Instead of staying in her apartment building where the air conditioner has been broken all summer, Martha Coombs, 63, tried to enjoy the shade of a parched magnolia tree outside. Although the temperature was about the same in both places, she said sweetly, "I feel good right now; there's a little air stirring."
As dried leaves crackled in the trees above her, Coombs reluctantly moved to dab the sweat from her eyes. She didn't want to give the impression that anything was wrong because she didn't want people to think that old people are complainers.
"I always say, if you be quiet you can keep cool," she said, smiling.
But the fact of the matter was that it was hot as heck outside, a sweltering high of 96 degrees -- as well as inside this District government-run apartment building at 12th and M streets NW. And Coombs, like many of the 400 elderly and handicapped residents of the Claridge Towers apartments, was going overboard to give the impression that everything was all right.
"No complaints," said William C. Blackwell, 82, as he sat in the lobby, watching water from a broken air conditioner leak from the roof. "I'll be okay. I got nothing to tell."
Meanwhile, other residents staggered in off the streets on canes and crutches, some with grocery bags stained with wet fingerprints, rivulets of sweat running down their backs and the agony of the heat baked into their wrinkled faces.
"It's the Lord's work," one tenant sighed as she collapsed on a seat in the lounge. "He makes the hot and He makes the cold and He says, 'Deal with it.' "
The truth, however, was that this was Mayor Marion Barry's work, because his Department of Housing and Urban Development had the money to get the building's air conditioner fixed but had failed to do so.
Michael Harris, the D.C. government property manager, who does not live at Claridge Towers, could not reached for comment yesterday.
At the beginning of the summer, residents say, they voiced their complaints to Harris and many other city officials. But they were ignored. Suddenly, the complaints seemed to die down.
"Word got around that if you open your mouth, you'd get a 30-day notice to leave ," said Edna Johnson, 59, who has lived at Claridge Towers since 1973. "Throughout the building you have old people in wheelchairs who can't even go outside to get a breeze, but they are afraid to speak up."
Agnes Woodley, 71, has been confined to a wheelchair for many of the 18 years that she has lived in the apartment building. She has two fans blowing to keep her cool, and the hot weather is just part of her problem.
"You complain and complain but nothing ever gets done," she said. "I can't lock the patio door; I don't have a screen. I can't even take a bath because the apartment upstairs leaks into my tub."
Not only is the air conditioning broken, but also, when it was working, it leaked all over her floor. Repair workers came in and took up her carpet and have not been back since. Reports about her broken smoke detector also have been ignored.
The fight for air conditioning and other repairs has been waged unsuccessfully by a handful of die-hard advocates for the elderly, including tenants Johnson, Roberto Wallace and Lucille Savage, a 71-year-old representative of the Gray Panthers, a senior citizens organization, and an employe of Barry's Office on Aging.
"Don't ask me about the mayor," Savage snaps. "I'm just sick of this. Why can't you treat people like you would want to be treated when you got old?"
The Gray Panthers have scheduled a meeting at 1:30 p.m. on Sept. 16 at 711 Eighth St. NW to discuss the situation at Claridge Towers and similar problems at housing projects throughout the city.
Yet some tenants figure it's too late now, that the summer -- including this burst of hot weather -- is about over, and they are simply thankful for having made it through.
But who knows what toll this summer of agony has taken on them, how much their resistance has been weakened.
And while summer may be nearing an end, the winter months are just around the corner, with no guarantees that the heat will work any better than the air conditioning has -- only the certainty that a magnolia tree will offer no respite from the cold.