Serenity Figueroa was floating near the deep end of a Ludlow neighborhood pool, staring at the puffy clouds moving across a perfect summer-blue sky.
The 10-year-old is a strong swimmer, but floating is her happy pose, she told me when I stopped by Cruz Recreation Center pool this week.
“It’s the best part.”
It offered, you guessed it, serenity — on this weekday afternoon, a way to get lost in her thoughts before life gets hectic. She’s headed into fourth grade this year, you know.
“I had a really long summer,” she said, bobbing up and down in the pool as we chatted. And she’s made the most of it. She’d just gotten back from Puerto Rico, and her aunt had brought her and her older sister to the pool they’d already spent lots of time in this summer. She was soaking up the last bits of the season before all city pools closed on Friday.
Cruz was among the last nine of the city’s 70 or so outdoor pools to close this week. Others had shuttered earlier, and for some die-hards, that meant chasing open pools the way Figueroa chased those moving clouds.
When Walt Smolan’s Fishtown neighborhood pool closed, the 69-year-old retiree went to another, and another, and another, until he ended up at the brand-new Bridesburg Recreation Center pool.
“I been coming all my life to the city pools,” he said. “I learned how to swim in city pools. It’s always kinda sad when they close.”
Even as he left for the night Thursday, he was hoping for one more day, despite predictions of rain. Staff cautioned that he should return early on Friday because once the city plumbers showed, they’d be pulling the plug (or drain, to be more precise) on summer. The plumbers, usually as revered as Miracle Workers for their abilities to keep even the oldest pools going, suddenly were reduced to being dreaded Swim Reapers.
But I met a lot of people and I learned a few things, including the origin story behind Parker the Otter, the height-chart character created and voiced by John McBride, the supervisor at Bridesburg Recreation Center, about a decade or so ago after an otter was spotted at the Fairmount Dam Fish Ladder.
Each pool is different. There’s some good-natured competition among them. There’s also a lot of pool loyalty, but a good amount of pool hopping, too. At Kelly Pool in Fairmount Park, I spotted Tresa Porter and her niece, Kirsten Coker, 9, while they ate their packed lunches from the trunk of Porter’s car. They hail from Southwest Philly, where there are several pools, but they confided they like Kelly’s country-club vibe.
For Theodore West, it’s Cruz’s pool in Ludlow or bust. This year, the pool maintenance attendant who grew up, and still lives, two blocks away, jokingly renamed the pool Sixth Street Beach for the laid-back vibe that had some visitors from just over the bridge in Jersey asking how much they charged to get in.
In many ways, our pools tell the tale of the city, its struggles and triumphs, its despair and resilience, its unshakable ability to find joy in some of the simplest things, like a cool dip on a hot summer day.
There’s room for improvement. On a small scale: hooks or cubbies, so kids can keep their stuff dry; a few chairs and umbrellas to pretty up those drab decks. More important: more lifeguards, so pools don’t have to operate on reduced schedules. There were too many too-close-for-comfort reminders of the dangers in the city — shootings near pools and rec centers, an assault on a young lifeguard who was punched in retaliation for a group of swimmers told to take a few days off for bad behavior.
But overall, our pools remain, as one Parks & Rec staffer put it, a “civic miracle.”
As I made my last rounds this week, I expected big end-of-season celebrations. But at most of the pools, the plan was to mark the end quietly, gently ushering the die-hards out with a simple “See you next summer.”