Sweating it out in Philadelphia's hottest jobs

Posted: August 17, 2010

They lug stereos and lay sod, fry eggs, and drill through aluminum.

Some dance atop dugouts, tongue dangling like a breathless retriever's, to hide their inner anguish from the T-shirted masses.

In the coolest of job markets, they hold Philadelphia's hottest gigs - and, at least until Labor Day hits, many will gladly trade them in for a cold drink and an air-conditioned office. Since June 1, temperatures have exceeded 90 degrees on 41 days - and counting, if Tuesday's forecast is any indication.

"It's disgusting," said Tom Burgoyne, the sweat-stained man inside the 35-pound Phillie Phanatic costume. "When the Phanatic gives high-fives, people get wet."

Yet even as small pools of perspiration swish in his furry soles, Burgoyne does enjoy the luxury of occasional breaks - his dressing room near the Phillies clubhouse supplies a fan and plenty of liquids.

Steve Baker of Reiter Roofing Inc. says his team logs full days surrounded by nature's cruelest conductors: reflective aluminum coating. This summer's conditions have been the most oppressive in recent memory, Baker adds, even rendering wooden tools too hot to handle on occasion.

"Imagine a turkey in the oven, wrapped in foil," Baker explains. "The guys tough it out, but it's been brutal."

Darcy Gilbert, a pint-size package courier for UPS, knows the feeling. Temperatures inside the truck can reach upwards of 120 degrees, she says as she unloads packages - 500 pounds per trip - to her rickety push cart before dragging it along Center City's sloping sidewalks.

"My husband works inside" with UPS, says Gilbert as two coiled rugs and a dining-room table roll toward oncoming traffic behind her. "I like to think I'm doing the real work."

Food-cart operators face similarly taxing conditions, though their metal environs are no bigger than some of Gilbert's boxes. With a coffeemaker to his left and a grill at his back, the man who goes by "Billy Hotdog" at Broad and Sansom Streets insists temperatures climb over 200 degrees inside his cart - climatologists be damned.

"Sometimes you cannot breathe correctly, and you get dizzy," says the 21-year-old, whose headbands and wristbands prevent sweat from trickling onto his chili dogs. "Everything is on fire in here."

The city's most sophisticated heat-beaters may spend years perfecting tricks of the trade. Veteran bike messengers, for instance, often camp beneath store window sills between calls - Anthropologie and Barnes & Noble, near Rittenhouse Square, are among the most sought-after chunks of shaded real estate.

Aliciarae Hitchcock and her coworkers from Save the Children bring water guns to their respective zones, cooling each other off between donation solicitations.

"I shoot people passing by, too," she says. "It magnetizes them to the cause."

Though lacking in friendly fire, Bikram Yoga, 15th and Sansom Streets, may take top honors in employer masochism. A disciple of the Indian practice commonly called "hot yoga," instructor Chris Fluck cranks the thermostat north of 105 degrees for his classes.

"The swordsmith heats the metal before shaping the sword," Fluck says, touting the benefits of stretching in heat. "Plus, if you can deal with this, you can definitely deal with being stuck in traffic on the Schuylkill."

To be sure, the city is home to many other worthy laborers in clunky gear and unseemly conditions - from firefighters to beekeepers to those ear-muffed luggage attendants engulfed by jet fumes on an airport runway. But, between saving lives, keeping bees, and doing whatever it is the ear-muffed attendants do, many surveyed did not return phone or e-mail queries.

Mike Boekholder, by contrast, can't afford to stray far from his computer. The head groundskeeper at Citizens Bank Park spends his days oscillating between the sun-drenched field and his office down the right field line - where two radar systems track weather patterns.

"Weather dictates everything we do," he says. "You enjoy the spring and fall a lot more."

The eight-man crew hauls 50-pound bags of sod, fertilizer, and conditioner across the diamond in its preparations for Phillies home games - though some colleagues can barely lift two pounds of lumber in the sweltering heat.

"Never met a ballplayer who didn't prefer to hit inside when it's hot," Boekholder says. "But it could be worse. ... I heard the Vet was like working in a fish bowl."

Or a mascot's outfit. On at least 81 nights a year, Boekholder says, the Phanatic is the hottest creature in South Philadelphia - between his cumbersome costume and perpetual motion.

Burgoyne insists his alter ego is up to task.

"He's from the tropics - came from the Galapagos," reasons Burgoyne, the Phanatic since 1994. "He can handle it."


Watch one of the hottest jobs in Philadelphia: Being

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Contact staff writer Matt Flegenheimer at 215-854-5614 or mflegenheimer@phillynews.com.

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