After a full press campaign hyping up the job of Philadelphia Parks and Rec lifeguard, application numbers fell short and only a percentage of pools were able to open for the 2022 season.
Not even a month in, and at the beginning of a heat wave, no less, the McVeigh Pool in Kensington was drained and closed due to violence toward pool staffers — the same individuals we’ve courted since January with higher wages, free training and use of a whistle — the epitome of summer coolness.
I have always said the best job of my life was working at Samuel Rec Center in Port Richmond, AKA Foxy’s, during the 90s.
The best summer was 1996. The United States hosted the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, and one of our friend’s dad rescued an abandoned barroom jukebox from the trash truck and plugged it into our pool staff break room.
This purple, psychedelic chunk of hi-fi still had 45s in it. The Carpenters’ hit song “Superstar” was on a repeat code, so it was the most played and popular song that summer. Other popular artists included Kool and the Gang, The Commodores, and Teddy Prendergast, who had a thirteen-minute version of “I Don’t Love You Anymore.” We’d jump into the pool in sync when he yelled, “No, no, no, not like before!”
The pool had to be managed and watched 24 hours a day. Even though it closed to the public at 7 p.m., we had a night watchman on from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. The guy couldn’t work a few weekends, so one of the lifeguards or pool maintenance attendants would take a Friday or Saturday night shift when needed.
We had a beat up TV that only got channels three, six and ten, on which we watched repeats of the Olympics until well after midnight. I remember watching both the men’s and women’s basketball teamstake the gold. A girl named Mary Ellen Clark from Radnor, PA also took the bronze medal for diving that year.
We were seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds with an in-ground pool, a 70s jukebox and a 24-hour Taco Bell two blocks away. We were the kings and queens of the neighborhood. As an overweight, hairy and not yet out of the closet Polish-Italian girl, being a keyholder of this urban country club for the row house folk did wonders for my self-confidence and social life.
Sometimes I had this Olympic sized lake to myself for ten hours overnight. I taught myself how to backflip — all 300 pounds of me — into the deep end and make quite the splash. (Rodney Dangerfield’s “Back to School,” eat your heart out!)
As it turned out, the scheduling gods looked down on us and gave us a Friday and Saturday night without a Rec Leader. Our Boss, Edge Jaskowiak, was a drill sergeant to us and ran a tight ship (and pool). But he was a U.S. Army Reserves man and had to do his weekend duty up at Fox Dix, NJ.
Even though his next-in-command was on call, this was our chance to have the party of all parties. Thanks to a fake ID from the Pennsauken Mart, a keg of Miller Lite was delivered and set up in the handicapped bathroom stall on ice. I called up the local bar Time Out and ordered 250 hot wings and ten bar pizzas. To this day, we all believe Taco Bell created the ten pack of tacos for us because of how many we ordered that weekend.
The jukebox was ready. We shocked and chlorinated the pool from all the kids not getting out when they had full bladders. All we had to do was wait until the AA guys and girls we let skinny dip after their 8 p.m. meeting in the Rec ceramics room leave for the night and the pool was ours.
We told our friends to come around 10 p.m. via text message on our Nokia flip phones. We gave specific orders to come through the back doors near the basketball courts so neighbors wouldn’t see the crowd. We were lucky — though most Rec pools were only surrounded by a chain link fence, Foxy’s was entombed with ten-foot cinderblock walls. Nobody could see into the pool unless they climbed the wall or had x-ray vision.
Well, Edge Jaskowiak had X-ray vision. In fact, he had a sixth sense. He played us like a fiddle in the Polish American Stringband on New Year’s Day.
Around 9:45, Edge, who was supposed to be playing Gomer Pyle up in Fort Dix, walks into the pool room wearing swim trunks and flip flops. Following him was his wife Linda and their three little pierogies, Eddie, Ray and Allison, all in bathing suits. Edge did a 9.8 point cannonball into the deep end and Linda swam laps as their spawn played Marco Polo in the baby pool section.
The food was delivered. Silently, I prayed to Mother Mary, asking her to protect me and let Edge think that, yes, I was a big eater, and this big girl with excessive arm hair and no self-confidence could put away all those pizzas and wings on a Friday night in August. Edge and his family inhaled our wings and pizza like it was Super Bowl Sunday. Those little blonde haired, light-skinned Poles looked like skinny birds, but they devoured like vultures. I was ready to enter the daughter into the Wing Bowl competition as she almost de-meated my pinkie finger as I tried to grab one.
Inside, I was dying. I had dry mouth, goosebumps and knew not to trust any flatulence. My two best friends and accomplices, Jen Karcher the lifeguard and Richie Brunkel the pool manager, stared at me as we tried to ESP one another on how to hide the keg. These two were going to perform a ballroom dance number to The Carpenters’ “Superstar” at midnight. Brunkel was going to wear a Speedo and put a lumpy tube sock in the back of the thong. Karcher was going to stuff the blow-up arm swimmies down her bathing suit, turning her A-cup into a double D.
It was going to be epic.
Karcher and Brunkel furiously tapped an emergency message to the dozens, if not hundreds of kids we invited that we had to cancel immediately.
After the worst two hours of my life (easily beating the hemorrhoid rupture I once had on an airplane), Edge got out of the pool. With a towel around his neck, he put his pinkie and pointer finger atop his bottom lip and signaled to his kids and wife that it was time to go home. This guy didn’t need a cheap pool whistle — he used his knuckles.
As he left, he grabbed the last slice of pizza, walked to the jukebox, and hit C28 with his water-pruned digits.
As the first beats of The Bee Gees’ “Stayin Alive” belted out to us three scared shitless teenagers, Edge said, “Now roll that keg out of the bathroom and put it in my truck!”
Rumor had it that Edge’s wife and her volleyball team enjoyed the keg of Miller Lite before, during and after their Thursday night game at A&W Playground.
Brunkel, Karcher and I spent the rest of the night eating cold Taco Bell and watching news reports about an alleged bomb backpack left at the Olympic stadium grounds.
Two weeks later, the regular night watchman was viciously jumped and pummeled by a gang that hopped the ten-foot wall. The gang took his gold neck chain, Reebok Pump hightops, and his keys and car after they threw chairs, tables and our beloved jukebox into the pool. They broke his nose, knocked out a few teeth, and he needed stitches above his eyebrows.
When I arrived at 7 a.m., Edge was hosing blood off the pool deck, and the pool was nearly empty. Even in 1996, the senseless violence in Philadelphia ruined another summer and Samuels Pool was ordered to be shut down for the rest of the season. That could have been us two weeks prior, but Edge had our number, in life and on the jukebox.
To this day, this was still the best job of my life.
Patty-Pat Kozlowski is still very buoyant and wants her ashes sprinkled in the Samuel Rec Pool. Send her your best pool stories at email@example.com