Brain Pickings

A Vintage Love Letter to NYC’s Heat as the Ultimate Class Equalizer

by

How the extremities of the thermometer bridge the most insurmountable of social barriers.

As New York enters a record-breaking heat wave this week, I was reminded of a wonderful passage from Manhattan ’45 (public library), titled thusly because it sounds “partly like a kind of gun; and partly like champagne,” by the Welsh historian and prolific travel writer Jan Morris* — easily the most beautifully written love letter to New York City since E. B. White’s iconic Here Is New York, one of my all-time favorite texts. Morris paints a portrait of the city as it was on June 25, 1945 — the day 14,000 American servicemen and women, the first contingent returning from the victory over Nazi Germany, sailed into New York aboard the British liner Queen Mary — reconstructed in 1987, when the book was originally published. In this excerpt from the closing of Chapter 4, “On Class,” Morris captures the remarkable unifying force of New York City heat, something to quietly celebrate as we brush up against sweaty strangers on the subway and exchange wistfully knowing nods.

[W]hen a heat wave left the whole city gasping and sweating, a powerful fellowship blunted the edge of the common misery, bridging the most insuperable linguistic barriers, or the most unclimbable social barricades, if only with a wink or a grimace.

Morris goes on to extend this amalgamation of difference into fellowship, driven by the forces of the city’s circumstance, to the very fabric of citizenship:

And anyway citizenship of this city in itself made for a bond beyond class. To be a citizen of Manhattan was an achievement in itself — it had taken guts and enterprise, if not on your own part, at least on your forebears’. The pressures of the place, its competition, its pace, its hazards, even the fun of it, demanded special qualities of its people, and gave them a particular affinity for one another. They were all an elite!

*Morris herself is very much a character worthy of New York City’s colorful spirit. Born as James Morris in 1926, the father of five children and a WWII vet, she had gender reassignment surgery in 1972 after eight years of medical transition. She had to travel to Morocco to have the procedure performed, since British doctors wouldn’t agree to do it unless Morris divorced the children’s mother, Elizabeth Tuckniss, which she refused to do. The two eventually divorced, but remained close and were legally reunited in a civil partnership in 2008, when Morris was 82. You can hear Morris in conversation with NYPL’s Paul Holdengräber.

Thanks, Chel

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