Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Public is the New Awesome

I’m a snob when it comes to certain things and I will admit that I never thought of myself as a public pool kind of gal. I’d never been to a public pool before. My only previous experience with public pools was hearing the stories my parents told of growing up in the 1940’s in Indiana, where the public pools were still segregated. My parents would tell us how the public pool was open to whites six days a week and that the only day the black kids could use the pool was on Thursday -because the city drained the pool out on Friday morning to clean it and refill it for the weekend. My only other image of a public pool was the hilarious scene in the movie The Sandlot, where the nerdy boy who can’t swim deliberately jumps in so that the attractive teenage lifeguard would rescue him with mouth-to-mouth. When I was a kid, my parents joined a private swimming and tennis club not far from our house. It must have made them feel good on some level after being restricted from public pools growing up. The private club was called Ridgetop and it was a fabulous place – large, crystal clear pool, well manicured lawns, and clay tennis courts. But seriously chubby at age 13, I couldn’t stand the idea of being seen in tennis shorts, let alone a swimsuit, so much to my parents’ dismay, I always had an excuse to avoid going to the club pool.

But last Saturday, after my youngest, Natalie, begged me endlessly to go swimming, I broke down and took her to the only heated pool I knew of - the public pool at the Sherman Oaks/Van Nuys park. A friend of ours, a closet public pool user, told us about it weeks earlier. Her beautiful, mid-century modern masterpiece in the hills overlooks the city, has celebrity neighbors such as George Clooney and Warren Beatty, but doesn’t have a pool. She said the best thing about the public pool was that it was a hidden gem, a brand new facility which was clean, inexpensive and incredibly well run. She beamed with pride as she talked about seeing our civic dollars at work, for once, providing the service and quality we always hope for but rarely get.

I was doubtful, but tired of having Natalie beg me to go swimming in a variety of formats – a note left on the dining room table, whining before bedtime, several emails with the subject heading, “When are we going swimming?,” I agreed to take them. I hurried everyone into their suits, searched frantically for sunscreen, swim caps (which I’ve yet to find) and a couple of towels which didn’t have Dora, Spongebob or a map of Hawaii on them, and headed off to the park.

At the front desk I was informed that the cost of using the pool was $2.50, discounted to $2.00 if I had a library card (which I did) and that the kids were…FREE! My favorite word! We paid our two bucks and went through the door to the ladies locker room. I hurried by the attendant, my cynical side believing that it was safer to take my purse with me than leave it with the teenager behind the caged holding area (alas there are no lockers) and took the girls out to the pool deck.

It was a glorious day – L.A. in April, one of those reasons people move here – clear skies, temperature in the low 80s. The pool was clean, new, nearly empty and had four lifeguards on duty. We swam for two hours and had a wonderful time. I was a new devotee of the public pool experience.

The next day, while my older daughter was taking dance at the Burbank Rec Center, I noticed that no one was on the public tennis courts adjacent to the building. I asked the Rec Center supervisor what the policy was on reserving a court, in the back of my mind scheming how next week I would come back, bring my tennis gear and sneak in some “me time” to play while my daughters were taking classes. The supervisor reached under her desk, pulled out a racket and balls and said, “The courts are first come first serve and we’ll even loan you the racket and balls.” Amazing!!! “What’s the fee?” I asked, because there’s always a fee. She smiled as she told me there was none. She didn’t even asked for my driver’s license so they could track me down if I tried to walk off with the rackets (which were new and in great condition). So while Nicole danced, I hit the public tennis courts.

I have to preface this by explaining that prior to the ages of five and seven, neither of my girls had been to a hotel that didn’t have a club floor and twice daily turn down service. In fact, it was really embarrassing the first time we took them to a motel and Nicole looked around and asked where the guy was who was supposed to take our bags. So they were something of snobs themselves when it came to travel and leisure and I have no one to blame but myself…and my husband, but he will always deny any responsibility for their actions unless they are being cute, brilliant or generally well behaved. But I say this to explain that before now, the only tennis courts they had been on were the ones at fancy hotels or the one at the private community my father lives in back east. The public tennis court experience was new one for them as well.

Natalie and I had a great time playing tennis. We had the courts to ourselves, which was good because we were all over them as we hit balls everywhere but where they were supposed to be. The public courts were even lighted at night and stayed open until 10pm! We played for almost an hour, although more than "playing" it was really an effort to teach her how to get the ball over the net. But it didn’t matter. We had as much fun chasing after balls as we did when by some miracle we got a volley going. When we stopped, I turned to Natalie and asked, “Isn’t this cool?” She quickly corrected me and said, “This isn’t cool, it’s awesome. Public is the new awesome!”

On our way home from the library, Nicole reminded me that she needed to start reading a book for her upcoming book report project at school, so I suggested that instead of going to Barnes & Noble, we stop at the public library that was on our way home. She looked at me skeptically. Now I am ashamed to admit that in their toddler days, we didn’t spend as much time at the public library as we should have (particularly given all of the amazing community programs they have) and I only recently realized that my daughter was confused, thinking that you bought books at the library instead of borrowing them. We parked at the Burbank Library and went into their enormous children’s book room. There were three librarians on duty and one was eager to help my daughter find just the right edition of Robin Hood to read for her assignment. As Nicole and the librarian wandered through the shelves in search of Robin and his merry men, Natalie and I browsed the displays, spotting a book by David Shannon called A Bad Case of Stripes. Natalie grabbed it off the shelf, found the nearest comfy chair – of which there were many – and began reading. When it was time to check out, we went up to the counter. As I searched through my purse for my library card, Nicole asked how much the books were going to cost. Natalie, now hip to our adventure (re)discovering the joys of public services, quickly corrected her, saying, “It’s free. This is the public library!” Natalie was right, public is the new awesome.

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