Soldiering On When the Job is White Hot

July 22, 2011

by Manny Fernandez, New York Times

WICHITA FALLS, Tex. — The guys who cut the grass at the parks in this north central Texas city, which has endured 30 consecutive days of triple-digit heat, stuff ice packs into their bright orange vests.

The manager at the bicycle shop with the broken air-conditioner in Kansas City, Mo., no longer wears socks.

The orchestra that performs in Grant Park in Chicago did a perfect rendition of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C major, perhaps because the musicians were allowed to wear shorts and tank tops.

As the heat wave that has enveloped much of the central part of the country moved east on Thursday, life became an improvisation. From inside an air-conditioned office, heat waves can seem almost unreal. But for those whose jobs demand that they work in the heat, whether by necessity, choice or circumstance, the triple-digit temperatures can shape the day, affecting their mood, their health and their bottom-line.

Ask those who have toiled in the heat this week why — why they put themselves under the sun, often without shade, for hours at a time — and there is usually the same response: It’s their job.

Sure, the postal workers in Atlanta — where temperatures have soared above 90 this week — have had it rough, but so has Christopher Fanning, a door-to-door meat salesman who has to keep himself, and the steaks, cool.

With 40 states experiencing temperatures into the 90s, including more than a dozen that have reached the 100-degree mark, the heat wave has done what bad weather tends to do — bring people closer together, if not to bond, then to at least commiserate.

The members of the Grant Park Orchestra in Chicago, which reached 96 by midafternoon, have become a close-knit bunch, playing in pounding rains, tornado scares and the current brutal heat. “We’re like the mail people,” said Mary Stolper, the orchestra’s principal flute.

There was one trait that people around the country seemed to share: optimism. When it is 91 degrees and not even 10 a.m. in Texas and you are riding on a diesel-powered lawn mower amid the heat and dust, making sure one little city park looks neat and trim, you tend to look on the bright side.

“We got a slight breeze,” said Richard Bronson, 52, the man on the mower Thursday morning at Harold Jones Park in Wichita Falls. He and his four-member crew finished the job in about three hours, before the temperature climbed to 104 later.

“We’re out in it all day for eight hours, five days a week,” said Mr. Bronson, a city parks worker. “You get used to it.”

Landscaping is a skill. But lately it has been an endurance test in Wichita Falls, a city of 101,000 near the Oklahoma line. One recent Saturday, the temperature climbed to 111. But the last several days have been cooler: 104 or 105 or 107 or 109.

It was not quite that hot on Thursday in Boston, as the temperature climbed past 90, but there were plenty of summertime treats to go around: blood-flavored ice pops, mealworm-sprinkled ice cubes and mint chocolate chip ice cream. The blood-flavored ice pops were for the tigers and the mealworm cubes were for the tamarin monkeys at the Franklin Park Zoo. The ice cream was for the zookeepers.