The NYC public pool season is coming to a close (on September 10). On a daily basis since the start of summer, eager swimmers and sun worshippers have gathered in John Jay Park to stand on line waiting for the clock to strike 11 a.m. This is seemingly benign summer fun, but what the Parks Department website won’t tell you is that going to John Jay’s pool will also prepare you for jail, if you ever end up going there.
Hear me out: There are tons of commonalities between attending the UES John Jay pool and entering Rikers. While I’ve never been to jail or prison, I’m fairly certain that because of my years going to the pool and skillfully learning and navigating its myriad rules, I would end up being a pod boss should I ever find myself incarcerated.
In my over 17 years of being an Upper East Side pool goer, the rules have never gotten less strict – or less strange. In fact, I wrote about this very topic in another neighborhood publication back in 2008 and not much has changed.
In that piece, I chronicled how the vibe of the pool drastically changed the year the Parks Department introduced a limited number of plastic lounge chairs. Prior to this, one could saunter into the pool any time after 11 a.m. and place their towel on the hard concrete without a care in the world.
However, once just twelve loungers were introduced – in a nod to The Gods Must Be Crazy – things changed. Because like with most things in NYC, there are more people than there are chairs and the Parks Department prohibits pool goers from bringing in their own seating. So if you weren’t one of the first twelve in, it was the concrete or nothing.
By the next year the number of loungers increased to twenty and in the years that followed, they fluctuated between twenty-four and I think twenty-eight.
This year, Izzy Verdery of the Parks Department press office says, “We’re happy to say that we’ve added more lounge chairs to John Jay Pool, for a total of 29 this year.”
Verdery offers some background: “Safety and available deck space are part of the decision on allocating lounge chairs to our pools across the city. We consider trip hazards and space issues when adding chairs and other equipment to the pool deck as there must be sufficient space for pool goers to enter and exit, especially in cases of emergency.”
What she neglected to acknowledge is that the introduction of the chairs not only pitted neighbor against neighbor and created a sort of survival of the fittest, but it also created a particular kind of anxiety that there should be a specific word for; maybe a German word.
There are other prison-type rules: you must show your lock (even if you’re like me and aren’t about to lock anything up); you cannot have any electronics with you on the pool ground (gasp: a cellphone? Total contraband!); you can only bring a clear bag; no street shoes are allowed; and, if you want to be modest and cover up, only white tees or coverups are allowed: JUST LIKE IN JAIL! Even for visitors, certain colors are prohibited.
“We understand that people may want to wear a t-shirt for modesty reasons or to cover up from the sun,” Verdery says, going on to explain that “Only white t-shirts are allowed since dye may run into the pool from colored shirts.”
She also clarifies that “Clear bags are to ensure prohibited or illegal matter is not brought into the pools,” and that cell phones and Kindles are off limits “because we don’t want them to get stolen and if plastic or glass cover breaks in the pool, we have to completely drain the pool.”
Don’t even think about trying to sneak a snack or newspaper in. Only a book, sunscreen and water are allowed. Your bags will be checked and you’ll also be forced to shower in front of a pool attendant before you can exit the locker rooms. If this doesn’t seem like jail to you, let me add that before heading towards the chairs, the last layer of security will make you shake out your towel in front of a Parks Department employee. Thankfully, there’s no strip search for contraband, yet.
But just like life on the inside, probably, people learn to game the system. Some get there at a 9 a.m. – two hours prior to opening – and put out place holders in line. Some people try to get chairs for others, letting their kids run ahead with towels in hand to place them on as many loungers as possible. Just like in prison, where cigarettes or Honey Buns are currency, in the NYC public pool arena, TOWELS EQUAL POWER.
Because changing and locking a phone in a locker takes precious seconds, some savvy pool goers begin to get undressed online, onlookers be damned. There’s nothing that says “Eye of the Tiger’ like a Rubenesque geriatric stripping down next to the playground. But desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s not all bad: Think of the line at the pool’s entrance as an organic (and free form) of Only Fans.
Lest you think I’m just one of the “Olds” figuratively complaining as if to say, “Get off my lawn,” the anxiety of going to the NYC public pool has GenZ shook as well. So much so that TikTokers have taken to the app to point out the same Seinfeldian-type hilarity.
@dutchdeccc maximum security pools #nyc #newyorker #nycpools #publicpool ♬ original sound – Dutch
All that being said, as an Upper East Side pool-going OG, I have the routine down to a science. I personally leave my cell at home, wear a white dress over my bathing suit, lift it quickly to shower and have never been without a chair. And recently this summer I even got offered an NYC-provided lunch: peanut butter and jelly, a peach, a cup of cherry tomatoes and a carton of milk, the whole experience a rather resort-like three hots and a cot.
Still, when the whistle blows and the Parks Department employee start allowing people in single file, it never fails: all hell breaks loose. I feel adrenalin pumping, my heart races and what should be fun in the sun fills me with dread and anxiety. What should be relaxing is actually the most stressful part of my summer.
My lounge-chair acquisition record stands unbroken, but I sure will be glad when the pool closes. I need to rest.