July rolls through Richmond like a sweaty fog. It squats heavily on the city, sweltering. It obliterates any forlorn hope of springlike breezes. It brings panting dogs to their knees.
Richmonders have always coped with the heat. In the days before air conditioning, we used seersucker and paper fans, iced tea and gin and tonics. We napped on porches.
Even now, when (relatively) cheap electricity and Freon have nearly conquered summer, some Richmonders confront July and August face to face, not cowering behind some hermetically sealed window dripping with condensation.
If you've ever cleaned out an attic in June or painted a roof in July or landscaped a yard in August, you know these people are heroes.
These are some of their stories. Read them.
And as you do, give thanks. From now on, no matter how rough your job is, remember you could be doing it in the attic.
Cooking with Asphalt Toney Burke, Asphalt Paver
by Jason Roop
The heat, like acid, eats through your soles.
It seeps up into your shoes, past your socks and into your calves, embracing your legs. It's like a hug from Satan. It beats down from the sun-filled sky. It crawls down the strands of your hair, behind your eyes and nestles in your armpits.
That's when Toney Burke piles on the clothes.
Burke, a compact, straightforward man, has been laying asphalt for 12 years. Today he's working for Lee Hy Paving Corp., a subcontractor hired by the Virginia Department of Transportation to widen part of Robius Road in South Side Richmond.
Inside his steel-toed work boots, Burke's pulled on three pairs of socks. Sometimes, there are four. Layers are important. That's how to prepare for a job like this, especially on one of these summer afternoons, the kind that features heavy, humid Richmond air and temperatures in the high 90s.
Thick leather gloves cover Burke's hands. A blue paisley bandanna hangs from under his hard hat and covers the back of his neck. He wears black jeans and a black knit shirt a shirt with sleeves. Long sleeves. It's a professional secret.
"A lot of people think long sleeves make you hot," Burke says, "but they make you cool." Come again? Think about firefighters, he explains. "What you're actually doing is protecting your skin from direct heat."
There is a lot of direct heat involved in Burke's job. Without it, we wouldn't have roads.
Asphalt, after all, is created with heat. It's the stuff left at the bottom of a barrel of petroleum once the good parts are removed to make fuel. It is then mixed with sand or granite and heated to between 260 and 310 degrees. It is hot, black goo.
For the goo to stick, pavers prepare the surface of a road with a gummy asphalt tack. It's like a painter laying down primer. Then a truck dumps the asphalt into a hopper attached to a paving machine. A huge metal screw inside the machine turns the asphalt onto the road like bread dough plopped on a dusty counter.
Only this smells nothing like dough. It smells like liquid petroleum and diesel exhaust. David Thaxton, 53, has been smelling it for 21 years. He's a screw man for Lee Hy, meaning he's one of two guys who ride on the back of the paving machine, standing on a raised metal platform that juts out about a yard behind the machine. With a depth stick in hand to measure the asphalt, Thaxton raises and lowers a metal plate to control how much is laid.
Thaxton seems indifferent to the heat rising wavily from the road. He takes a drag on a Montclair, letting the smoke drift from his nose, just as a bead of sweat drops off his forehead. "You can't get but so hot," Thaxton says philosophically. "And after that you're not going to cook."
The paving machine keeps going. Then guys like Burke, armed with rakes, level the spots that need it. To finish the job, a driver perched on a 12-ton roller rides over the new asphalt, compressing it the final 15 to 20 percent. It goes on like this, three inches at a time, until the asphalt is about a foot deep.
"Nobody loves this stuff," Thaxton says. "It's just a job."
Parking the Car Ron Cheatham, Parking-Lot Attendant
by Ames Arnold
In the center of a sweltering parking lot in the middle of downtown Richmond sits a tiny metal booth. Ron Cheatham sits in that booth every day, all day, all summer.
But veteran attendant Cheatham is pretty much OK with his post in his tiny shack in the sun. He can find some shade if he shifts his seat according to the hour. A little fan generates a breeze and cloudy skies and summer rains cool things off sometimes.
What does get to Cheatham is the times he has to move the cars around when a customer needs a blocked-in vehicle. That's when he has to actually get in the cars.
"It's absolutely unbearable," Cheatham says. "Sometimes the metal is too hot to touch. You try to arrange cars so you don't have to move them but things hardly ever work out."
Cheatham, a 48-year-old longtime Richmond resident, has managed to figure ways around many of the heat-related kinks to his satisfaction after 10 years as a parking attendant years that include "three or four" at his present spot in Shockoe Slip.
He wears thick-soled shoes for the asphalt heat absorption and moves his seat outside to a slice of shade by the shack as the angle of the sun changes. When the sun is directly overhead, Cheatham notes that the roof of the booth helps.
Every year, though, Cheatham has to adjust to summer. "The first week you really don't want to be out here," he says. "You don't want to move."
He keeps a blue 2-gallon Thermos with him. Sometimes, if his water is running low a couple of hours before his shift ends at 6 p.m., Cheatham starts to worry. His boss has said he will cover in an emergency, but Cheatham is reluctant to call for help over drinking water.
"You find yourself thinking, 'How you gonna handle this? Why am I worrying about something that simple?' But when you're out in the middle of, quote, nowhere, it's not that simple anymore."
But, Cheatham says, "it's not so bad." He breaks into one of his frequent laughs. "It's not like construction, hammering, moving heavy equipment. It's not strenuous."
The way Cheatham describes it, his job isn't so bad, even with the heat. Sitting on his swivel chair in his booth, radio softly playing, lunchtime sandwich and potato chips waiting close at hand, Cheatham says those who work in nearby air-conditioned offices or labor in the indoors comfort of the Cary Street bars and boutiques should not feel sorry for him. The folks he deals with are nice; he's got a steady $20,000-a-year job with decent benefits; and no one is looking over his shoulder.
If it gets a little hot sometimes, so be it. Even the downside of unbearably steamy car interiors has the occasional flip side.
"A lot of people have air-conditioning on in their cars. I get in and 'Aaaah!' That can be a nice break."
The Steam Box Stanley Winston, Barbecue Vendor
by Emily Cherry
"I work in heat," says Stanley Winston, street vendor for Hawk's Barbecue at the corner of 9th and Marshall in downtown Richmond.
From a small, stainless steel box-on-wheels, Winston serves up barbecue, sausages, hot dogs, hamburgers and bologna burgers to hungry office workers daily, rain or shine, year round. It's those summer days of shine that really get to him, though.
Adorned with a navy-blue terry-cloth band around his forehead to catch the sweat, Winston commiserates with a customer who notes, "Man, that heat is pouring out of there."
She's right. Being inside Winston's barbecue stand is like lowering yourself into a broccoli steamer. Streams of steam seep from metal containers of onions and chili. A hot griddle sizzles in the corner. He has no air conditioner. No fan whirs comfortingly in the corner. Only an occasional breeze blows through the open door in the back of the stand.
Winston's customers are the masses of office workers who stream daily out of the surrounding Social Services building, City Hall, and the John Marshall Courthouse. Outside the stand, customers waiting in a line five deep start fanning themselves with their paperwork and they're the lucky ones.
Heat collects in Winston's small vending trailer, creating temperatures well above those outside. Winston recalls one "unbearable" day a few weeks ago when the temperature reached 92 degrees outdoors. He guesses his indoor temperature was anywhere from 110 to 120.
He stays in this sauna for five hours a day, five days a week, boxed in with stainless steel, no way for air to get out.
Winston used to have things easier. During the summer of 2000, his was an outdoor booth, set up under the shade of an umbrella with no walls to trap in the heat. Some of his fellow vendors are still lucky enough to work at such summer-friendly setups. But his newly enclosed booth is more useful and efficient, if not as comfortable. So Winston, along with a few other steel-entrapped vendors throughout the city, will continue to suffer the ravages of Richmond summers in his metal, steam-filled room.
Winston receives no relief from the heat until the end of the day, when he can go home and rest in the air conditioning.
But sometimes Winston is lucky, and the area's ice-cream stand will station itself at the same corner.
"That's what my relief is," Winston says. "Getting one of [those] cones."
In the Beehive Angel Moya, Insulation Installer
by Jacob Parcell
UltraTherm insulation slides through a 3-inch-wide manila pipe. It makes the sound of rain pattering on an umbrella as it blows up the steps of a nearly completed house off Lucks Road in Midlothian. It escapes through the hand of Angel Moya, who's guiding the insulation to the attic floor.
The living quarters of the house is cool on this mild day. But the hose stretches up into an opening half the size of a manhole, the only opening to the attic. The attic is a different story entirely.
Going into the attic is like being inside a beehive. It's dark and muggy. The yellow insulation flies through the air like pollen, like a swarm of agitated bees.
Dressed in long camouflage pants, a T-shirt, work boots and a gas mask (to protect him from the insulation), Moya doesn't appear bothered as he sprays the insulation. But when Moya stops to take a break, he's covered with sweat.
Midsummer is the busiest time of year for insulation contractors like Southern Capitol Insulation Inc., the company where Moya works, says Jody Rowe, branch manager in Midlothian. The company has three teams who install insulation around the state.
Unfortunately, in summer attics can get up to 150 degrees. It gets so hot that many times the installer can't work past 1 p.m., Rowe says.
"When they know it's going to be hot, they load up in the afternoon and will leave early in the morning," Rowe says.
Moya, 28, says he's been up as early as 5 a.m. and sometimes doesn't work past 11 a.m. Moya averages about four or five houses a day this time of year. Moya and his partner, Trancido Gonzales, take turns laying down insulation and shredding it in the grater.
Moya says this house will take about 45 minutes to cover the attic with insulation, typically a foot deep. Moya is paid per house; he can make from $800 to $1,000 a week. The benefit is he's free to move at his own pace. When he's ready for a break, he'll stick his hand in the pipe to block the insulation to signal to Gonzales.
"When I feel I can't handle it anymore, I'll stop and go out," Moya says. Breaks last about 20 minutes and always occur after a job. He drinks three or four big bottles of Gatorade a day.
Not everybody can do this, or wants to. Prospective insulation blowers at Capitol are trained for at least two weeks. Rowe says she'll usually know if a person will work out after two or three days. The heat and the itchy insulation cause some to stop on the first day.
"I've had some come in and work for an hour and say 'I can't handle insulation,'" Rowe says.
Moya can. In fact, after working insulation for a year and a half, Moya says his previous job was worse. He installed irrigation tracks for five years, digging long ditches outside in the summer sun. This job is a lot easier, he says: "It's like you take the water hose and spray plants." Then he heads back into the attic.
Up on the Roof Thomas Peregoy, Roofer
by Dan Wagener
"Sometimes by 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon, you've had it," says Thomas Peregoy. He's sweating as he watches his associates throw old shingles off a roof they're working on.
Peregoy owns Universal Roofing, a local company. He's been in the business for 30 years, and he admits that the heat is definitely a factor when it comes to summer jobs.
"We have to listen to the weather report every night," he says. "If we hear on the radio that it's going to be 110 degrees, we just won't show up."
The men Peregoy brings to jobs are mainly friends or family. The four on this job work easily together, calling out jokes as they toss boards off the roof. They have come up with their own ways to deal with the sweltering summer days. They peel clothes off, chug gallons of water and drag a water hose near the house. Every 20 or 30 minutes they break and spray themselves down.
Peregoy is also careful about outside people he chooses to help him with jobs in the summer.
"I only bring on people who can handle it," he says.
Today they're lucky. The roof they're working on is shaded by a large patch of trees. The house is also adjacent to a pond. Peregoy, his son and another man on the job all sport well-developed tans. Their past exposure to the sun is evident.
In summer, Peregoy's worst jobs involve putting down rubber roofs. They require blowtorches to apply, for one thing. And with the summer heat pressing down they can be pretty sticky.
"One time I had a job," Peregoy recalls, "where I was using torches in the heat. That night when I went home, my feet were so blistered I basically had to walk on my heels."
Looking down at the thick, heavy-duty boots he wears, that's hard to imagine.
But after 30 years in the business, Peregoy says, you get used to the heat. The jobs take longer in summer than they do at any other time of the year, and they can be draining, but you do what you have to do to get them done. You stop if you get too dizzy or weak, you drink fluids constantly throughout the day and communicate with the other guys on the job.
As a result, Peregoy says, he and his crew have beat the heat. In all his years as a roofer, amazingly, Peregoy says he hasn't had one incident of heat exhaustion, heat stroke or fainting.
After 30 years on the roof, there is a lot to like about the job, Peregoy says he can set his own hours and work at his own pace. Not bad.
Sometimes he thinks about doing something else, he adds. But he knows better. "I'll probably be doing this," he says, "'till the day I die."
The Beast in the Attic Lorenzo Johnson, Pest-Control Expert
by Donna C. Gregory
He's big. He's bad. He's a roach's worst nightmare, and not even an army of ants can stop him. But the heat might.
Today, though, armed with an aluminum insecticide sprayer and a hefty blue Thermos of ice water, not even Richmond's sultry 100 degree days stand in his way.
7:30 a.m. Eleven-year pest-control veteran Lorenzo Johnson leaves his office at Loyal Pest Control. His mission is clear: Save the Richmond area from the insidious invasion of silverfish, ants and rats.
He mixes his first batch of insecticide in preparation for the day's upcoming battles. Today, Johnson faces two formidable opponents. First, the usual conglomeration of common household pests. Second, Richmond's oppressing heat.
It already feels like another "three-shower day" the kind where one step outside immediately makes you want to slam the door shut and hibernate inside a dark, air-conditioned space until nightfall. Even the bugs move a little slower on days like these.
9:05 a.m. First stop: a maintenance call at a Carytown residence experiencing a squirrel infestation in the attic.
Johnson hoists his body up into the darkness of the attic, bracing himself on the wooden timbers along the narrow entrance. His nostrils immediately fill with stale, dusty air. Even in the early morning, the trapped attic heat is nearing 100 degrees.
"It's extremely hot up here," he calls. "If it's 90 degrees outside, it could be 110 or better up here in the attic."
It takes 10 minutes to set the squirrel-friendly traps and bait them with popcorn a delicacy for the little gray rodents. When Johnson lowers himself back onto his ladder, his white shirt is wet from perspiration. It clings to his arms and chest. Luckily, he keeps a spare shirt in his truck.
10:30 a.m. Temporary relief. Johnson answers a call at a local retirement community. Ants are the pests of complaint. It's an easily won battle in climate-controlled surroundings.
Unfortunately, his respite is short-lived. The heat smacks him in the face as he exits the retirement home. It's not so much the heat, he confides. It's the daylong movement from inside to outside that is physically draining. It is, he says, the worst part of the job.
2:03 p.m. Johnson suits up for a crawl underneath a West End residence. He shrugs on blue, cotton, long-sleeved coveralls, a rubber respirator, goggles and hat. The additional layer of clothing protects his uniform from dirt, but only intensifies the heat. Within moments, the sweat is dripping from his chin.
He heads into the crawlspace on hands and knees, dragging a long hose containing insecticide behind him.
Thirty minutes later, he peeks out of the crawlspace's access door. His coveralls are caked with mud from the moist earth beneath the home.
3:45 p.m. Johnson refills his Thermos from an outside spigot. By the end of the day, he will have consumed a gallon of water. "All of the technicians out in the field carry water with them. There's no way we could survive without it," says Johnson.
5:35 p.m. The day's battle is finished. Johnson heads for home. The only thing on his mind is a cold glass of iced tea and a cool shower. Not necessarily in that order.
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