Hot fog hangs over the city, sending air quality into the horrid zone. Pavement waffles with heat waves and dry-cleaned clothes get wet with sweat.
The muggy swamp that Washington once was ferments under a solar blanket and seeps out like nerve gas. August, aside from the being the name given the eighth and often the hottest month of the year, also means, according to Webster, "marked by majestic dignity or grandeur."
So, try to be august in August. If you can . . .
People pass out from the heat, their faces flushed and burned. Old folks gasp for breath with each step. There is death in airless high-rises, while pets suffocate in parked cars.
You can see the air, but you can't feel the breeze.
"A cool glass of water," says Alvin Smith when asked what it takes to beat the heat. Smith works a wheelbarrow and shovel for the National Park Service, spreading manure alongside roadbeds where saplings have been planted. (You think your job is rough?)
Fumes from cars and trucks engulf him along I-295, but this is Chanel No. 5 compared to the stuff he's shoveling. Of course, he's numb to the smell. What he can't shake is the August sun.
"There is a saying, 'You don't miss your water until the well runs dry,' " says Smith, who has broken out into a hyper-sweat. "Out here, you miss your water when it boils away."
A woman who got too hot at a jazz festival in Anacostia Park last weekend removed her pants and blouse to reveal a cooler outfit that resembled a swimsuit but seemed a touch too sheer for water wear. It was called a teddy (I was told), and it was certainly marked by grandeur. But August's "majestic dignity" attracted a kind of attention that soon sent the lady back to her more confining garb.
Temperatures and tempers rise as heat bakes brains, causing otherwise peaceable people to fight and snarl. They call them "dog days" because now is the time Sirius, the dog star, rises with the sun. They mean dog days because people either spend the time fighting like dogs or lying around like one.
Even kids get meaner when it gets hot, refusing to share toys, nitpicking over dinner and bickering for sport. They can't seem to occupy themselves, so they run in and out all day, drinking sugary liquids and smelling like sweetness gone sour.
Sweat boiled out of the skin does not make for the best of summer romance, either. Hugging is out and kissing restricted to salty pecks on the cheek.
At a Caribbean festival, as the sun beat down on the crowd, a couple began arguing loudly and appeared to break up on the spot simply because the woman had tried to cool the man with a hand-held fan.
"Stop blowing hot air," he snapped at her. She was just trying to be helpful, she snapped back and if he couldn't take the heat. . . . Well, who knows why they really broke up, but it's safe to say that there is nothing like the sun to bring things to the surface. Don't blame it on the moon.
August is a time when goldenrod and wild asters are supposed to brighten the season. But the only flower of August that is readily apparent in much of the city is the poppy--poets' and horticulturists' first choice as the month's symbol--albeit in a most unaugust form.
Only insects seem to flourish in August, making outdoor activity here virtually unbearable. Mosquitoes as big as horseflies sip blood like a mixed drink, and ants act like they are God's little caterers. While many people will opt for different climates, many more will stay here and try to have fun. But the bugs will be all business during August, working overtime before the call of fall.
The longest days are over but the hottest are yet to come. Gradually there'll be fewer yard sales, fewer neighborhood car washes and fewer block parties. Fewer people will take to the streets, unless they're heading for the beach. A dead calm will settle over the city and all that is left behind.
For those who have air conditioning (and here, August will truly separate the haves from the have-nots) the solution is easier. Stay home. Keep the windows down and the shades drawn. Get a cool glass of water and find somebody with a teddy. It's the only august thing to do.