We sit, my wife and I, huddled in a circle about six feet in diameter facing our household god, our little robot friend, our free-standing three-foot tall air conditioner. Like a caveman family around a fire, we stare at, and listen to, our temperamental unit. We pretend to watch a rerun of “Law and Order: SVU,” but it’s just a sham; what we’re really watching is our R2D2-like unit and wondering what he’ll do next.
We know it’s just a machine, but “it” morphed quickly into “he” last Fourth of July, when the temperature hit a hundred and he unaccountably shut off. I dashed around the house, checking fuses, switching surge suppressors, fiddling with dials, manipulating the exhaust hose. Sweating and panicked, I stood over him and shook my fist. Then, without any apparent connection to what I had been doing, he came on again. This is where ignorant electronics shifts into flat-out superstition. Why did he come on? Was it something I said? Should I say it again? Does he respond to threats? Or does he crave flattery? Is he bored? Would he like to wheel over to another corner of the living room? What’s on his mind?
We had to give up on his big brother last year. We had lived in centrally air-conditioned bliss until our four-year-old unit broke down. The repairman who looked at it announced a five-digit replacement figure that knocked us off our feet, so we called another, and another, who presented only escalating numbers. One salesperson brought out a big, lavishly illustrated book and asked us questions about our consumer preferences: On a scale of one to ten, how important is consistent cooling to us? Do we want our unit to work all the time, most of the time, or only now and then?
Now I know the air-conditioning industry must be stuffed to the gills with trustworthy, honest, good-hearted folk, but up to now I have not met any of them. So we bought R2D2 and he worked magically—for awhile.
“What’s your problem anyway?” some friend occasionally asks. “We don’t even have air conditioning. We like to have the windows open and feel the summer breezes.” I have three responses to this question, all of them unspoken, but deeply felt: 1.) I’m sorry. I thought I was talking to a human being. Apparently you are from outer space. 2.) Are you talking about real Chicago or fantasy Chicago? Fantasy summer in Chicago, yes, never hits the 90s in the middle of the night and wandering balladeers serenade you to sleep under your open windows; 3.) You’re lying. You actually have central air, use it all the time, and are just trying to make me feel bad.
So we know what we have to do. We try our best to keep our little mobile unit happy. We turn him off whenever we can stand to. We compliment him and tell him jokes. And occasionally we beg him: Help us, R2D2. You’re our only hope.