the underling hour


It’s Algeria outside today, and I mean that in the existential sense, though the weather is cooperating – blissfully or blisteringly, depending on your point of view.

As for me, I love the heat. I like walking down blindingly white pavement, the sun reflecting back in your face in case you tried to escape it by looking down. I like the scorch of it, the sweat of it.

I like the challenge of it. A heatwave reminds you how big the environment is and how little we are, how strong the earth is and how weak we are. I like the way it makes you feel small, and dependent, and strange.

I like the uniting quality of it. I like the way it prompts strangers to give away water bottles. I like the way it makes everyone wish each other well in line at the bank or grocery store or cashier, with a smile and a “stay cool” to punctuate the things we normally do thoughtlessly.

I like the intensity of it. Every step feels like a conquest, every passerby feels like an ally, every breath feels like a resurrection.

I like the way it makes you wake up.

I love the heat.

But this morning, I was thinking, I love the earnest chlorine aroma of the last business day in May, when the fountains squeak awake and the pools are scrubbed to their rightful off-white. We get a little bit of this all year, or at least those of us who get the early trains. We curtsy around the sidewalk-washers. We contort our cheeks apologetically when an absentminded manager tracks through the puddles. We tiptoe with respect for the breeze. The fire hydrants, spared, exude their own gratitude.

It’s the underling hour. This is the tribe that knows which light switch belongs to which office, that picks up the morning paper, that creases the workplace just so. There is a courtesy among us. We sidestep one another, we hold doors, we nod, we pretend not to peep each other’s podcasts. We know each other’s names. We give the student discount. We trash talk Real Madrid. (That part may just be me.)

I live in a swamp and it has left me unable to distinguish heat and humidity, fire and water, walking and swimming. My commute has always struck me as a kind of relay, perhaps because of the competitive instinct color-coded trains awaken in me, eyes on the clock, teammates in unspoken formations as we phalanx across the platform. Blue hangs back. Yellow steps forward. Backstroke across the Potomac.

This time of year impresses upon me more than all the others the moral necessity of putting down your book as you cross the river and looking out at Virginia before it was D.C., Virginia before it was Virginia, the curve of Maryland beyond the bridges, the starkness of the marble monuments, the smallness of the landing planes and metronome trains and jagged boats and miniscule trucks. There is a decrepit platform called Poseidon tethered to the rail bridge, shrouded in dust and dew, and it is worth smiling at this, every day.

It is worth being kind to yourself as you unpeel your thighs from the yellow leather of the subway seats, and kind to your neighbor as she saunters up the escalators, and kind to those the architecture does not want you to notice, under the awnings, hidden in corners, thirsty for the shade. It is worth being kind to the land that bears this city, for which it did not ask, for which it was not made, and to which it is unfailingly generous. North America has an odd habit of building its capitals in swamps, as if to make the drowning metaphors easier. I think, sometimes, of Tenochtitlan, of its cathedral sinking into the earth, and how so many people laugh at the builders for this. As if God did not want to come there with us too.

Published by Catherine Addington

I am a translator from Spanish to English and a writer on saints, myths, and icons in both religious and secular contexts.

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