Upon moving back to "the city" following my hallowed Summer of Rockaway, I promised myself I would find a way to keep swimming and summer in my daily life. Fortunately for me, New York has a rich history of public pools (check this article out, if only for the sick vintage photographs). I soon found myself living within walking distance of the unexpectedly majestic Metropolitan Pool smack in the middle of Williamsburg. Because of its alliance with the city, membership was a mere $65 per half year. Also because of its public nature, it was a popular place with limited lap lanes. During swim sessions, I was often circling the tiny pool with up to five other people in my lane! My swimmy inclinations were sated, however, and I found a fascinating side effect that it opened up a world of subcultures who also attended.
The most obviously fascinating of these were those for which "Ladies' Swim" was scheduled. As a fledgling member, I noted to myself happily, "Oh, Ladies' Swim lap swim designated for ze women! How nice!" Though an avid swimmer, I am not the quickest of fish and spent the majority of my time there in the slow or medium lanes, leaving the fast lane for the sharks and unofficial swim team meetings that seemed to happen at the same unlikely afternoon time slot when I swam.
Ladies' Swim that first day was a lesson in expectations. At the assigned time, the lifeguards stepped to action. The two male lifeguards were swapped out for females, one blowing a whistle to alert the gentlemen of the pool to exit, the other pulling down large shades to cover the expansive windows leading to the lobby. Once it was assured that no more men remained, the door from the women's locker room cracked open and out came a lineup of seemingly fully clothed women. Bathing costumes loose and long, handmade swimming caps, so much fabric to get wet and dry again. This is swim time for the female contingent of Hasidic Jews from south Williamsburg. Ohhhh. Oh.... This is not swim time for me. [Quickly exits pool with tail between chlorine-dripping legs]
Fast forward two years, I am now a member of another equally unlikely pool subculture, happily swimming at the Chinatown YMCA with my elderly Chinese-American lap partners. This YMCA, for whatever reason, is an extremely well-outfitted and underpopulated gym. The pool temp is kept at a balmy 83.9 degrees, has a minimum of two lap lanes open at all times and a charming wooden sauna room in the ladies' lockers. Unexpectedly situated in the middle of Houston Street on the Bowery, not five blocks from work, the Y is in what amounts to be the basement of Whole Foods. Though not usually a fan of underground pools (although who knew that would ever be a preference I would have to form), the Chinatown Y pool is lit with the brightness of day and gives the inimitable experience of feeling the rumbling F trains just one floor below pulsing up from the deep end of the water. Whereas at the Metropolitan pool, I was a slow to mid-slow swimmer, I am a comparatively fast swimmer at the Chinatown Y and often find myself swimming solo in the fast lane or splitting the lane with just one other partner. Oh glory of glories! Something completely to myself in this city of Share Everything! My favorite lane partner is a British man I like to pretend is Sean Connery, or more accurately, Daryl Hammond's impersonation of Sean Connery. This robust gentleman shows up for his afternoon swim each day, sporting a blazing red swim cap and an unsettling pale yellow Speedo. Whatever he looks like on land, he is a whiz in the water! He has the fastest breast stroke I have witnessed in years, and seemingly without effort. I like to think he learned to swim in the British Navy and does his daily laps as a salute to his youth and military tradition. Other quirks of this swimming hole include large signs in the pool and locker rooms reminding patrons NO SPITTING, though the signs don't seem to override social customs. I can also report that the practice of cupping is still strong in the Chinese community, and, maybe my favorite thing, the elderly Chinese women in the locker room have none of the puritanical modesty about nakedness that I grew up observing in the dressing rooms of the Midwest. Women will be naked! And women will be talking! And there will be nothing subdued about it!
I am so grateful for these strange swimming situations, which in their own ways have shown me more New York than I could find on my own and which have kept me underwater and grinning in times when I might have been left dry and aching on land.