Becoming a lifeguard was something my pool rat friends and I looked forward to from an early age. It was the ultimate goal. My friends and I were part of a world very unlike the one we were born into. We were on the swimming team in East Los Angeles. We spent as much of our time as possible in our bathing suits under the sun.
Hierarchies at the pool were formed based on swimming speed and technique. The faster and more experienced a swimmer was, the more popular he became. We had power and control over this part of our lives and we looked up to those in the red-and-white uniforms. The lifeguards had gone through it all: swimming lessons, swim team and passed all the tests. Those who were our coaches were the most revered. They had wisdom to impart, and had everything figured out. I wanted to have everything figured out as well.
My journey to lifeguarding began as a child during trips to the public pool when my dad would get in the water with me. Both my parents worked what seemed like all the time to make ends meet. I relished in those moments on weekends when Dad and I could swim together.
In my neighborhood, I knew no one with a pool. Most parents, if they were around, had to work several jobs. Some weekends when my mother didn’t have a house to clean, she’d post me on the corner by the freeway exit where I’d help her sell flowers. Mom would be across the street with her own white bucket overflowing with cheap flowers wrapped in cellophane, smiling at the people waiting in their cars at the stop sign. Usually, though, I spent my weekends accompanying her to wealthy people’s homes all over the city. She would clean and I would sit quietly not disturbing any of the wonderful toys. But on those fortunate weekends that my dad didn’t have a mariachi gig and for whatever reason decided he didn’t want to stand around Mariachi Plaza in “el Boyle” waiting for customers, I got to enjoy the public pool with him.
I grew up in Highland Park, well known for gang activity. My street was at the bottom of the hill, and across the street from an apartment building that harbored many gang members, in territory claimed by the Avenues, one of the largest Latino gangs in Los Angeles. Drive-bys were frequent. My cousin the wino was shot while using the payphone on the corner when he was de visita, just visiting.
This neighborhood was remarkably also the favorite hangout of a rather large flock of green yellowhead Amazon parrots whose presence brought me a curious serenity in the chaos of my surroundings. It was the distraction of seeing those beautiful creatures, so out of place, that gave me a peaceful perspective of the mystery of nature in my very de-natured existence. The ambient sounds of my family’s abode was a mix of ambulance and police sirens, cars speeding off, gangsta rap with bass resonating from bouncing lowriders, ice cream truck melodies, and the squawks of the parrots incapable of settling on a suitable tree. The nights were just as loud but the steady chop of the police helicopters lulled me to sleep. Many nights those helicopters lit up the sky. I knew stars were up there somewhere; what I saw was a thick fog of the city lights’ orange glow.
The pool was a safe place, a refuge from all of that. If we could make it there, we were fine. A lot of us inner-city kids were basically raised by the public school system during the year, and, during the summer, by the parks and recreation department who offered free meals and activities for unsupervised children. Unlike many kids in the neighborhood who grew up at the park, I grew up at the pool. The lifeguards were like our babysitters. After starting out at the seasonal Highland Park pool, I found a year-round home at Roosevelt Pool in Boyle Heights.
We entered the high-fenced pool area through a metal gate that led directly to the cashier and the changing areas. The changing areas had no roof, just a light covering that let in the elements. I spent many years enduring those elements in that changing room as a swimmer. I grew attached to its greenish 1970’s tile on the wall. Every day, I turned in my red admission ticket with my bags at the attendant window in exchange for a safety pin with a number on it. Non-swimmers would fasten the safety pins on their suits. Us regulars fastened them to our towels.
My best friend Rey, four years older than me, was a member of the Roosevelt swim team when I started there. He moved up the ranks, from lessons, to swimming and water polo teams, to junior lifeguarding, staying late after work to take the lifeguard training class. Rey and others sat in the office during lifeguard training with their books open and their eyes fixed on Rock, the pool manager and our coach.
A Pepperdine graduate and former water polo player himself, Rock was a solid six-foot wall of discipline. Always clean-shaven, with shirt tucked in and a shaved head, he didn’t behave or look like any Latino we were used to in that area. As a swim coach, he drilled us relentlessly. He was incapable of coddling. He rarely smiled. Some of my teammates even left the pool mid-workout crying because of his no-bull policy. If he told us to do five sets of 100 fly, each in 1:15 intervals, we did it. During the offseason, many didn’t want to face Rock’s methods or, as we perceived it, his madness, or the frigid walk onto the deck to jump in the steaming, heated pool. On many occasions I was the sole member of the team in the water on a rainy evening. Rock would be there holding an umbrella. As I swam, the steam from the warm water hovered a foot over the surface as the cold rain fell on me.
After a grueling workout, I would see Rey and my teammates in the office. It was always cold in that office, even during the summer because of its thick concrete walls. Rock sat on the concrete built-in counter, with his back to me. As a swim team kid, I longed to step in there. But regular swimmers were only allowed in the office to receive first aid. One time I was lucky enough to scrape my knee. I got to sit on the first-aid table and get patched up. I looked around at my friends in lifeguard training class and wished I were older – a lifeguard, independent.
Then, years later, I was. Roosevelt was now my workplace, the only Olympic-size public pool in the area with fifty-meter lengths. Now as an official lifeguard, I no longer had to dress in the changing room or check my bag. I had access to the office and private lifeguard locker room/shower.
On this day, it was hot. The heat beat down on the pool deck as I worked under the sun. Sleeves rolled up to prevent that dreaded tan line mid bicep, hair swept tightly back in a bun, I swept. I lingered under the shade of a tree behind the bleachers.
In the early 90’s when they were filming the movie, American Me, one day the streets were covered with huge water bugs. It was so hot that the bugs left their cover of darkness in search of a temporary refreshment at the cost of their lives. They took up almost every square inch of sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to walk on them. Today the heat had a similar effect. Tatted up homeboys came to the pool in search of refreshment. Their tan bodies strutted along, on display before the scantily-clad homegirls and jainas who hung around on towels pretending not to notice. We called them non-swimmers, because they moved around in groups in the shallow end, not really swimming. Many of them didn’t know how.
That day, no one was minding the guard on the tower. They ignored his commands. The homegirls would protest with, “I barely pushed him” or “whatevers.” The deep end was chaotic. Divers jumped off the board and landed too close to swimmers. Others jumped off the sides of the pool. There was a lot of “ay guey”’s, “trucha”’s and “watcha”’s being exchanged amongst the deep-enders. I was tossing out the leaves from the dustpan when a young man on the deck caught my attention. He ran at full speed, barefoot, leaped high in the air and jumped off the edge of the pool. His feet swung upward and he straightened his body, entering the water smoothly in a stiff diving position. The maneuver was executed just inches from the pool’s edge. Other young men murmured commentary as he swam to the edge and climbed out again. Rather than continue their own jumps, they stood dripping in expectation.
The young man swaggered to the tree by the bleachers, turned and ran for it again. He had an audience this time so he ran faster, nailing the backward inverted dive successfully. Some in his audience broke into their own running starts but didn’t attempt the dive. They flew into the deep end in their pencil jumps, cannon balls and spins. The lifeguard on tower noticed.
“Walk!” he said, holding up the red megaphone.
He repeated the command over and over, giving each rule breaker a reprimand. Having been called out in public, some of them walked to the shallow end. Others dared to sit on the edge of the pool with their feet in the water, a sort of deliberate challenge, as that was not allowed. Others just stood around talking to each other. As soon as the lifeguard turned his gaze toward the shallow end, they ran back into their jumps.
Had Rock been on duty, he would have kicked everyone out of the deep end and had them all re-take the swim test while re-explaining the diving board rules. The high number of patrons wouldn’t have phased him. He would have brought order very quickly. He wasn’t afraid of getting in the face of the most menacing-looking homies, either.
I had never understood his extremism in lifeguarding. In all my years of swimming and guarding, I’d never seen a real emergency. There were so many rules in place that prevented situations from escalating to the point of danger.
Walking toward the tower today, I looked up to get the lifeguard’s attention. He was yelling through the megaphone again to a group in the shallow end.
“Off his back!”
While I waited to speak to the guard on tower, I turned again to look at the young man. He was taking his last step before leaping upward. This time, he lost his footing, but decided to go for the flip anyway, landing full force, his forehead against the pavement. His momentum caused him to fall in the water. I screeched. The lifeguard blew his whistle as he climbed down the tower. He slid into the water as neatly as he could. I rushed up the tower to take his place, scanning the pool. He carefully pulled the young man to the edge of the pool. One of the guards that had been posted by the shallow end ran to us with the bright yellow backboard, the manager following.
The young man was conscious as the lifeguard held him, sculling and egg-beatering in place to secure the young man’s neck. “Dispensa,” he said, I’m sorry. Blood trickled down the young man’s face from the gash on his skull. Rough-housing ceased. The other guard gently slid in the water and helped strap the young man to the backboard. Between the three of them they pulled him out and carried him to the office.
The young swimmers were glued to the action. An ambulance arrived and they took the young man away on a stretcher.
When we closed the pool, we had a meeting in the office. Rock had been called in. He berated us but I could tell he was secretly proud. Though there had been disorder, we’d done what he’d trained us to do in an emergency.
When we were getting ready to go, one of the guards suggested we make a quick stop at the filter room. We knew what that meant.
We watched the managers walk to their cars and drive off. I joined a couple of the guys in the room – a separate building where the pool water was filtered. The machinery was noisy and we had to almost shout to be heard. Toward the back of the building was a room with two metal folding chairs – a very private place to disappear for a while. Rock and a chosen sidekick would usually sit there during breaks with the door open and smoke cigarettes.
Now the group formed a circle and they passed around a bowl. I still wasn’t allowed to try it, per Rey, so I sat and I watched as they smoked and the tension slowly left their stiff bodies and they relaxed.