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On a hot June afternoon, a scrawny kid in SpongeBob swim trunks started moonwalking next to the crowded Feltonville pool. Another joined in. And…another? From the radio at the lifeguard station, I heard the Billie Jean bassline drifting up to my tower over the sounds of splashing.
“Okay,” I thought. “Maybe it’s Michael Jackson’s birthday,” and continued to scan the water for flailing or horseplay.
It was 2009, basically the last year people got news through other people, instead of push notifications. My co-guards and patrons soon informed me that it was not his birthday — the King was dead. I felt a flashbulb memory forming, the keen awareness of your place and position when something momentous happens.
But there’s nowhere I would have rather been to get the somber news than among the drippy, dancing kids and our chatty pool staff.
I loved lifeguarding at Feltonville. I loved earning my first real money, loved walking with my coworkers to the corner store to spend it on pastelillos and candy cigarettes, loved twirling my whistle while antsy swimmers repeated our long list of city-sanctioned rules every morning.
Even obvious drawbacks like boredom or heat were punctuated by funny things our regulars would say while I taught them to flutter kick, or by the discovery of a $5 lunch platter at the Dominican spot. On rainy days, we played spades in the rec center, forming friendships between staff who were otherwise unlikely to cross paths. On sunny days, we jumped in to cool off during our breaks — and invariably ended up challenged to a race by that year’s swim team star.
Five of my six summers lifeguarding were spent at Feltonville, but it only took my first to see the critical role that public pools played in the community. Kids whose parents couldn’t afford summer camp, or even air conditioning, would show up 7 days a week, rain or shine.
Like Gabe, a middle schooler who would run after me in his beat-up Nikes as I biked down the block, yelling “Miss! What time the pool opens?” every. single. day. Gabe’s dedication verged on annoying, but he always kept us laughing with his goofy antics. At the end of the summer, everyone chipped in to buy him a new pair of sneakers. I’ll never forget the pride on his face wearing them the next day, or the pride we felt as a group of teens who made a small difference in one kid’s life.
It didn’t matter that there was no shade to cool off the hot concrete, or that you had to leave your towel and shoes at the gate. The pool was a respite from the heat, a safe place to hang with friends and one of the rare chances some kids (and adults) got to learn a vital skill: how to swim.
Last summer, only two thirds of Philly’s public pools were able to open due to lifeguard shortages. Most of the pools that were closed were in neighborhoods with lower median incomes, which often tend to be the hottest.
As I explained to my own son, who just learned how to swim, why I was writing this piece, he asked, “So what do the kids do if the pools don’t open?”
I told him the truth. “Find some other way to stay cool, I guess,” I said. “But there’s still time to find lifeguards. So let’s hope they don’t have to.”
If you’re interested in becoming a lifeguard this summer, find out more and apply here.