I roll out of bed, have a quick cup of coffee, throw on my bathing suit, wrap a towel around my waist, and head out the door to join the morning pilgrimage to the Pitt Street pool. Approaching Houston St., I see the regulars merging from the southeast corner. Some are in their slippers and robes, others wear elegant kaftans or sundresses, and many of the men just come in their trunks. Entering through the tall iron gates, I am greeted by the friendly park ranger who knows me by sight now, and I give a knowing nod of swimmer solidarity to my fellow morning swimmers, all quietly converging at the lockers and under the showers.
The Olympic-sized pool is a grand sight to behold in the bright morning sun. It is stretched out shimmering and inviting under the Ginko trees. Hamilton Fish is a city gym. A long, majestic building which sits like a temple at the end of the pool, it was built at the turn of the century and designed to look like a garden pavilion in Paris. The pool was added by the Works Progress Administration in 1936, one of eleven city pools that opened in a single summer. In recent years, the city park and gym has been renovated, one of the few ways - aside from better garbage pick up - that the neighborhood has benefited from gentrification.
The pool is divided into thirds. Slow, medium and fast lanes. Until this summer, I have always preferred the slow lane. In addition to feeling no pressure, I get to closely observe the colorful characters who, like me, favor that lane: elderly ladies doing Esther Williams-style morning exercises in flowered bathing caps; a few younger people who push themselves along with their feet, pretending to swim (the pool is three feet deep all the way across); and, one morning, a woman with a swim mask searching the bottom for change. In the middle lane, decent swimmers do their laps, while the fast lane is a constant uproar of sleek bodies slicing through the water at a breakneck pace. I did, one time, venture into the fast lane because there seemed to be more room there, but I was in fear of being swum over and quickly retreated back to the slow lane where I could relax and still feel like I was moving fast.
Every weekday I wait, along with other eager bathers, for the gates to open at 7 a.m. Once, I attempted to go to the pool during the day, but so many kids were jumping and diving that the lifeguards were constantly blowing their whistles. When they finally gave up and kicked everyone out of the pool, a riot almost ensued. Each morning, I put my stuff in one of the outdoor lockers, then take the required freezing cold shower out in the wide open. The showers make a funny groaning sound which makes everyone laugh.
This year, as I was signing up, I was told that if I swam 25 miles in the course of the summer I would get a free t-shirt. In the past, my idea of fun in the pool was to just go in for about twenty minutes. I’d read somewhere that more than fifteen minutes in the chlorine is unhealthy, so I figured twenty minutes to be an acceptable risk. Last summer, I tried to swim a mile in an hour to qualify for a special swim race in the Hudson off the pier, but there was a thunder shower just as I approached my goal and everyone had to evacuate the pool. I was the last person out, and still didn’t complete the 32 laps that make a mile.
I never considered trying again because it seemed to be an unobtainable goal. So I continued with my twenty minute morning paddles, laps uncounted. It is my time for meditation. One day, I found myself reflecting on a really great conversation I’d had with someone, but I couldn’t remember who. After a few moments, I realized I’d had it with myself while swimming in the pool! But now, suddenly, the idea of getting a free t-shirt really excited me, and I decided that first day the pool opened that I would make it my summer’s goal.
The first day I swam a mere ten laps, the next, 22 and the day after, 28. The fourth day, I swam 32 laps, my first mile, in about 45 minutes. I went to work and eagerly calculated the number of laps I’d have to swim each day to achieve my goal. It would have to be about a mile a day, and I would have to swim 800 laps by the end of August to achieve the 25 miles required for a t-shirt. I started keeping track on my calendar. Last Monday, I had 748 remaining. Now I have 558.
I had never worn goggles during my swim, but now, because the extended pool time made my eyes burn half the day, I started wearing them. As a result, I was able to see the humungous hairballs, scrunchies and band-aids that I had to share the pool with. It’s always apparent when it’s been a busy day at the pool because the morning after, the water is particularly cloudy and not only do I have to swim around the hairballs, but often long strands of hair wrap around my arms, which is particularly aggravating.
I’ve discovered that I can swim, meditate, have conversations with myself, and count laps all at the same time. After my swim is over, I report my laps and eagerly watch the girls at the table by the poolside record them next to my name and number. They have a graph charting the swimmers’ progress hanging on the fence next to the pool and my name is listed there with my miles next to it. There are a lot of women ahead of me, but quite a few behind me, as well. I am securely in the middle, and so have finally moved to the middle lane, where I’ve found my groove.
Today, in the middle lane, I ran into an old friend from the neighborhood. She wanted to chat about our kids, but I was anxiously watching the clock. It was ten minutes to eight and I still had twelve laps to do. “I’m sorry, but I’m trying to swim a mile a day, and I still have twelve laps to go.” “You’re going for the t-shirt?” she asked with a smile. “Yes, I am.” “I did that one summer,” she said, “and at the end of the summer there’s a big ceremony where all the early birds, and night owls, from all the city pools come to get their t-shirts. They hand out awards and trophies, but try not to get one; they’re really big! And when a swimmer from Hamilton Fish gets a t-shirt or prize, everyone hollers ‘FISH! FISH!’”
But I wasn’t really listening. I was back to splashing, furious and focused.