the hive last night, and they're trying to keep everything cool in there for the queen. But I'm going to harvest probably this next weekend. I'm going to take the honey and start feeding them, because there's no plants here for them to live on. Everything's dried up.
And here we buy all this seed, buy all this fertilizer, buy all this spray to keep everything nice and weed free, and at the end of the year, you take the crops to the elevator and you sell them, and you get this check, and it looks like a really big check. But then when you take it to the bank, a lot of times you'll just barely break even. You might have $50 left.
So that's when you come over here to this place and drink a few beers and talk to your friends. And they're all in the same shape. Everybody's been the same.
I saw two cars spontaneously combust in Kansas. They got so hot, they lit on fire and burned, spewing black, toxic smoke from under the hoods. One was in a parking garage in Lawrence near the Natural History Museum on the university campus. The other car exploded on the freeway around Kansas City, two teenage boys in an old Mustang.
East of Kansas City once over the Missouri River, Highway 50 winds through the hills and forests of the Bible Belt, the Ozarks. Dead turtles upside down and bloating on the side of the road, live rattlesnakes in the churches, bugs frying in the blue light zappers of Sedalia. Churches with signs out front saying, dusty bibles lead to dirty lives. Free trip to heaven. Details inside. And the crickets or locusts or whatever they were was like a jungle.
I stopped in Jefferson City at midnight. The streets were vacant and smelled from the mud of the Missouri River running just north of the capitol building. I tried to go down to the river to sleep, but there was no way to get to it from the city. I ran into fences and thick forests, and so I drove on, stopping at a convenience store to buy three beers which I proceeded to pound back while cruising through a fog.
I beg you, my children, as your mother, your mother's mother, who cries tears of sorrow upon you all, please remember this. The time is growing short. I have wandered throughout earth trying to warn you, my children, depending on a small handful of moral souls to bring these messages to you.
But what does he really have? Nothing, because when he wakes up after death, he wakes up in hell. On the other hand, here's the poor man, Lazarus, who has none of the needs, the physical needs satisfied. He lives out of the garbage pail. The dogs lick his sores. And it looks like the Lord just has forgotten him, absolutely forgotten him.
[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]
--unto them, because it is given unto you to know the mysteries--
You know that says. I can't quote the whole thing, but you know what that says. A lot of people-- Oh, I don't understand. It's [UNINTELLIGIBLE] so hard, that it [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] has always had it hard before they came to Christ like myself and others. I understand the example you were giving a few sentences ago about Ethiopia and so forth and so on. I can relate to that. I'm black. I can relate to that. I mean--
East of St. Louis after the Arch and the Mississippi River, Highway 50 gets crowded. What was once the loneliest road in America becomes America's Main Street, or that's what I read they call it, and it's appropriate. Some people might think it quaint to drive through the downtowns of one small town after another, but I was hating it. There was a lot of traffic, a lot of cops, used car lots, strip malls.
Sometimes the highway was a four lane freeway. Sometimes it was a neighborhood street running by driveways and front lawns and big houses. Sometimes it vanished altogether, and I'd find myself on some other road with a different name.
And my engine was running like the timing belt had lost its shape, running lean and then running rich. It was giving up, wanting to die, but I pushed it mercilessly scared of being stranded in middle America. I drove and drove, and it was like I wasn't getting anywhere. I drove without sleeping. It was too warm and sticky to sleep.
Somewhere in Ohio I stopped to talk to a guy who was sitting by the side of the road whittling walking sticks.
All of these are my sticks. This is apple wood, and this is sourwood. I bought 300 off my brother in '94 and 300 in '97. I've bought 780 sticks off of him for the last four years. I've got all different kinds of wood, just about. About any kind of wood you name, I've got it. I've got oak [UNINTELLIGIBLE].
I've got them all initialed. I've got the year I've cut them. And I've got my initial on them. I've got a K on them and I've got them all dated. Now I've bought some that's got carved on. I don't do no carving. I'm a whittler. I call myself a whittler. I'm not a carver. I've bought some that's got carved on, but I don't put my initial on them. I don't date them.
Why do you call yourself a whittler instead of a carver?
Well, because I don't carve faces. I mean, I'm trying to get my son started doing the carving, you see. It makes a stick sell better. But I enjoy doing this. I've been doing it 13 years, so I must have-- I did this eight years. I didn't sell many sticks at all, but the last five years I'm well satisfied with what I'm doing.
What made the difference in the sales? For the first eight years you didn't sell very much and then what happened?
Well, the news got out what I do and everybody-- the public is funny. You'd be surprised how people is. I'm not trying to get rich. I've got $5 sticks there. I've got $12 in them. I bought three sticks and I sell them three sticks for $10. I spend anywhere from-- well, most usually I'm out here eight o'clock in the morning until eight at night. I sit here and whittle. I enjoy it, really, really.
I woke up in a parking lot next to the Ohio River at Clarksburg, West Virginia, a quiet morning. The word Ohio comes from an Iroquois word meaning beautiful river, and it was, big and sleepy.
You grew up here.
I grew up here. I love it. That's all I need.
I was reading in a book that the word Ohio comes from an Indian word, meaning beautiful river. Is that right or is that--
That's probably true, because there's a lot of history of Indians up through the whole Mid-Ohio Valley here. There's Indian mounds that go up further north and there's history that goes down south. My grandmother herself was an Indian. If you was to go into the corn fields after the farmers plow, you can actually find arrowheads, perfectly preserved arrowheads that the Indians made.
So what tribe-- what tribes are from around here and what tribe are you descended from?
I don't know what tribe. My father's deceased, but he had mentioned several times and I don't know actually what tribe. I didn't even know my grandmother. She was already passed away by the time I was born. But I know there's definitely history. I would love to do-- I didn't even know a whole lot about my father, and I wish I knew more about that, too.
From the Ohio River, Highway 50 crosses the Monongahela Valley and then begins winding up through the Allegheny Mountains, following a route originally surveyed by 16-year-old George Washington in 1748. He was a friend and employee of Lord Fairfax who used to own this land.
Washington ended up with 30,000 acres from the Potomac to the Ohio, and when he became president, he authorized funding for the construction of what was then called the Northwest Turnpike, which is how Highway 50 began, a route to the Ohio and the wilderness beyond.
Crossing the Alleghenies was more difficult than going over the Rockies. The road is narrow and winding with a lot of up and down, thick forests, crossing a number of passes, and a lot of logging trucks and coal trucks. And then my truck was just pitiful. I'd be going 40 miles an hour, and there'd be a big truck right on my tail trying to get around.
In the small town of Mount Storm at the summit of what seemed like the highest mountain, I stopped to take a break and let a coal truck go by and watched an old man mowing his lawn.
That's a Chief, Lawn Chief, True Value Lawn Chief. That's sold by several local hardware stores in this area. I've owned it for two years. I start on my outer edge of my property and I make circles inward. I like to throw my grass one direction all the time-- same direction-- so that I don't mow the same grass over and over. Some people like to mow it over and over. That's called mulching. I don't care much for that. I killed a small snake over in that area a while ago. I ran over him with that.
You saw it go under or you heard it get chopped?
I saw him go under.
I drove into Washington, DC in the morning and spent the day walking around the Smithsonian Mall, visiting Kenneth Snelson's tensegrity needle outside the Hirshhorn. And then, I drove out of the city at night over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-- all lit up and beautiful-- to Ocean City, Maryland. Highway 50 ends there at the boardwalk along the beach, 3,200 miles from the Pacific at San Francisco.
I slept in my cab. In the morning I watched a guy building a giant head of Jesus out of sand on the beach, and then I went swimming. It was the first time I'd cooled off in days.
And then, my truck died. It spewed out a big, black cloud of exhaust and gave up the ghost. It was over. I pulled the plates, stuffed my things in a bag, took the stereo and my rainbow obsidian spear point, and left the key in the ignition. It was evening, raining hard, but I was only 2,300 miles from home.
Scott Carrier lives in Salt Lake City. Coming up, what the park service has against crumbs, and a place that's so hot and humid even the crumbs get sweaty. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
[MUSIC - "SUMMER IN THE CITY" BY BARRY MORROW]
This is This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, We Know What You Did This Summer, stories of mind-altering, body-stopping, torpor-inducing heat.
Act Two: It's Not The Heat, It's The Humility
We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, It's Not the Heat, It Is the Humility. During the hottest days of August here in Chicago, Jonathan Goldstein sought out an environment that was yet hotter. It was not hot enough. He sought out yet hotter, and he found a place, the Division Street Russian Bath. The place is so hot and humid that literally our equipment does not work there-- tape recorders cannot function-- so Jonathan is here to tell the story.
Jimmy Colucci is sitting bare-chested behind his desk wrapped only in a tiny wet sheet, and there's something about it that says there's a better way to live, a way that's more brazen, more comfortable, and quite frankly, more naked.
Jimmy's the owner of the Division Street Bath, and his office is right upstairs of the steam. He's just come up from his daily sweat, and sitting there at his desk dressed only in a sheet, he looks like the guy who does paperwork for the Pharaoh.
When I ask him what makes the heat at his bathhouse so special, he tells me that he provides a heat that's different than anything else offered around the country. If blindfolded, would he be able to tell his heat from other heat? Absolutely, he says. But what about the other kind of heat you hear so much about, I ask. The kind that's claustrophobic and unbearable, the kind that causes the elderly to drop like flies and the young to scream at their boyfriends just because they got them the wrong kind of sandwich. I don't make that kind of heat, Jimmy answers.
To better understand the power of this heat, Jimmy sends me down into the steam with a towel, a sheet, and a bar of soap. First I shower, the wet sheet around my waist feeling so wrong yet so right. I ask myself, how does one comport oneself clothed only in a sheet? Like a stoic Roman senator? A caught lothario shimmying down a boudoir drainpipe? I decide to clinch one hand around the tied knot and play a situation comedy guy locked out of the house wrapped in a welcome mat.
The place has the all business utilitarian look of a boiler room, cracked concrete tiles and mildewy wood. And then Jake appears. He is a small Jewish man from the old country. He is naked except for his flip flops, gold chain, and sun hat, which he keeps drenched in water. Last week, I ate a big thing of spinach, Jake informs me by way of introduction. I ate like a pig. It gave me diarrhea for two weeks, then they gave me something for that, and now I'm constipated. He pauses a beat to allow the irony to be absorbed.
When he's not in the bathhouse, Jake wears two hearing aids. Without them he can't hear a thing, so he talks, and I listen. Over the sound of the shower and the echoing voices, I only catch bits. As we talk, Jake moves closer and closer, and as he does, I slowly, unconsciously inch backwards until finally I'm in a corner under a shower with Jake, and we are chest to chest.
Even though his mouth is only a couple of inches from my ear, I continue to catch only pieces of what he's saying-- 45 years, the heat, four shots of whiskey after the shevitz, seven, eight rubs I used to rub, the heat. I can't remember the last time I spoke to anyone so close, but Jake's so comfortable with it that it makes me comfortable, too. People just don't talk like this anymore. It makes me feel like I'm in an old photograph.
The water falls down on us and it's like we're two sleep walkers bumping into each other in the summer rain of the shtetl. It all feels dreamy and long ago, and Jake's taken me there, and I'm glad I'm with him.
Right here, this is life stripped of all the fat. It's the best part of being at the gym, a good sweat without any of the exercise. It's probably even the best part of prison, the showers and the fresh soap. I'd even go so far as to say that this would be the best part of hell as you step into the first blast of soothing womb-like heat.
So we sit and we sweat. It's what we do. It's like we have an assembly line production going. We sit all hunched over with our brows knit. We stare down at the floor with a ponderous, quiet intensity. We are engaged in serious business. Sweating makes us feel productive, like we're doing good work down here, getting things accomplished.
Jake's younger son, Willy, calls me over. He's giving a large, hairy man a massage with an oak leaf brush and wants me to see. Have you ever seen a real Russian-style massage, asks Willy, as the naked, 300-pound man lying on his back that he's attending to obligingly raises his legs in the air like a baby about to be diapered. Willy lifts the brush over his shoulder and brings it down between the man's legs over and over. He does this with a kind of casualness that suggests whipping a naked man in the privates is the most normal thing in the world. And I watch them completely and utterly freaked out, which is, I think, the result Willy was going for.
The men in the bathhouse watch the massaged one get massaged like it's TV, like they're watching an infomercial when there's nothing else better on. And then suddenly-- and by suddenly, I mean not suddenly, because everything down there happens as though submerged in cherry sauce-- they are all pitching in, and you can't tell who works there and who doesn't. They're all over some guy just for the thrill of doing the job right.
And then there's the buckets. Sitting in the heat, the old men take old-fashioned buckets of ice cold water and dump them over each other's heads to cool down. Seeing this is like stumbling into a long running performance of the world's oldest joke. It reminds me of how, when I was seven, my grandfather in a remnant of such old country playfulness dumped a bucket of garden hose water over my head at a family barbecue, and how I spent the rest of the afternoon all traumatized and generally spazzed out vowing never again to trust anyone over 75.
Jake and his sons invite me upstairs to eat with them. Dressed only in our sheets and towels, we sit around a table in the dining room off the locker room, and we eat. Eating bare-chested at home by yourself makes you feel like you've simply given up on life, but eating bare-chested in a room full of other bare-chested men makes you feel like a Greek god among other Greek gods.
Jake pulls out a plastic container of homemade herring. I made that, he says poking his finger into the piece on my plate. We pass around bread and club soda, big silver bowls of salad-- steam bath salad it's called in the menu posted on the wall. There's also one called the garbage salad. These are the kinds of names men give to things.
This is what all of life would be like if it were a world of only men. In a world of such men, a Havarti with sprouts on oat bread would be called a foot sandwich. There's simply too much work to be done and no time to invent clever names. Give me two feet and a side of garbage, they might say after a 15-hour day of raking farm soil with their fingers.
We watch a Clint Eastwood movie on an enormous screen. We read magazines while talking about other movies. We let our stomachs pour over what would, that we were wearing pants, be our belt buckles. It is a world governed entirely by testosterone. Oh, I'm not talking about the chest pounding, loud-mouthed testosterone that gets so much press these days. I'm talking about the other kind of maleness, the gentler, more utilitarian maleness. The unselfconsciously picking the teeth with a playing card to get out the last stringy bits of roast beef kind of maleness.
An old man passes our table on his way downstairs. How's the heat, he asks. Hot, I answer. You think this is hot? Wait till the Russians come, says Shelley. He lifts the sheet from around his waist and wipes his mouth with it.
I've been hearing this all day. Everywhere I turn people are talking about the Russians. They're masochists, says a graying fire hydrant named Seymour. Where's the enjoyment in breathing 180 degree heat, demands a water buffalo of a man named Yussy. When the Russians come, the insides of your nostrils will feel like lit match sticks. It has to do damage to the bronchial passage.
I'm told they come on Fridays, and I decide to go, too. It suddenly feels as though all the facts of my life have been leading up to the moment where I pass out in a scorching room full of naked Russians. What should I do to prepare, I ask. Go home, turn on the oven, and stick your head in, someone says.
I imagine them descending the stairs, these Russians, single file, slapping each other on the back, rolling hot coals between their fingers, each one manning a different thermostat. They pass buckets of water down the line like they're sandbagging a dam. They throw heat like gods, like bolts of heartburn. You can't touch your own skin without leaving finger-sized welts.
I imagine winning them over with my amiable taunts. It's like a refrigerator in here, I'll say. Perhaps we should build some shelves to store open jars of mayonnaise. Had I known you gentlemen came here for the tepidness and not the heat, I would have brought a cup of hot cocoa and a shawl to drape across my lap.
So I come back on Friday to see the Russians, and it's hotter, but only moderately so. The men sit around with the same indifference. An old man, who I'd like to think is Russian, sits in the corner brushing his teeth with his finger.
And then something positively strange happens. As I sit there wondering if the old man in the corner will pluck a hair from his head and finish off his teeth with a good and proper flossing, out of the steam emerges the tall, naked body of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and no one gives him a second glance.
Bath people truly don't give a crap, and even if they did, it would be too hot to do anything about anyway. They treat Jackson in the same way they treat everyone, with a pleasant indifference. They watch as Agi, one of the paid masseurs, works him over in much the way they watch anyone else getting massaged, but perhaps out of respect they do not pitch in.
And afterwards, in the dining area, the Reverend has to wait for service like everybody else. He stands naked at the counter trying to catch the cook's eye. The cook sees him and continues to stir his massive pot of soup, and then finally, he comes over.
I'd like a cheese toast, says Jackson. Grilled cheese, answers the chef pointing to the menu. Cheese, repeats Jackson, with toast. Grilled cheese, assures the chef.
I find out afterwards that Jackson often comes to the bathhouse. In fact, I'm told, that when he got back from Bosnia, he came in for a sweat, and as he passed through the dining room, 20 odd men in their sheets and bath towels all rose up and without saying a thing, gave him a standing ovation. And then, wordlessly, they went back to their meals.
When I leave the bathhouse, the 90 degree heat outside feels surprisingly cool and refreshing. It's the middle of August in Chicago, and yet the streets feel air conditioned. It's like being freed from a sweat box into a less intense sweat box, and I am inured. I stroll home feeling comfortable and good.
As I round the corner onto my street, I see the fire hydrant across from my house is open, and neighborhood kids are jumping around in the stream. Brothers carry their sisters kicking and laughing into the water. Little kids run out in their pajamas.
At home, my girlfriend, Heather, has just put her daughter, Arizona, to bed. If we wake her, she'll probably remember it for the rest of her life, I say. And so, we wake up Arizona. Outside on the street, Heather says she's never actually seen an open fire hydrant except for in the movies. When she says this, it makes me realize the same thing.
Arizona rubs the sleep from her eyes and runs into the flood in her little nightgown. She jumps in beside a large woman bathing a small dog with her dress lifted to her knees. It feels like the whole city is getting cool for a while, and Arizona doesn't know where to start.
Jonathan Goldstein is one of the producers of our program and the author of a funny and kind of great novel called Lenny Bruce Is Dead.
[MUSIC - "IT'S TOO DARN HOT" BY ELLA FITZGERALD]
Act Three: You Can Have Your Cave And Eat It Too
Well, Act Three, You Can Have Your Cave and Eat There Too. So it's over 90 degrees outside. If you simply head under the earth into a massive cavern, the temperature drops to a comfortable 56 degrees. For a refreshing change to end this rather sticky and overheated edition of our program, Sarah Vowell headed into such a cave.
I am a rube who reads guide books. That's how I learned that the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park is the world's largest log structure, and that one may sit on its balcony and sip a gin and tonic while watching Old Faithful spout off. Another guidebook tipped me off that visitors to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota may partake in the nearby towns Pitchfork Fondue, in which rib eye steaks are speared on the end of pitch forks and dunked in barrels of boiling oil. Crispy, theatrical meat as the sun goes down over the Badlands.
In this fondness for these things, I am not alone, for I have sat on picnic tables among my countrymen, some of whom stood down the Nazis, and we smile at the landscape and at one another, the grease trickling onto our souvenir T-shirts.
Paging through a guidebook entry on New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the words Underground Lunchroom caught my eye. The Lunchroom is smack dab in the middle of the caverns, 750 feet underground. The guidebook warned, to modern eyes this strange installation seems absurd, but moves to close it down have been stymied by its place in popular affections. As I would come to find out, it is a restaurant so oddly placed that it requires an act of Congress repeated every year to keep it going.
$13.73. Would you like any barbecue or sweet and sour sauce for your chicken?
Um, barbecue please.
If the geological marvels of Carlsbad Caverns came into being in the time before history, the Underground Lunchroom represents the time before arugula. First established in 1926, the Lunchroom was renovated in the 1970s and it shows.
The food and souvenir stations are housed in sandy, brown booths that remind me of the drive-thru bank architecture of my childhood. The food-- box lunches of cold chicken or ham sandwiches, wedges of pie in plastic wedge-shaped containers-- is the sort of fare my grade school washed down with Shasta cola on the Freedom Train field trip in '76. Not long after the bicentennial, middle Americans started eating better and dressing better and calling nature the environment, but the Underground Lunchroom is a throwback to our unpretentious if unenlightened past.
The National Park Service wanted to get rid of it. In 1991, they began an environmental assessment of the Lunchroom. Money was spent, scientists conferred, it took two years, and sadly for them, they were unable to find any conclusive evidence that food particles, Freon gas in the refrigerators, or the use of microwave ovens were harming the ecosystem and climate of the cave. In fact, all sorts of things pose a bigger ecological threat to the cave than the Lunchroom does, like the existence of lights, of an elevator, of actual bacteria carrying tourists with their lint-covered clothing.
In the end, the reason the Park Service wants to close the Lunchroom doesn't have to do with science. It has to do with aesthetics. In the years since the Lunchroom was built, we as a people have gone through a grand tectonic shift in the way we think about National Parks.
Basically, we don't believe in putting crap in the middle of nature anymore. And we believe in taking out as much of the old crap as we can. This was codified in a 1991 Park Service policy called the Vail Agenda, which clearly states, "The National Park Service should use existing authority to remove wherever possible unnecessary facilities."
Well, we're standing at the big room junction. This is where the natural entrance--
It's the aesthetics of all this that Ed Green talks about when we walk through the cavern and he makes the case for the removal of the Lunchroom. Green is in charge of visitor services at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. He contributed to that environmental study. And he spends so much time underground amidst the marvels of the cavern that he has a separate name for the world that you and I inhabit. He calls that world the surface world.
It's hard to describe this for someone who can't see it, because there's nothing in the surface world experience that prepares people to see something like this. It just is unlike anything else on earth.
There will be times that I will intentionally-- if I'm having a rough day or something is getting under my skin a little bit, I'll just intentionally come down in the cave and find a place just to sit and kind of soak this up. This resource and this kind of beauty keeps me humble and keeps me on the right path to do the things that I need to be doing here.
Nobody created Carlsbad Caverns so that they could have lunch 750 feet underground. If you walk down through the natural entrance, what you are experiencing is this natural creation, and then as you exit out of that area and you walk into this area, there's a stark contrast. You know, that's the first thing you see when you walk out. You're coming to one of the world's great natural attractions, one of the greatest attractions in all creation, and what do you see? Something not unlike maybe a mall somewhere.
If the Park Service reasoning for removing the Underground Lunchroom is essentially an aesthetic argument, the main reason to save the Lunchroom is equally aesthetic. Namely, it's cool to eat lunch in a cave. You can also mail a postcard from the Lunchroom and stamp it, mailed 750 feet underground. It's entertaining to mail a postcard in a cave. The Lunchroom even has a bank of pay phones. Why would you need to make a telephone call from the cave? Well, you wouldn't need to. You might do it because it's fun, and you're on vacation, and you're at a place with the word park in its name.
The Carlsbad business community partly depends on vacationers for their livelihood. So when the National Park Service announced their plans to remove the Underground Lunchroom, the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce opposed them. Gary Perkowski is the mayor of Carlsbad. Like a lot of locals, he also worked in the Underground Lunchroom as a teenager. He was one of the people from Carlsbad who argued the Lunchroom's merits before one of New Mexico's congressman, Representative Joe Skeen.
Well, I think Representative Skeen has always been on our side, and he works very closely with the leaders of Carlsbad on numerous projects. And we just went to Washington, explained our position, and what we thought, and he agreed with us.
That's basically it. He agreed with our position and did everything he could to make sure that that was implemented.
I'll say. I read to you now from the following legislation prepared by Representative Skeen's committee. "According to HR 2217, the Department of the Interior and related agencies appropriations act for fiscal year 2002, section 307, none of the funds made available by this act may be obligated or expended by the National Park Service to enter into or implement a concession contract which permits or requires the removal of the Underground Lunchroom at the Carlsbad Caverns National Park."
That is the same language that has appeared in every appropriations bill since 1994, and what it means is that the National Park Service is barred from using federal funds to close down the Underground Lunchroom. Calls to Representative Skeen's office for comment were not returned.
The National Park Service is obeying the will of Congress, but you don't get the feeling they're all that happy about it. If the Park Service were a person, the Underground Lunchroom would be one of the dumb mistakes it made as a kid. It's like Congress is telling it that it not only cannot remove the tattoo it got one drunken night in the '20s, it has to invite 300,000 people a year to look at it. And that's how a lot of employees think about it, too, as a youthful gaffe.
Cave specialist, Ron Kerbo, who was one of the authors of the study calling for the Lunchroom's abolition, remembers going there when he was little.
Like any eight year old, I thought it was pretty interesting to be able to eat in the cave, and I particularly remember the pickles. They used to have these shelves with these little paper cup things, little small paper cups with pickles in them, and you could eat as many of those as you wanted. So I was always very fond of eating the pickles in the Underground Lunchroom.
Still, he says, there's no reason for the Lunchroom today. Food is available to tourists in a restaurant that's just 57 seconds away by elevator. And for all the visitors who enter the cavern through the elevator, the Lunchroom is the first and the last thing that they see.
In that environment, it seems to me, eating in the Lunchroom mars the visitors' experience in the cave.
And when you were eight years old, did you feel marred?
Well, yes, as a child, I ate in there, and I enjoyed it, and I did remember it, but I have moved on. And the great thing that the National Parks teach us is that, if we are attuned to these natural processes, then we can move on. If your only memory of Carlsbad Cavern is eating in the Lunchroom, then you have missed the essence of the experience.
Everything he's saying is true, but when I got off the phone with him, I was really frustrated because my only possible counter argument is that the Underground Lunchroom is really neat. And what's the dignity in that? Since the Lunchroom does no significant harm to the cavern's ecology, I'd like to believe that this is one of those lucky places where we don't have to choose between doing the right thing and enjoying a goof.
I spent a couple hours walking down through the caverns, and this is what I saw. I saw 14 football fields of treasures, things with names like Witch's Finger, Totem Pole, Mirror Lake, formations described as popcorn and soda straws in places called the Boneyard or the Hall of Giants. I don't know how to describe the magnificence of Carlsbad Caverns without making it sound like a cartoon or a drug trip or a cartoon of a drug trip. The only thing I can say is that it is one of those dear places that make you love the world.
So when I came to the end of the last trail, I wasn't quite ready to say goodbye to the cave. I felt all dreamy, and I didn't want the feeling to end. I look up at the ceiling of the Lunchroom, which is, of course, the ceiling of the cave.
It looks so lunar I can't help but think of a certain astronaut. In 1971, Apollo 14's Alan Shepard hit golf balls on the moon. Gearing up to face the profundity of the universe, this man brought sporting goods with him into space. Who can blame him? That's what we Americans do when we find a place that's really special. We go there and act exactly like ourselves, and we are a nation of fun-loving dopes.
I sleepwalk to a picnic table in the Underground Lunchroom. When I first read about the Lunchroom in the guidebook, I'd never suspected it could feel so contemplative. Then I rip open a bag of barbecue potato chips and listen to the sound of my own teeth crunching. It is possible in the Lunchroom to chew and ponder at the same time.
Sarah Vowell is the author of the book, Take the Cannoli.
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