Saturday, January 13, 2024

The Lime Green Pop of Chlorine 

The luxury of having an entire public pool to yourself.

I was somewhat astonished that the Cooper Koo Y, where I swim, was open every day during the holidays. My aspirational self noted this as if my actual self was going to get up off the couch during the torporific season between Christmas and New Year's and do something about it. Then I did surprise myself by going a few times. What I found was in Toronto many people don't do much during Christmas so they'd rather be at the Y working out, playing basketball, or volleyball. This meant the pool was even busier than usual. Except for one day. Friday, January 05. For whatever sociological reason I cannot fathom, Fridays seem less busy. On this particular Friday, the last Friday of the school break, the Y wasn't busy at all. In fact, before I finished my swim, the only other people in the pool had left and I had, not just a lane, but the entire pool to myself. It reminded me of swimming on Friday nights as a kid.

Every Friday, I think around 7 PM, from the autumn through to spring (I think) from maybe 1977 -1980 (again, my memory is blurry) we took advantage of a family friend's access to a basement pool at what is now called the Leonard A. Miller Centre on Forest Road in St. John's. It used to be known as The General Hospital and at that time was either red brick or painted concrete but it's unrecognizable to me today. It always seemed such an odd neighbourhood of older St. John's homes (some of notable style and size) and our route would pass the eery and ancient St. John's Pen - or Her Majesty's Penitentiary (HMP). I think people who had a spell there referred to their time as at Her Majesty's Convenience or Hospitality (or something to that effect - typical Newfoundlander gallows humour). When I was a kid, almost every scary story started with the escape of an inmate from that ancient building. Built in 1859, it remains a notoriously horrible facility and the view of the gates is the very image in my mind when I hear the word "prison".

The pop of our youth.

I remember so many moments from those nights even as I can't remember the years they took place. Taking the elevator or stairs to the basement to the small change rooms. The steep concrete stairs from the changing room to the pool. The weirdly subterranean windowless space of the pool itself and its high stucco (probably formaldehyde) ceiling. The cold heavily chlorinated water. The reprimands from the lifeguard (whom I think we paid to be on duty?) to stop doing back flips from the pool edge or springboard. The pop machine in the lobby that distributed drinks for 25¢ (a shockingly low price even then). Leaving on cold nights with wet hair that would stiffen before reaching the car. I'm sure we had tuques but I have no recollection of wearing one on many of those nights. I recall parking near the hospital was difficult and on one occasion a resident had left flyers on most of the cars parked on the street that may have blocked their driveway. I still remember a line from the photocopied page, "…may the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits!" I still can't quite fathom whether this was someone seriously irate or if they were feigning outrage for a humorous or memorable effect? Other memories include stopping by the Pop Shoppe to pick out a two-four of pop flavours. I was fascinated by the colours, the lime, the pineapple, the oranges and pinks, far more than the flavours. I was a basic root beer, or orange flavour guy though I loved lime. More "exotic" flavours seemed to hold no sway over me. For some reason, we always got a couple of cream sodas but had no idea of who would want such a thing? The bright pink colour offered so much potential only to be let down by its grotesque sweetness. If you don't know or remember the Pop Shoppe, the idea was you could mix and match a case of pop, which was marketed as cheaper because they used returnable bottles and cases. Occasionally you'll still find the distinctive red plastic cases in basements you happen to visit. I also remember Kraft pizza kits with the container of dust they called parmesan, which my mother had no memory of, and even though those pizzas were terrible, they were still pizza, something very rare in our house. In fact, I cannot remember any take-out ever being brought back to our house. Finding out other kids would go to McDonald's, Dairy Queen, A&W or Papa's Pizza after every Saturday afternoon hockey game threw me into a vertigo of confusion? How was it possible? Were they rich? They must be rich.

The smell of chlorine emanating from my skin still sends me to sitting quietly in the back of our red Gremlin, beige Chevette or yellow Toyota (I don't even remember which car we had then), bundled in my coat, slowly falling asleep and dreaming of a radioactively green lime pop from the Pop Shoppe. The irony of this self-indulgent sentimentality is that the Miller Centre is also where our mother spent what must have been an excruciatingly lonely recovery from a stroke (or perhaps a series of strokes) that was the prelude to her decline. The initial stroke (or "event") happened during the first days of the pandemic and just as she was moved to the Miller Centre for recovery, the world shut down. It still gives me shivers to think of my mother being cut off from everyone, in that clean yet aging institution. I wonder if she was aware of where she was (I think so) or even made the connection between her predicament then and our carefree days of swimming in the basement. I doubt it. Our mother was not known for her sentimentality. I wondered if there was still a pool there? I wondered if my mother could detect the smell of chlorine and if it reminded her of a lime-green bottle of pop?

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