The Merriam – Webster Dictionary describes the Dog Days of Summer as:
- the period between early July and early September when the hot sultry weather of summer usually occurs in the northern hemisphere.
- a period of stagnation or inactivity.
As a police officer, I found it to be a miserable time when you were never comfortable. Riding around in an old Ford or Chevy with poor air-conditioning and always on the verge of overheating while wearing a heavy and stifling Kevlar vest. A vest that after a week or two of summer took on an odor that can’t truly be described. It needs to be experienced.
Additionally, it was anything but stagnant. Crime ran wild in the streets. As a young officer working Chicago’s Austin neighborhood I saw that the street came alive once the sun went down. Rather than suffer in un-air-conditioned apartments at night the citizens relocated to the sidewalks where they might experience a moment of moving air to help cool them. All ages came out to be more comfortable. From the newborn infants to the ancient ones.
Most of the people hoped for nothing more than a cool breeze and presented no problem. There were exceptions to that rule. You would be riding down Central Ave. trying to keep air moving through the car’s radiator, when suddenly a woman would run out into the street chasing her man. She had her Ronco steak knife and wanted to kill that man. The reason didn’t matter; she just wanted to sink that knife into that man. That Ronco blade, guaranteed to go from cutting cinder blocks to slicing paper-thin slices of tomatoes, would usually find its target and slash that man. He would get some stitches; she would spend the night in the air-conditioned female lock up in the 25th district. Eventually, the charges would be dropped. After all, she loved him.
The old men would gather on a corner or front stoop and pass a bottle around. It might be followed by some refer. They usually stayed quiet. The young men gathered and if they weren’t trying to sell refer or a few rocks they acted like young men everywhere. Showing off for the girls that passed, clowning to make them smile.
During the day when the temps would shoot up to the danger zones, everyone was trying to make a living. If you had a job you went to work. If you had kids, you chased the toddlers around trying to keep them alive. No matter what when it was light out you had your hustle.
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On hot summers afternoons, some older teenagers would find a pipe wrench and open a fire hydrant. A car tire would be shoved over it and board stuck in front of the discharge provided a cooling fountain for everyone cool off.
When your squad was almost as hot inside as outside, you found an open hydrant and after making sure your doors were locked and windows all rolled up you turned on your emergency lights, hit the siren once and inched through the spray. The temps in the car dropped dramatically and the squad was now almost clean. The neighbors laughed and we smiled.
When the weather was really hot the district put up a car with two officers in shorts and shirts whose job was to go close the hydrants. They would wade into the water with boos and hisses to shut the hydrant and drive off. Once they were around the corner the guy with the monkey wrench opened it back up.
If you had the misfortune of working as lock-up keeper during the dog days, you could count on being surrounded by drunken, sweaty, smelly people. Our small district lockup was a large, tall ceiling room with the cells in a central block and windows high on the walls all around. There was one large cell called the bullpen and then several smaller cells. Off in one corner was a single cell in a small room. Extremely violent or uncooperative prisoners were kept in there.
There was no air conditioning in that lockup. You opened the windows and prayed for a breeze. When there was none, you stewed in there along with everyone else.
Back on nights, the people looking for a breeze on the sidewalk slowly succumbed to sleep. Often assisted by drink or refer. They got a few hours before the sun started the hot day all over again. Around 4 AM you the streets took on an eerie calm with only the sound or your car tires and a few of those damn morning birds beginning to sing.
August 23rd, 2019 is the official last day of the Dog Days for this year. I’m retired for almost seven years and it has been many more since I left the west side, but I can still smell those sizzling and steamy streets in need of a cleansing thunderstorm and a cold front.
Those are some of the things I look back on with nostalgia. It smelled terrible but we made the best of it. Rather than a chore, it was an adventure. You arrested bad guys and helped those in need. And nothing beat the pleasure of a good open fire hydrant.
Stay safe, run low, and zigzag
Robert Weisskopf (Lt. CPD ret.)
P.S. You can find links for all of my article as well as my novels and cookbook at my website www.bobweisskopf.com