Ever met anyone who actually could sell ice to Eskimos?
Didn’t think so.
Ever met someone who couldn’t give away ice water to a thirsty man when it’s 94 degrees outside?
You have now, sugar.
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Last week while driving to play tennis and learning en route that my match had been canceled – my opponent had an attack of commonsense and concluded it was too hot to play – I found myself with several bottles of frozen-but-melting water that I wouldn’t be needing.
The bedraggled old man standing at the corner of Alston Avenue and Liberty Street in Durham, waiting for the traffic light to change, looked parched and dehydrated. Despite the heat and sun, the dude wasn’t even sweating. He looked as though some ice water was just what he needed.
“No, thank you,” he said when I offered a bottle through the window.
One’s first impulse in that situation might be to take such rejection personally.
Mine was, but after thinking about it, I realized that I probably wouldn’t take unsolicited water from a cat in a big, black 20-year-old truck who just pulls up to the corner, either.
Don Tart, chief executive officer of the Durham Rescue Mission, wasn’t surprised when I told him what had happened.
Far fewer people, he said, take advantage of the Rescue Mission’s efforts to help them during extreme heat than take advantage of the help when it’s freezing outside. The last time I talked to Tart was two winters ago, when the hawk set up shop in the Triangle and acted as though it didn’t want to leave. We had a week with temperatures at or below freezing.
Tart allowed me to accompany several volunteers from the mission as they spread out across Durham – traipsing through hard-to-penetrate woods – trying to convince men to forsake their tents, lean-tos and dirty, bare mattresses and sleep at the heated mission until the weather warmed up.
Some came in from the cold; many preferred the freedom to freeze and stayed. Some flipped us off and fled when they saw us coming, opting to continue shivering off the grid.
“That was Operation Warm Shelter,” Tart said. “We’re not going out, but we do have Operation Cool Shelter. They can come in and get water, refreshments” and enjoy the mission’s air conditioner.
“Not as many people take advantage of it, because they can go to a library” or some other public place for relief, he said.
“Conditions get better at night for heat,” Tart added, “but it gets worse for cold. They feel they can endure the heat better.”
That’s too bad – and wrong. Don “Big Weather” Schwenneker, a meteorologist with ABC11, told me Monday that heat “is the number one weather killer,” at least it was as of 2014. It’s hard to see that changing, because the median temperature is continually rising. The NOAA said June 2016 was the hottest on record, and that there’ve been 14 consecutive months of record-breaking high temperatures.
Heat, Schwenneker said, “kills more people than flooding, tornadoes, lightning and cold.”
Recalling a deadly heatwave that struck Chicago when he worked there just prior to arriving here, Schwenneker said older people’s bodies aren’t able to deal with the heat as well as younger people’s or to cool down as quickly. Some often stay locked up inside and, he said, “They don’t like to ask for help. If their air conditioning stops working, often they’ll just use a fan.”
If you know someone old or who might be in heat-related distress, for goodness’ sake, go check up on them, make sure the air conditioner is working, take them some cold water.
Just don’t be offended if they turn it down, though.