For many of us, the idea of wearing a bathing suit in public is unappealing, to say the least. When it comes to socializing casually while wearing next to nothing in the Bay Area, there are few places one can go after the age of say, eight years old. The beaches here are cold and windy; the clubs are expensive and awkward for people over 25; Folsom Street Fair attracts a more extreme element than those who just want to talk about property taxes or their vacation to Prague. Conversely, the YMCA in Terra Linda defies all of the usual social expectations. Rather, it ignores the usual expectations of the usual semi-idle chitchat that is used to stave off uncomfortable silences inherent when strangers are forced to sit in close proximity to each other.
Humans tend to divide into groups. We then divide once again into smaller subgroups. We can repeat this process almost ad infinitum, until it can seem that–in spite of the global population promising to exceed 8 billion people within the foreseeable future–we feel isolated and alone. In wealthier communities, cars carrying one person each are the preferred mode of transportation, and almost every person is half-watching a smart phone while doing such mundane tasks as thumping a grapefruit at the grocery store. Even going out in public can be a solitary enterprise.
Hobbies have become so specialized and focused, one can be hard-pressed to find someone who casually engages in, say, bike riding. Rather, it seems that, in order to ride a bike, one must have the most advanced machine and the most expensive and elite gear available on the market. One cannot enjoy reading if one hasn’t kept up with the most prominent and promising authors interviewed by Terry Gross or featured in the pink section of the Chronicle. Being new at anything can be intimidating and difficult to admit.
In workplace and social clubs, people self-segregate by race or level of education; in unstructured social settings, people self-segregate by political affiliation or sexual orientation.
In the hot tub and pool of the YMCA, however, you get a little bit of everything and everybody. Every religion and income level is represented; everyone wears the same $20 bathing suits from Costco. In fact, I can’t think of a more egalitarian place, where people of every race, every age, and every tax bracket share their love of submerging themselves in warm and then cool water.
There is a group of women who come in to wade together, all wearing colorful caftans and hijabs made out of bathing suit material. They don’t seem shy around the young women wearing string bikinis, who are in turn unfazed by the religious and cultural custom of covering up in public.
Then there is the very elderly woman who—due to osteoporosis—bends deeply over her walker as she exits the locker room. Once her caregiver lowers her into the water, the old lady can swim a perfect crawl for 45 minutes straight. After she’s had her fill, she slowly ascends the pool ladder to hunch over her walker for the long trip back to the changing room.
There are the teenage girls who document every move of themselves and each other with the smart phones that they recklessly take to the edge of the water. Each time this happens, the lifeguards chastise them for filming people who don’t want to be documented in our bathing suits, only to be splashed across someone’s Instagram feed. I shudder to think of what people would say about my posterior (best not to think about it).
There are the men and women who perform their laps with the meticulous rhythm of a metronome. Back and forth, back and forth; one arm, then the next; one kick, then another; breathe, hold, breathe, and hold. Flip turn, and repeat. Again and again until, when some internal limit has been reached, they fetch their towels and disappear into the changing rooms without a word to anyone.
Then there are those who don’t swim much per se, but have been relishing the warm tub for the past twenty years or so. Those are the ones who have, if not attended each others’ weddings, have at least talked at length about the price they paid for the caterer. They’ve been there for each other through cancer scares, moves, layoffs, sick relatives, lost mortgages. They never seem to see each other outside of the concrete circle of the hot tub, but maybe their friendships run as deep as any other.
Throughout all of this, there are few (if any) judgmental stares or leering. Whenever some determined soul tries to stir up gossip about another regular, the talk falls flat, due to lack of interest. We are all there for the same things. We want to exercise our muscles and cardiovascular systems; we want to see friendly faces with warm smiles; we want to get out of the uniforms we wear in various capacities, all day, every day.
We are equal in our garish, skin-tight suits.