Houston — For those of you now trapped under the heat dome in the Northeast, I feel your pain. Temperatures are parked in the 90s, and you don’t need the weatherperson to tell you that the heat index makes it feel like 100-plus.
I know that on these steamy afternoons, it can be hard to tell the stoners from people just shuffling from one patch of shade to the next. No matter what you are wearing, the sun still sears through to your skin; and no matter how often you shower, you always feel heat-sticky and never clean. I sometimes wonder whether we should even be driving in this weather, because road rage nowadays seems as much a part of summer as bikinis and beer.
I know all of this because I have survived more Texas summers than I care to count — and worse still, Houston summers, which run from May until after Halloween. There are hotter places on the planet — like Death Valley, Calif., or Dallas — but we have high humidity, too. Ever taken a wet sauna in your good clothes before going to work? We do it every day.
Then there are the bugs. I’m not one of those people who likes to brag that everything is bigger in Texas, but in this case, it’s true. Imagine a flying insect the size and sheen of a chocolate Easter egg; that will help you picture the hideous tree roach infestation I’m currently enjoying. O.K., a smallish chocolate Easter egg. Our fleas aren’t bigger than other people’s fleas, but we have lots because we never had a freeze to kill them off last winter.
And this year, along with the threat of West Nile-virus-carrying mosquitoes, we have Zika to worry about. NBC News called Houston a “Zika Virus Hotspot” last week, thanks to the abundance of abandoned old tires, which, after a heavy rain, serve as perfect breeding grounds for the nasty critters.
“Houston is a perfect place for Zika to take hold and reach a crisis point,” the report went on, no doubt setting off alarms at our Convention and Visitors Bureau.
So, thanks to Houston, I have a few summer survival tips to offer.
First, most conventional wisdom is useless. Yes, you might feel a little cooler if you wear linen and cotton instead of polyester, along with a ridiculous “S.P.F.” sun hat. (Really, is there any other kind?) As for those sunscreens that promise to keep you cool, they do so for the five seconds you’re spraying them on.
When it comes to bugs, torches dipped in citronella fuel might keep your patio marginally pest free, but at the expense of warming yourself near, well, a fire. So often, self-protection in summer comes down to a choice of which feels less nasty on the skin: sunscreen or bug repellent.
Much of this discomfort can be avoided by simply staying inside for the duration of the summer. Gone are the days of my childhood, when I would sit with pals poleaxed in front of a clattering window unit. Downtown Houston has six miles of underground tunnels that work like Montreal’s, but in reverse: They’re air-conditioned for summer rather than heated against winter’s icy blasts. The central business district looks like a ghost town because everyone is underground sipping steaming macchiatos.
And they are shivering. The local obsession with climate control means that indoor temperatures require visitors to accessorize a cotton dress or linen suit with a down jacket.
At home, things are different. Cooling comes at a price: An average domestic electricity bill during the Houston summer can be $400 a month, so we try to control costs. The smartest way to do that, short of turning down the thermostat, is to keep up with the maintenance. This requires the formation of an ever-deepening relationship with your A.C. repairman, who will change your filters and come out on July 4 when the unit breaks down.
You should know that people who have made this career choice tend to be irascible and, often, nuts. I once spent two hours listening to mine wax on about his puppy; I would have gazed on adoringly for any amount of time so long as he fixed my unit. Whatever insane amount you lavish on your hairdresser or babysitter at Christmastime, double it for your A.C. guy. Better yet, get him a Ford F-450 truck.
Or get out of town. It helps to have friends with homes in cooler places. When I was growing up, well-heeled Texans had summer homes in the Hill Country, which isn’t that far from — or much cooler than — our major cities. In recent decades, the 1 percent has gone farther afield. Like rich people everywhere, they’ve bought summer “cottages” in Aspen, Jackson Hole, Nantucket or towns in Maine with scary, brooding names.
For the rest of us, this creates an opportunity for a three-month mooch-fest — depending on how many wealthy friends you can cultivate before Memorial Day. It’s advisable to decline the first invitation to avoid seeming desperate.
If nothing else works, try denial. I have a Houston friend who maintains, with a straight face, that it always cools off at night. This is technically true — if you consider sticky nights in the 80s “cool.”
Sometimes, walking late with our panting dogs, I get so delirious I find myself ducking into the shade from our new LED streetlights. And that’s no Texas brag.