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Hot in the City: Summer in the CBD

The air is too hot to be local air. Surely it is air that’s been sucked out of smelters in Mount Isa or the dry river beds of the Centre. Scorched January air that burns cheeks and packs a sensory punch as it’s inhaled, warm at the back of the throat like a coffee.

Every year it comes, carrying with it the waft of eucalyptus and grassfires and vast tracts of brutal Australia that many Melbournians never see. It’s a wind that clears a city. It drives some towards the peninsulas. Others the west coast. A good number of urbanites — the brave, the unlucky and the leave deprived —stick it out. Two months in the kiln.

The CBD has some charms during those summer months. There comes a day in January each year when parking

Photo by Paula Doody

spaces open up in Collins Street that have generally not been free since John Brack did his painting. In coffee shops and restaurants, the stranded catch the eyes of the stranded, quietly celebrating 3pm lunches. Your boss away? Yep. My boss is away too.

Shoppers play air-conditioning hopscotch, scattering their itineraries with drink stops and department store cut-throughs. In subterranean electronic wonderlands, salesmen have to sift the genuine purchasers from the hot people standing in their stores cooling down. Where shall we try next? The cinema? What’s on? It doesn’t matter. The air conditioning is on.

In the early afternoon, the city is without shadows, without respite. Brave tourists stand in front of St Paul’s Cathedral and Flinders Street Station and the Arts Centre spire, taking bright forgettable photos, pulling grinning, sweaty faces that will recall a temperature as much as it will a city. Federation Square is the brightest place of all. The zinc panels and the undulating Kimberley sandstone reflect white light, a terracotta terror for those without sunglasses. St Kilda Road, all stately and shady, beckons us southwards. The beach is this way, pilgrims. And Mr. Whippy is this way too.

There’s been talk of a CBD beach, a slap of sand on the boat shed side of the Yarra that would mirror the Paris Plage project. The naysayers say (apart from nay) that we already have beaches — beaches that become increasingly swimable with each traveling kilometre away from the CBD. The yea-sayers say that palm trees are fun and that a CBD beach would provide a summer focus. Hopefully they build it. Sand is cheap. Sandcastles are good for the soul. So what if they can’t hold the Bells Easter Classic there. It’ll be a place for reading books, and watching sunsets, and spying on co-workers having affairs.

The late afternoon serves as a countdown to early evening, the golden window when the air is warm, the drinks are cold, and the ordeal of summer day yields to the loveliness of summer night. People seem to appear out of the footpath. Some clutching picnic rugs striding purposefully for the Botanic Gardens. Restaurant-goers dodging spriukers in Chinatown, telling white lies about having already eaten. There’s dancing at Trades Hall, theatre at the Arts Centre. Rooftop bars and beer gardens enjoy their seasonal advantage over laneway grottos. Coins are dropped in barbecues and the smell of sausages floats across the water, across Melbourne Park, across to the ‘G. When the cricket is on, the sausage smell front collides with a donut and hot chip front, an olfactory event that could one day lead to it raining saturated fat.

Taxis collect at ranks, green tops joining their all-yellow brothers in desperate numbers. The drivers aren’t happy. This is nothing like the pre-Christmas rush. Too many taxis. Too few people. The car smells of hot January work. Say the wrong suburb and the disappointment is clenched in the driver’s jaw. The radio is tuned to a classic hits station. ‘Hot in the City, Hot in the City tonight’. Billy Idol crooning for summer Melbourne as he croons for summer everywhere. Over the final bars, a DJ who has spent a career sliding down the demographics sizzles the good times and the classic hits. ‘It’s a hot one out there in Melbourne town tonight. And strap in for tomorrow people because the folks at the bureau say it’s going to be even hotter. And speaking of hot summer nights, can you say it any better than Meatloaf …?’

The fragrant summer air blows in through the window. Heavy eyes, home now just around the corner. Finally, the weather is perfect — for everything except sleeping.