Sunday, August 10, 2008

Day two hundred and twenty-one ... "One cotton candy, please ... ."

I remember the snack bar.

Oh, man. 

Not that I ever bought too much; mostly just cotton candy. I firmly believed that you couldn't go swimming for twenty minutes after you ate, and that twenty minutes out of the water would have ruined me.

See, there's a public pool not far from 1073 Bedford St. in Fall River (my childhood home), located in Lafayette Park on Eastern Avenue. It was about ten minute's uphill walk from my house, or a cool 5 on my Huffy with the yellow and black banana-seat. It was a decent enough pool for the town in the 1970's, and from the little research I did on it, it is still open, and now it is free.

Back in the day it cost a dollar.

Man, life was tough back then.

But the thing is, when I was a kid, I was pale as milk. This holds true today, but back then it was a liability and not a survival method.

The Portuguese kids had a name for me. For this little freckle-faced pale-as-milk kid from down the street.

They called me Casper.

As in, The Friendly Ghost.

Boy, that was fun.

Later in life, as my insecurities started to mount, I would begin to loathe the pool. Taunts and even a few shoves came my way because I was a bit different looking than the rest of the dark-haired, dark-skinned, skinny people that populated it.

Some days I'd tell my mom I was going to the pool (she insisted I get some exercise) and instead, I'd splash some water on my hair from the fountain and lie like a rug when I got home.

She never questioned me, although I think she always knew.

But those days wouldn't come for some time. Until then I would be an oblivious, curious, mischievous grammar school urchin.

It's kind of where I'm headed in life now, albeit a little less oblivious, out of school, and not so keen on wearing overalls with vests.

I remember the place and the scene and the vibe of Lafayette Park Pool like I had been there an hour ago.

The feel of the towel over my shoulder, trapping whatever sweat had accumulated from the walk over; the rough, almost fabric feel of the dollar that I'd give the pretty teenage girl at the entrance window; the bleach smell from the bathroom and the little square lockers with the removable key with the plastic, orange top on them (I used to go around to all the ones I could reach and just pull on the key to see if it would come out; they never did. I don't know what I would have done if one of them suckers had, but that's just what kids did--or used to do); the feel of bare feet walking briskly over cement that pulled at your soles just a bit too hard with each step, the sensation of your own weight against the ground when you stopped short which made your toes pull awkwardly away from the nail just a little bit; the abandoning of towel, flip flops, and shirt (read: safety blanket) near the fence. And finally, the gentle entrance of the chlorinated water, and the way the temperature fooled you into thinking it was so much cooler inside. Hundreds of kids making heat and waves made for a high water temperature overall. But a few pockets were warmer than they should have been. Sometimes it was from you; sometimes it was from the kid three feet away from you, but you could never prove it. It was just something you noticed.

I don't know if it was just a myth, but when I was a kid they warned me that if you peed in the pool, it would react with a special chemical they put in the water and it would turn a different color. So I rarely let loose, and I suppose I just answered my own question because I never did see any colored water, ever.

That said, I did swim through plenty of warm pockets.

There was the kiddie-pool part. I vaguely remember being made to start out in that filthy little thimble of discolored water. It makes me want to retch just thinking about it, so I'll stop.

But there was the snack bar.

The snack bar was constantly making cotton-candy--which is one of my favoritely weirded out odd named ideas for food. It harkens back to a time when you could name something completely outrageously unappealing and it could still become a edible staple. It's like sour cream. Think about it for a second. Sounds horrible, doesn't it? But it's really, really, delicious.

Just like cotton candy.

And nothing quite smells like it either; that hot, sugary, vanilla smell, mixed with the faint aroma of a powerful motor spinning a million miles an hour. And top it off with the old woman from Our Lady of Ascension church with the bright green eyeshadow and the long, red fingernails who served it ... but I digress.

I loved cotton candy--still do.

And I love to swim.

I was a good swimmer right from the start. 

My mother paid for lessons, and I begrudgingly took them. 

I remember the feeling of the water-floats on my arms and around my waist, thinking: I don't need any of this crap. I wanna swim. I wanna freak out and dive and swim to the ladder and dive again.

And it wasn't just me being cocky; I actually was a good swimmer; almost without any time invested.

It earned me a nickname: Freddy the Fish.

This was no joke. I took this nickname very seriously, which is good, because the lifeguards called me it incessantly.

I used to love my Mark Spitz goggles. I called them Mark Spitz goggles because there was a picture of him on the package they came in. I bought them--correction, my mother bought them--at a place called The Gob Shop in Fall River. The Gob Shop was a family-run sports store with a carnival angle. It even had a kazoo playing guy who called himself "Low Price" Lenny as their mascot. 

Ah, the Seventies.

But I loved my Mark Spitz goggles because I could see things I wasn't supposed to with them ...

... and I was all about that.

When I put them on, it was almost like I possessed a magic power. I could clearly read numbers and letters painted on the pool floor. I could see the temperature gauge and the company's name who made it. I could see the flurry of feet and the torpedo-like immersion from the shallow end of so many young punks. And because I could hold my breath for a very long time (to me it was a super-human long time) I could position myself near the bottom of the pool, twenty feet away from where the diving board was. Because the diving board deposited--among other things--girls.

And regardless of whether or not I knew why, I was all about that--still am.

Freddy the Fish had a routine.

I would casually hang out on the edge of the pool's deeper side with my best cool face on (read: awkward and tense) and wait. After the requisite five or so skinny boys jumped--screaming and flailing like they just got cut loose from an unusually high gallows--a girl or two would ascend to the high diving board.

As she made her way to the edge, I'd begin my process. First, I would casually engage my Mark Spitz goggles. Then, slowly, with a sly grin on my freckled face, I'd slink into the water. When I was far enough to elude clear observation (or so I guessed), I would furiously wiggle and wave my arms and legs until I was a foot or so from the bottom. Once there, I would have to propel my extended arms out at my sides to delay the effect of my annoying buoyancy. Little circle ... BIG CIRCLES ... little circles ... .

I'd hear it before I'd see it. A mighty "Whoosh," muffled and bubbly, but audible. And then, as the immediate foam bubbles dissipated, there she would appear--the female form--like some kind of mermaid. But this mermaid was at the mercy of the physics of air, water, friction, and swimsuits which were prone to rearranging themselves without notice. And she was on display for me, like some kind of perverse snow globe that I could view, out of sight from adults, out of sight from lifeguards, out of sight from the other kids ... and hopefully out of sight from the mermaid in question, who was presently wiggling and spinning around--mouth closed and eyes open--in slow motion for three seconds or so before zooming to the top and out to the oxygen above.

And there I was like an excited mackerel licking its chops at the shimmering lure that had just made its presence known. 

I don't know if I ever saw that much forbidden skin, but I must have once or twice. Otherwise I wouldn't have kept doing it. And even at that, I was much too young to really have any sort of idea of what about it I liked.

I just liked it.

So, on any average day at The Lafayette Pool Park, the lifeguards called me Freddy the Fish, and the Portuguese kids called me Casper, and the girls--if they had any idea--would have called me a little perv.

I've always had a lot of nicknames--still do. And as it is in life, some of them I was well aware of ...

... some, I never was, and perhaps never will be ...

... which is fine with me.

But one other thing that I was very much aware of was something I was able to see in the pool with my goggles on which was practical as well as empowering: change--lots of it. And change at the pool had one destination and one destination only: the snack bar.

I'd rise to the top, dislodge my Mark Spitz goggle from my eyes creating a loud "Zzzoppp" sound, and run my little extra-wide feet over to the old woman from Our Lady of Ascension Church with the bright green eyeshadow and the long, red fingernails. I'd wait my turn behind the skinny, brown punks who called me Casper, and the pretty girls obsessively pulling down the back bottom edges of their bathing suits. And with the lifeguards who called me Freddy the Fish not far away I'd stick out my water-wrinkled, little hands and say ...

"One cotton candy, please ... ." 

Meet you at the deep end in twenty minutes.

Thanks for reading.


This is a pic I found of the actual Lafayette Park Pool. It's a recent photo and they've since done away with the diving board (it would have been at the left edge of the photo where that bit of yellow is). The snack bar is at the far right. You can kind of see a little bit of the window open under the roof overhang. I'm glad some things change, and others don't. I just wish I could pick which ones. 

PS: this post was inspired by the U.S. Olympic swimmer, Michael Phelps. I didn't know much about him before the games began, but I certainly did know about the man whose 7 gold medal wins in 1972 Michael is trying to beat.

It's all about the goggles.


Anonymous said...

Funny that we both have memories of Lafayette Park Pool. I remember playing in the playground that bordered the pool, and of course, horrifying my mom by taking a bagged lunch that I guess were for underprivileged kids. Hey they handed me a bag of food and I said thank you...

F. Alex Johnson said...

Hell yeah!

I chowed down on my fair share of "Community Lunches." From my recollection, they were shrink-wrapped with cellophane and they came with a little plastic toy dinosaur or some-such. But those could have been special "holiday" lunches and the rest of the time they were in bags.

Thanks for the reminder.