A West (Pool) Side Story
I work in Recreational Aquatics Supervision. I have a daily routine to prepare for the afternoon shift at the local pool. It’s got a deep end, and plenty of no diving signs for people to ignore. I prefer the less busy shift in the morning but for today I work from 3-8. I usually arrive a little early, sign in to my shift, and then arrange the umbrellas properly before settling into a chair and admitting to myself that I’m wasting my summer by lifeguarding adults swimming laps. I skim my eyes over the lawn chairs angled for maximum sunlight, the shaded tables covered in juice boxes and the kids splashing each other in the shallow end. Who knows what the day holds? I do. Everyday kids play, parents swim laps in the deep end where their kids can’t go quite yet so that the grandparents have to take them for a couple of minutes and 13yr olds push each other into the pool. I used to feel awe that one pool could hold such joy for so many different groups of people. Young, old, male, female, everyone likes the pool. I wondered at how beautiful it is that we all share a love of water and the freedom a pool brings. But by my third summer as a lifeguard, this novel feeling of social solidarity had dissipated into boredom that I, keeping sweat from my eyes, had to watch it all again while they got to splash cool water on each other.
So, something that challenges this social solidarity is a big moment for me. With a Gatorade water bottle, some goldfish and my Baywatch style shades – I’m convinced I look awesome in them – I say high to the morning guard. Today that happens to be my boss, so it’s a good thing I came early. A fellow lifeguard’s mom – never one to miss an opportunity – sidles up to my newly relieved boss to talk about the wonderful things her daughter does for the AB high school swim team. Unfortunately, talking to the boss wasn’t all she has in mind, she wants to learn about me too. As a junior in high school, making small talk with my friend’s mom is exactly where I want to be on a midsummer afternoon, but more importantly I must decide which aspect of my job to focus on. Do I show my customer service skills to my boss and have a nice conversation with a pool customer, or do I show how seriously I take my job and excuse myself from conversation to entirely devote myself to watching the 80 year old doing water aerobics? Naturally, I choose both and share my excitements for the coming school year while flicking my gaze back and forth between her and the swimmer. The mom switches the topic to lifeguarding by asking my boss, now suitably impressed by my ability to do it all, why he lifeguarded the pool himself today rather than having someone like me cover the morning shift.
Nothing fascinates me more than the mysteries of scheduling, so I start listening more attentively. The mom tells my boss how her child always prefers the morning shift because of the cooler temperature and the fewer customers. Then, she speaks with a giggle, “and if you are in the afternoon shift your stuck with the United Nations hour.” At first, I’m totally confused, what the hell is that, but my boss is standing there and I want to seem like I know what I am doing, so I slip my bay watch shades over my expression and nod. But to clarify, she adds, “the hour when the demographic of the pool changes.”
My boss smirks whether from suppressed laughter or agitation I can’t tell. My jaw on the other hand goes slack and my eyes widen. I grew up in this neighborhood thinking of it as a safe and accepting space but this comment shatters my little fantasy. My neighborhood has a plurality of white people, immigrants like my mom and born citizens like my dad, but a large minority of Indian and Chinese immigrants raise their American children here as well. Between coming home from work and having dinner, many Chinese parents teach their kids to swim. So that a mother, who I grew up viewing as a figure of authority, responsibility and respectability demeans these kids, and makes her very own neighbors into an “other” shocks me. Calling cute kids practicing Chicken-Airplane-Soldier, the “United Nations” just because they don’t share the same skin color hurts. I don’t know what to say, maybe say that they are US citizens not the United Nations, maybe that being stuck with the United Nations is awesome because it’s part of why we haven’t had World War 3, or maybe retort back, “at least you’re not stuck with the casual racism of the morning shift.” Having mentally vented, I thought about what I might realistically do. What can I, a teenage lifeguard, do at this moment? Do I say anything at all because what effect would my words have on her? Having talked myself out of any moral responsibility, I turn my attention back to the pool in shocked silence.
My boss makes his way off and the mom returns to her daughter. Still, I sit in silence as the night approaches considering what happened. Thinking what it means to me, to my community, thinking what I could have done, should have done or said or attempted. I decide to be more conscientious about race in my neighborhood. I begin noticing how only a few Indian families are invited to white family’s parties. I notice how my white friends have barbeques at a communal grill while my Chinese friends don’t even know it is there. I think about my own role as a recreational aquatics supervisor and how I often greet white parents by their names but Chinese parents with a smile and wave. Not because I don’t want to use their names but because I don’t know them. I hadn’t met them at the neighborhood Christmas cookie swap, I hadn’t seen them at the annual Summer Starter party at the Weaver’s house. I hadn’t met them because they weren’t there. I hadn’t seen them because they weren’t there. So, I sit at the pool. I supervise. But instead of growing bored with the social solidarity I once perceived, I think about how I perpetuate its absence.
And boy is it depressing.