“It’s too ghetto.”
That was the quote from one young woman talking about a public pool that had been in the news this week.
Except that it’s not a new sentiment. Years ago, when I was a young denizen of L.A.’s public pools, I often heard that feeling expressed. In my circles, it always engendered the “chusma” debate.
“Solamente nada allí la chusma,” elders would say as we tried to get friends to go “swimming” with us at Little Bear Park in Bell or Salt Lake Park in Huntington Park or the high school pool in Bell or Norwalk Park in Norwalk. In other words, they were saying, “my kids can’t swim there, only the really poor and ‘ghetto’ swim there.”
For over three decades, that sentiment has irked me.
So maybe it wasn’t always swimming. But when you’re a little kid, you call floating in the wading pool’s six inches of water, “swimming.”
Back then, we didn’t mind the shouts of “Everyone out of the water!!!” when the pool attendant discovered the one kid with chicken pox who decided to come to the pool. I don’t even think I realized the ridiculousness of the situation until over a decade later. Much later, when I was 18 and caught that ailment.
We didn’t even really mind having to get out of the pool 10 minutes after we’d gotten in simply to kick the chlorine around the pool. Human mixers—that’s what we were.
We also didn’t register the danger flagged by the no diving sign on the gate around the two-foot-deep wading pool until years later when we were in high school sitting next to the one kid who did it and cracked his head open. He was on the Academic Decathlon team.
The neighborhood pool is also where we took swimming lessons. Nevermind that my first time off the high dive, Mrs. Kamiyama said she’d hold me over the side by my hands until I was ready to go in. Shortly after I was hanging there she said, “You’re too fat, sorry” and she let go. Belly-flopping off the high dive made me much more unwilling to go back to the pool than did the “chusma.” I didn’t go back to that pool until almost ten years later when I was forced to take swimming lessons as part of P.E. The full expunging of my childhood trauma came during those high school years when my friend, Linda, threw the innards of whatever we’d dissected in first period biology into the pool before second period swim class.
In the years between the belly-flopping incident and high school, I eagerly awaited summer swimming at the Norwalk pool. My mom, sister, and I would take a 40-minute bus ride, walk half an hour to my aunt’s house, and then pick up cousins Reggie and Gloria and my Tía Rosalba. After another half hour-long walk, we’d arrive at the biggest pool I’d ever seen. At 9 a.m., we had free swim. The kids went into the pool while my aunt and mother sat in the bleachers.
Sometimes we’d swim for hours. Other times, it was just a half hour or so. I never realized why our swimtime sometimes got cut short. I assumed my mom and aunt had had enough of the sun as we sat cooly in the pool. The Times’ story makes me wonder if maybe my mom and aunt sensed something amiss in the pool and decided it was safer if we just sat dripping in the park just beyond the pool’s gates.
And then I think, “No, didn’t a photographer just get beaten up in Malibu last week?” There the story didn’t cast the aggressors as “ruffians” or the beach as getting “too ghetto.” Those folks were just surfers protecting their beach, as well as Matthew McConaughey’s privacy.
I’d like to think that the public pool is still a place where kids can enjoy the sheer glee of playing in the water and calling it “swimming,” even if they don’t really learn how to do that until much later in their lives. I also hope that knuckleheads aren’t making it a different place, one where parents should legitimately be scared to send their kids.
Most of all though, I hope that parents don’t think themselves so much better than the places where they live that they’d rather deny their kids some summer amusement just to make themselves feel less chusma.
Then again, maybe I’m just remembering the world the way it was when I still believed they put red dye in the public pool.