Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Three Pools

In the midst of a snow shower, word arrives that alternate side parking will be suspended tomorrow for Ash Wednesday. Never mind that so few places have street cleaning scheduled for Wednesdays. The important thing is that this small consolation has been offered us by the Department of Sanitation: O.K., you and everyone you know are going to be reduced to ashes, but think of it this way: at least you didn’t have to move the car.

In the spirit of self-improvement, I vowed to follow through on one of my New Year’s resolutions and join a gym. The New York Health & Racquet Club opened a branch near me, and I have had my eye on it for the past few months, thinking it might inspire me to swim. I went in last Friday, while the cleaning lady was rearranging my personal effects (with the result that I will never be able to find anything again), and asked about membership. The pool was not yet open, but from the reception area I could see down two flights of stairs to a tantalizing glimpse of swimming-pool blue at the bottom.

A guide appeared and led me down to the pool. It turns out that this glimpse, this swath of blue, is in fact all the pool there is: two narrow lanes in a tastefully decorated cave. One lane will always be open, the guide explained, and the other will be available for lap swimming by reservation; you’re supposed to call twenty-four hours in advance. I expressed the worry that someone with better telephone skills would always get in ahead of me. The guide reassured me that there was another branch with a bigger pool not too far away, but I was not convinced: if that other branch was so convenient, why hadn’t I already joined?

The guide took me to the locker room, which was luxuriously tiled in shades of blue and green. Men were working in a lounge that will feature a fireplace and a waterfall. We went upstairs to the office area, and at first I thought, How nice, I can come up here and check my e-mail—but swiftly realized that the desks and computers are for the health-club staff, of course. The guide told me that I was probably eligible for a corporate membership: my employer would pay something like $500 toward an annual membership, and I’d have to pay only $380 for a year. It was hot in there; I hadn’t even joined and already I was sweating. I left with the e-mail address of the guy who could arrange the corporate discount.

The cleaning lady wouldn't be finished yet, so I headed over to the nearest facility of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. I joined it years ago, but my membership had lapsed. The guy at the desk sized me up immediately: ten dollars a year for age 55 and older. Behind him, in the pool, middle-aged women (of whom I speak as if we had nothing in common) cavorted in the water with pink neoprene noodles. In a corner of the lobby, some skinny people shot pool. Geezers lounged on benches along the walls. Someone delivered a plastic bag the size of a pouffed-up bed pillow full of snack-size packages of junk food.

What the hell, for ten dollars, I signed up. The junk food made me feel at home. They still had my picture on file, and I was wearing the exact same black parka and striped scarf that I’d had on the last time I joined. The only difference was my hair: in the picture it was light-ash-brown (that’s what it said on the bottle), and in person it was more ash than light brown. I asked if anything there had changed (meaning, Is the locker room any less depressing? meaning, Are the showers still those kind that you give you just three minutes before the hot water gets cold and dribbles out?). The answer was: "There are lots of free classes."

The cleaning lady still wouldn’t be done, so I walked over to the river, where there is a residential complex with an esplanade. A man at the entrance said it was closed because of ice. So I climbed the stairs of the building that houses the health club. I passed the entrance to the health club and looked out over the river and then back up at the building. On the second floor, where the pool is, tropical plants sat in the sun. My father always said that before plonking down your money for a major purchase, you should get three prices, so, in the interests of comparative shopping, I pressed the buzzer for the health club and went up. There was no one in the pool, and it looked very inviting: decent size, sunny, surrounded by glass, and with a view of the Chrysler Building. There were forest-green chaise longues arranged around the pool: I could picture myself having a cup of coffee on a chaise, reading in the sun ... after a vigorous swim, of course.

While I was talking to the girl at the desk, a guy came back from the grocery store and handed her a can of Red Bull before going out to the pool with a couple of bags of chips (he was a lifeguard). “This is a health club and you are eating that shit?” I said. The girl giggled. A year’s membership is $495, she told me ($400 of which can be reimbursed through a fitness allowance at work). For a twenty-dollar fee, I can suspend my membership over the summer, when I am in Rockaway and swim in the ocean. With that, the girl with the can of Red Bull overcame my last objection, and I joined. It’s not as convenient as the gym closer to home, but I often end up taking a walk over there by the river after I park the car on Sunday.

“Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon,” Melville wrote in “Moby-Dick.” I have been reading “The Whale,” a new book by Philip Hoare, and of course he quotes Melville a lot. Although initially I had been quite taken with the idea of a brand-new swimming pool in the depths of a high-rise building, I thought now, on my way home to the cleaning lady and my bathroom freshly washed with Clorox, of the descriptions Philip wrote (I hope he won’t mind my calling him Philip instead of Mr. Hoare) of whales that he had seen in captivity when he was a boy, and I realized that that is exactly how I would have felt, plowing the stationary waters of a narrow tank beneath the earth: like a whale in captivity. I am so glad I stopped short of paying for that.

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