Last year, I interviewed a 104-year-old man who spent his childhood cannonballing off the walls of ruins from the 1906 earthquake. The foundations would fill with water during the rainy season, and he and the neighborhood kids would paddle around in it, holding onto rotting timbers for support. Garfield Pool is a little younger than that guy. It was built sometime in the ’50s, due to — according to Kevin, a longtime lifeguard — a wave of pool-building brought on by the machinations of an extraordinarily savvy aquatics supervisor named Helen Center.
Garfield both is and is not the Mission. “This is Bernal’s pool,” one woman tells me. It’s across the street from Bernal Dwellings, a community that is in many ways isolated from the rest of the Mission. Different factors — its out-of-the-wayness, its oldness, the gunfire that sometimes breaks out nearby — make it less crowded than other city pools. It wears its age well — a modernist design that might have looked impossibly dorky a few years ago now seems elegant and simple.
As the Mission has changed, so has Garfield. The institutional paint job of its early years morphed into some of the finest and most playful murals that Precita Eyes has ever done. There are fewer kids — a state of affairs that some people attribute to a deliberate lack of concern for neighborhood children, and others to the declining number of city children overall.
What remains is an eclectic cast of characters, all devoted to this corner of public space. Closed this past year for renovation, the pool’s reopening was accompanied by an enthusiastically cheesy singalong.
From above the pool, the scene looks like an endless loop of swimmers working an aquatic hamster wheel. More like chlorinated meditation, says Jane Wilson, who is at the pool almost every day. “When you’re lap swimming,” she says dreamily, “you’re in your own little liquid world.”
The lap swimmers are a relatively new phenomenon. Kevin remembers working the first lap swim in the late ’70s. “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll work it. But it’ll never last.’ I said the same thing about water aerobics in the mid-’80s. I never catch on.”
7:30 a.m. “So how did you become a lifeguard?” I ask Charles, the lifeguard.
“Well,” says Charles, “I wasn’t what you would call” — here he raises his hands to make air quotes — “good in school.
“One day my teacher took me aside and said, ‘Charles, we’ve got this program for you.’ They gave me a list of jobs that I could train in. One of the jobs was ‘pools.’ When I saw that word pools I thought, ‘Girls!’ I circled that.”
“Were there girls?” I ask.
“Not really,” says Charles.
It’s a novelty to see actual teenagers in this town. Those in the John O’Connell swim class look unformed — roughly the same size and shape as adults, but gawkier and strangely luminous. Thirty-four of them are registered for the class. Only six are actually here. Five clutch the side of the pool and kick furiously. One bounces up and down at the far end of the pool, as if he’s trying figure out how to swim vertically.
A man in a flannel shirt is walking around the pool, making swooping gestures with his hands. It gradually becomes apparent that he is translating what the swim coach is saying into American Sign Language for one of the teenagers. She occasionally stops swimming to sign back.
The interpreter walks past us and sighs theatrically. “She keeps on signing, ‘My legs hurt. My legs hurt. My legs hurt.’ And I keep signing back, ‘Oh. You mean your muscles are developing?’”
“Do you translate for the same teenager all day?” I ask.
“There is not enough money in the world to pay me to follow around the same teenager all day.”
Spend much time with the lifeguards and you’ll hear the term “preventative lifeguarding,” which is just an official-sounding word for keeping an obsessive eye on people who look especially drownable. “A lot of people who come here have diabetes, because their doctor prescribes swimming,” says Charles. “I look for medic alert bracelets. Blood sugar sensors on their bodies.
“Like, it’s normal courtesy to say, “Hey. How are you doing? If someone’s, like” — here he lapses into a zombie-like grunt — “I keep an eye on them.”
There are several dimensions to preventative lifeguarding. For example, when Charles first began working at Garfield Pool, a neighborhood old-timer took him around the neighborhood and park and introduced him to people. Now, if a gunfight breaks out in the area, someone always phones or stops by and tips him off.
10:30 a.m. There are only three people in the pool, two of them women who are paddling back and forth in foam noodles and talking to each other in Cantonese. One is wearing a full-length 1920s-style bathing costume with checkered bloomers.
At the shallow end, another woman is holding a set of foam barbells underwater and sweeping them back and forth. Sara is famous in the tiny world of Garfield Pool regulars. When she’s not in the pool during senior swim doing her physical therapy exercises, she makes tamales to help raise money for a friend with cancer. When she’s not doing that, she reads the Bible and prepares for the end of the world.
“I have never been married,” she says smugly. “I am happy, secure. I come here every day and do these exercises because if I did not, I would be someone in a wheelchair in a corner, waiting for someone to feed me. And I would not find that interesting.”
12 p.m. As it turns out, lifeguards like to talk a lot about drowning. “It’s not for everyone,” says the young fill-in lifeguard, addressing me from the depths of an enormous hoodie. “Imagine someone is drowning, and you’re the person everyone’s looking at. Either you crash or you’re like, ‘OK.’”
The fill-in lifeguard hasn’t been introduced to the neighborhood like Charles has. He determines the likelihood of gunfire by the slightly less precise method of assessing whether or not the people outside in the park are “acting sneaky.” If the park clears out suddenly, he locks the doors.
12:16 p.m. Inside the pool, the lap swimmers circle once again around the fast, slow and medium lanes, looking like so many determined fish in an aquarium. A middle-aged man in a tiny Speedo flirts unsuccessfully with the young female fill-in lifeguard (“I’m going to ask for you to be our lifeguard every week.”)
12:18 p.m. People continue to file in, paying their $5 pool fee or with a city pool scrip, including an extremely pregnant French woman and a guy in plastic shower sandals who is beaming beatifically and wafting contrails of pot smoke.
12:30 p.m. Speedo man gives up and squelches dejectedly back to the pool.
1:10 p.m. “Why do I like the pool?” asks a man named Erik. “I heard that the city pool movement started in the 1920s as a way to bring the classes together. I think it’s true.”
6:10 p.m. Lap swim again. Lifeguards like Kevin complain that the pool now serves the whims of adults (who vote and pay taxes and are generally better at making themselves heard in city government) rather than children (who can be distinctly less astute when it comes to putting pressure on their political representatives). Right now there are 15 lap swimming sessions a week (which kids almost never attend) and four community swims (which are almost all children).
When I visit the pool on a community swim day, the shallow end is alive and bustling with parents and children. A few people venture into the deep end — a determined little girl of maybe four who barrels through the water in her brightly colored swimsuit like a jellybean on a mission, a couple of flirty teenagers swimming in their underwear. It’s giddy and cheerful, but also chaotic. Two lifeguards on duty for a pool full of lap swimmers feels like overstaffing. Two lifeguards on duty for a pool full of splashing little kids feels like understaffing.
“Forty kids yelling in the freaking water and you’re the one who needs to help them,” says the fill-in lifeguard dejectedly. “You’re always looking for the weak one. Always looking for the one who hasn’t passed their swim test and who is trying to go into the deep end anyway. We try to have the kids doing laps instead of just splashing in the water. There are five-year-olds on the swim teams that are doing laps. They’re like little sharks.”
While Garfield was closed, the fill-in lifeguard went over to Mission Pool and spent the break with another lifeguard, taking turns drowning and rescuing each other. They do this in a certain predetermined way. They have to act like a drowning person really would, which is to say, like someone who might accidentally take out an idealistic lifeguard.
“It’s not about improvisation. It’s about being able to see a problem and being able to solve the problem the way that you were taught by the Red Cross Bay Area Chapter. You have to do a certain kind of whistle. If you see someone drowning, you have to say “Somebody watch my water,” point to where you are going to jump, and then jump in the approved Red Cross jump.
“You have to approach them from the back. Otherwise they will see you and jump on you and take you down. You do it to protect the city that you work for. You don’t want someone to sue the city.”
6:12 p.m. “I got it,” says the fill-in lifegard. Pool rules dictate that customers pay in exact change, and slide the money into a stainless steel slot at the base of the ticket window. Any discrepancy between the money in the locked box below the slot and the number of pool users, and you’re under suspicion of malfeasance.
A woman came in and slid a wad of ones into the slot too quickly for the lifeguard to count them. And so he has been overriding the supposedly theft-proof mechanism of the slot by delicately probing it with two Bic pens, so he can make sure the slot hasn’t been stiffed a few dollars. The crumpled wad is extricated, unfolded, and revealed to be, indeed, only $2.
“Oh,” says the lifeguard, “that woman and I. We are going to have a talk. This is the pool, man.”
6:54 “How do I like the pool?” asks a woman emerging from the locker room door that reads (simultaneously) “Ladies” and “Girls.” “It’s too dirty. You know those hooks in the changing room? I hung those…came in here by myself with a concrete drill because my towel kept falling on the floor.”
7:01 p.m. The pool is closed. The sun is moving lower across the sky, light streams in through the west-facing windows, and the pool becomes luminously turquoise. I think about something else that Jane Wilson said when we were talking about when the pool was closed for renovations. “When the pool closed, what we lost wasn’t just swimming. We lost a civilization. And now we have it back.”