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BY MICHELE HERMAN | I’m typing at my desk on a recent hot day when I realize that I reek. I bring my forearm to my nose and take a whiff. Ah, yes, chlorine. Like the coconut of cheap sunscreen and the gasoline of motor boats, chlorine is one of those noxious smells full of happy associations.
It’s summer in the Village, and I have been to morning lap swim at Tony Dapolito Rec Center on Seventh Ave. South. I may smell like bleached dress shirts, but all is right with the world, even in my un-air-conditioned office.
When I was a kid trying to fall asleep on hot summer nights, my favorite fantasy was of diving into the big local pool and swimming laps. I would imagine my arms slicing into the water and heaving it out of my path, my legs rhythmically scissor-kicking, my head barely turning to the side to take in air. Then I would go to the actual pool, dive in, and find myself winded, as usual, halfway into my first length.
Well, now I’ve been an adult for quite a long time — here in New York where they say that anything is possible — and thanks in large part to time spent at the city’s recreation centers, I am now a strong swimmer. I don’t even work all that hard at it, since I swim only during the short outdoor-pool season. There’s something to be said for the formation of muscle memory, because ever year after 10 long, dry months, I return to the pool to find I’m a teeny bit better.
Dapolito lap swim, which happens at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., is a serene and forgiving place, with more gray hair and cellulite than you usually see among people being athletic together. Recently, I’ve been Googling swimming tips and trying them out. Apparently, it’s all about reducing drag. Look straight ahead instead of down, said one of the sites. I try this with breast stroke, already my go-to stroke when I start to develop crawl-fatigue and am ready to slip into swimmer’s trance. Sure enough, it completely eliminates the need to bob my head and takes the strain off my neck. Not too many years ago, I couldn’t do more than three big, sloppy strokes of butterfly before pooping out. I didn’t really understand how anyone could use this labor-intensive stroke to travel across a pool. I am here to say that a few days ago I butterflied (butterflew?) for 12 laps. That’s 600 feet.
My husband and I have been going to Tony Dapolito for recreational swim since the ’80s, when it was called Carmine Street Pool and Tony Dapolito was just a nice guy with a bakery and a community board committee. We learned to come after work, when the heat of the day still sat on our skin like dirty mohair, but the sun had dipped behind the Printing House on Hudson Street and most of the splashers and shriekers had gone home for supper.
Our kids learned to swim at Carmine, but we failed at recruiting other members of our cohort of Village families. A lot of grownups swear off swimming at a certain point, as they swear off merry-go-rounds. It’s a shame, because even a 10-minute dip makes the rest of the day manageable, even a little bit blessed. If more people swam on muggy days, electricity use might plummet and the crime rate drop. But adults tend to be vexed by the whole matter of bathing suits, or they’re squeamish about wet locker-room floors (which the staff try their darnedest to keep well mopped) or perhaps wary of the rabble.
People also tend to compare the city pools to other bodies of water, like the Atlantic and clear mountain lakes, and find them wanting (duh). True, there are no sandpipers, no surf, no sand, no waves or rustling pines at the rec centers. But this misses the whole point. Swimming outdoors in the city has its own kind of hard beauty — there you are in the middle of the commerce and the traffic, but you’re swimming.
At Dapolito, I breathe to the south and see the crenellated top of City-as-School, the alternative public high school. I breathe north and see the mature ginkgos along St. Luke’s Place, a block my husband and I think we might like to live on if we had all the money in the world. I look straight ahead and see the mural Keith Haring painted in 1987, three years before he died, which is cheery considering that one of the central figures is swallowing another. For an even more urban experience, I recommend Asser Levy pool on E. 23rd St., where instead of dunes you get a view of the V.A. Hospital and the F.D.R. Drive.
I’m not suggesting that urban swimming is easy. At Dapolito, you’re not allowed to dive. You’re not allowed to do a lot of things. On hot days, it’s too crowded to swim. On really hot days like the ones we had last month, you can wait on line for an hour just to get in.
A good city offers its citizens public pools. A great one like New York City offers them free. How can you not love a municipality that tries so hard — if imperfectly — against such odds to keep the pools, many of them a century old, open to the masses? Every one of us started this life suspended in fluids, and there’s still something inherently delightful about being in water. Just watch the new crop of babies squeal as they throw themselves off the steps into the waiting arms of a parent in the pool — baptism by Dapolito.
You know the old Mark Twain line about how we complain about the weather but never do anything about it? It’s true that we can’t control the temperature or the pressure systems, but the intersection of weather and human body occurs mostly on our skin, and we can easily change the conditions there. Most pleasant sensations fade pretty quickly or are followed by withdrawal, but a swim lingers in the cells for hours, flushing out all torpor. After the swim, the trick is to sit in the sun just long enough to stop dripping but not so long that the magic evaporates.
When I roll up my towel, say goodbye to the guards and do my ritual head shaking until the great relief when that last drop of pool water dribbles from my ear canal, a force field of contentment and comfort surrounds me and carries me home. I clocked the effect the other day: four hours. After Dapolito I am stronger and sleeker, kinder and cooler, no matter how much grit hangs in the viscous air. It turns out I can now swim a mile. Who ever thought? To put it in proper city perspective, that’s like swimming practically all the way to Herald Square.