Though I’m well aware that many of my fellow Memphians “love the heat,” I confess to having a bad attitude towards our city’s usually unbearable summers. I’m obviously happy to call Memphis home. But every year, I look forward to the summer months with minimal enthusiasm.
Officially, of course, the Northern Hemisphere summer begins on June 21st. Growing up in New England, that meant very little to me, since “summer” usually started on Fourth of July weekend and ended around Labor Day. Here in Memphis, June 21st is pretty meaningless, since the season’s warm-up act has usually taken the stage long before then. For me, sanity-threatening Memphis summer officially starts on that first night over which the mercury fails to drop below 80 degrees. For the record, that date this year was June 17th.
We probably won’t see the 60s on the thermometer again until after Labor Day. Until then, don’t look for me to be hanging out on the golf course or walking about around town. I consider today’s automatic car-starters one of the twenty-first century’s greatest inventions — essential to life in summertime Memphis — since it allows me to drive away five minutes later in air-conditioned comfort. Yes, call me names, but when summer comes around, I avoid the great outdoors at all costs, at least until the sun goes down.
That’s the bad news. The good is that I spring to life whenever that glowing disc sinks slowly over the Mississippi. And here’s why.
After my first decade in Memphis, I decided to become a somewhat serious runner. Wanting to run marathons (I eventually finished 13), I realized I couldn’t very well train and take whole summers off. So that’s when I became a vampire.
No, I wasn’t into blood-sucking, but I did find a way to stay fit that also fit the climate: I ran only at night between June and September. It wasn’t too long before this became my year-round training pattern. In fact, after a few years, I realized that almost the only time I ever ran in the daylight was in actual races!
That’s how and when I discovered the magnificence of Memphis summer nights. Back in the 1990s, my twice-weekly long run was from my home on the South Bluffs to the Racquet Club. I devised an off-the-beaten track, nine-mile route that took me through downtown, into Central Gardens, out through Cooper-Young, and along Tuckahoe and Shady Grove all the way to Mendenhall. When running, summer became my favorite season: the sounds of the crickets, the tree-frogs, the owls and what have you right along largely empty streets were magnificent. Yes, it was essential that you cover yourself with skeeter spray, but the same humidity that in the daylight hours seemed so stifling somehow became soothing as you moved along ever so quietly in the still, sweat-inducing summer night.
It’s a long time since I ran my last marathon (1998, to be precise), but I still think of those wonderful evenings when I’m sitting with friends and neighbors on my front porch, actually right along one of my regular Downtown/East Memphis routes, not far from Chickasaw Gardens. The nights are marked by the same familiar sounds, with the addition of quiet conversations by insect-resistant candlelight over wine and cheese, some of great import but most of none whatsoever.
But each and every one is special, in its own right. Every now and then on the porch, we sight an iridescent June bug, lighting up the still night air. It’s a glorious way to celebrate Memphis and its summers, and now one of my favorite parts of living here.
Yes, I know, this makes me a faux Memphian, even after four decades resident in these parts. And yes, I admit to lacking the meteorological fortitude of a genuine Memphian, those of you who head off to Destin or Gulf Shores on Fourth of July weekend. Some indeed do like it hot. But I only like it that way after dark.
— Kenneth Neill