Stanley “Snake” Faison, Sr.

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Age: Over 70

From: North Philadelphia

First pool experience: Penrose (12th and Susquehanna), at age 7 or 8 – sometime in the 1940s

Work with the pools: In over 50 years, “I’ve worked at so many – there’s not too many pools in this city that I haven’t worked in.” First position was as a lifeguard at Rice (now closed, it was at 32nd and Ridge) at 16 or 17. Spent 20 years at Gathers (25th and Diamond, a pool he describes as “my sweetheart”), helped to desegregate Sacks (4th and Washington), and served as a Water Safety and Lifeguard Instructor at indoor pools still with us (Sayre and Pickett) and departed (Rhodes). Now a Pool Equipment Operator at Martin Luther King (22nd and Cecil B. Moore).

Favorite pool: “Any pool that got water.”

A conversation with Snake Faison is a surround-sound experience. There are audio effects. Suspenseful pauses. A voice that should play as a demonstration when you look up the word sonorous.

In the moment that someone else might yell to a child, “Stop running!” Snake spits out rapid-fire, “Hey, hey, hey, you getting ready to hit the street? You know I don’t be having that! You don’t know how to act, get out. Now go down there and swim, or go around 29th Street where the track field is!”

Then he turns to adults nearby to explain, “I talk with an authoritative tone, and they get the message.”

Ask him what it takes to be a great City of Philadelphia lifeguard, and he lowers his voice, leans in and whispers, “You really wanna know?”

Then Snake leans back, lifts his head to the sky and sings at full volume, “Patience. Plenty of paaaaatience.”

About his job now, he’ll tell you, “The sun sucks up chlorine like you’re pulling soda through a straw.” And, “When I came back around here and seen [co-worker] Chuckie, my heart did boom-boom-boom-bap, boom boom. Son of a bitch!” Stamping feet like a drumroll, “Aay, aye, dee, I’m here!”

His family started calling him Snake when he was five or six, because it fit for a kid who liked to crawl on the floor and wiggle around. One of 10 brothers, Snake attended Paul Lawrence Dunbar Elementary, where he was captain of the swim team; now-closed FitzSimons, where he won city aquatics championships; and Edison High School, where he played ball, ran track, did a little boxing – and, always, swam.

“I loved that water,” he says. “Water – like that, it just did something to me. I don’t want to sound vulgar – it was almost like I was having an orgasm or something. Bang! I. Just. Had. To. Get. In. That. Damn. Water. And you couldn’t stop me! I would jump the fence at night. And the night watchman – which is one of the positions I hold right now – me and him got tight. He would let me swim. “

Snake’s family moved to Strawberry Mansion, and he started with the Department of Recreation as a lifeguard at Rice at 32nd and Ridge. Snake got shot in that pool, by another City employee, a high hurdle champ and student at Roman Catholic, now a doctor, named Malcolm Boykin.

“One Saturday, he brought in a starter pistol. And he was showing it to me. And it accidentally went off and hit me in the chest. Wow. My father never sued the City, ’cause he was a City employee. But I think a memorandum – I think it’s still there – was written up: As long as I have my lifesaving certificates, I’d be hired by the Department of Recreation as a lifeguard.

“They deemed me a troubleshooter. I would go to pools, years ago, like here, when the first door opened – chaotic, diving – I could come in and clean it up in a day. I did 20 years with the Board of Education as a disciplinarian, so you know I can spy trouble when I blink an eye. I can smell it, when something’s brewing.”

By way of example, Snake tells a story of South Philly’s Sacks. “The Blacks ran it during the day, and the whites ran it at night. I don’t know if you’re familiar with 4th and Washington. The projects are across the street, tall buildings. That’s where the gangs and the Blacks were. On the other side, going South, that was the white guys’ side. So in the daytime, the Black guys ran the pool. Up to about five-thirty, six o’clock. Then when I had night swim from seven to nine, the white guys ran it. Throughout the years that passed, the pool got segregated. Somebody had to put their foot down.

“So I started, you know, ‘Look, you wanna go swimming?’

“‘Yeah!’

“‘Well, why don’t you go swim by the Blacks over there?’

“‘Well, they’ll jump you!’

“‘No they won’t.’

“So one started – one white guy started, young bull, started one night. The next night it was four, then it got to twelve, then it was equal. And my policy: If you fight in here, you’re taking money out of my wife’s pocket. And I’ll split your fucking head, easy. Look. Y’all got to understand one thing. This is a equal opportunity facility. If you want to swim, you can swim in here. Only person to put you out is me and God. And that’s my right-hand man.

“Being in a public atmosphere and learning to intermingle is good for the soul.”

Snake may be the only human being who has swum in more Philadelphia public pools than I have. “I damn near been to them all,” he says. “New ones, old ones. North Philly, Frankford, Germantown, West Philly, Southwest. I’ve swum in pools that ain’t even here no more. Before your time! You ever swam at 32nd and Ridge? No.”

He was around for night swims, for deep ends and diving tanks, when all the pools were surrounded by the sort of brick walls that give O’Connor, Cohox and Kendrick their tucked-away feel.

“What would Philly be without its swimming pools?” I ask Snake.

“Ahh! Pandemaenium! Chuckie Mills,” he pulls in the legendary boxing trainer, who is also his fellow PEO, “Here’s a question for YOU. Shoot it to him, baby.”

“What do you think Philly would be without its swimming pools?” I ask Chuckie.

“It’d be like a desert,” Chuckie says.

“I like that one,” says Snake. “Dry land.”

“Right now,” Chuckie continues, “The kids, they can be free-spirited; they can relax; they can identify with theirself – you know, that little precious time, for the few weeks of summer. And you know, they could be somewhere getting in trouble.”

“Mmmhmm, mmhmm,” Snake agrees.

“Water relaxes you,” Chuckie says. “You be around water, and it relaxes you. You know, every time we have a crisis, like with the President or something, they say: ‘Why’s he fishing, when he should be here or there.’ And you know, he’s thinking. He’s near water.”

“Water makes you relax,” Snake says.

“It help you think,” says Chuckie.

“I’m over 70 and I’m having the best time of my damn life, right now. Sitting with my homie. And if you didn’t know it, we argue like husband and wife,” Snake laughs a deep belly laugh and stamps his feet.

“See, this is the kind of camaraderie that builds my spirit. Keeps me more… focused. Instead of being like that brick wall. Hard core. NO! No. I had brainwashed myself. I thought I used to be like that. And then my wife said, ‘You know, you walk around like you an iron man, but when you come home you’re just as meek as a damn granny pussycat.’

“Some of the people that I worked with throughout the years, it’s like when you see ’em, and you ain’t seen ’em in a while, that harmony look like it never left. Like when I came back around here and seen Chuckie, my heart did boom-boom-boom-bap, boom boom. Son of a bitch! Aay, aye, dee, I’m here! You know, things like that make you feel good.”

 

Amazingness

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The Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation posted specific pool opening dates yesterday. Thirteen days before the pools are set to start opening. With pool locations. (Map here.) This is a serious culture shift. This is amazing.

(A word to the wise: See the day the pool you’re interested in is slated to open? Make it the following day in your head and you’re less likely to show up to a half-filled pool behind a locked gate. Which isn’t what’s supposed to happen, or what usually does happen, but it can happen, and is that really how you want your first swim attempt of the summer to go?  Use that extra day to learn more about the people and infrastructure that make the pools possible and you’ll enjoy swimming in them even more, I promise.)

Meanwhile, I believe I heard at City Council the other day that not only is the sugary drinks tax (which would make it possible to fix up rec centers, among other community needs) moving out of committee (to a final vote next Thursday), but that Council President Darrell Clarke recommended that some of the revenue from it go to Parks and Rec staffing as well. I can’t find written confirmation of this anywhere, but here’s hoping.

And finally, the brilliant Pop-Up Pool Project will be brightening up pool time at four new locations this year, in addition to repeating last year’s wonderfulness in Francisville. This year’s lucky spots:

  • In Center City (at 26th and South): My first pool, my love, the place where this website was born. Already called “the Taj Mahal” and “the Country Club” by people who work at other City pools, O’Connor Pool + Pop-Up Pools is going to give private swim clubs a serious run for their money. Which I suspect is the point.
  • In West Philly (at 44th and Haverford): Lee Cultural Center is the true Philly public pool lover’s pool. When I begged Ms. Thelma, who trained me to be a lifeguard, to name a favorite pool other than her own, she conceded Lee. Head lifeguard Boston Berry is a legend – he trained the people who now train people, from beginner’s strokes up through lifesaving.
  • In the lower Northeast, near Olney (at Rising Sun and Comly): This is not Lawncrest‘s first shot at swagger. Will the intricate walk-through sculpture that lightning turned into a permanent hazard zone get revived for the Pop-Up? I am excited to see. And at any rate, the pool’s big.
  • In Mount Airy (at Boyer and Pleasant): Pleasant Playground lives up to its name. It’s a family spot. In terms of the Pop-Up locations, it’s probably the smallest, with the least feel of being tucked away. Which makes it representative of many of our less lauded, but equally vital, Philly public pools.
  • And back in lower North Philadelphia (at 18th and Francis): The poor man’s infinity pool, Francisville will Pop-Up again.

It’s shaping up to be a wonderful summer.

Frequently asked questions

Pool Season starts later this month, but Wondering About the Pools Season has been going strong for a few weeks now. The latter revolves around two core questions:

When do the pools open?

Philly public pools open after Philly public schools close. This year, the last day of school is Thursday, June 22nd. So I would have said that swimming should be possible come Friday June 23rd… but this year the Department of Parks and Recreation has actually posted opening info in the most accessible place I’ve ever seen them do so (nice work!!!!) and says the pools will open on a staggered schedule from June 22nd-July 1st.

Four indoor pools stay open year-round, but the start of the season involves waking all 70 of the others from their winter slumber: cleaning them, repairing them, filling them with water. This is no small task and is why the pools don’t all open the same day. For a sense of what this year’s opening schedule might look like, check out how they rolled out in 2015 and 2014.

For the full listing and map of pools, click here.

For a beginner’s guide to using them once they open, see this.

Why don’t the pools open sooner?

I have no inside information on this question, which – trust me – I’m asking the universe daily this time of year. That said, I suspect the answer involves:

  • That the pools cost a fair bit of money to operate.
  • That we’ve got a shortage of lifeguards as it is. (If you know people who’d make good ones, send them here!)
  • That it’d involve shifting established patterns of how things are done.
  • That pool season is already a huge lift for (and not always well loved by) the people charged with making it happen.
  • And that there’s not always enough consistent demand.

There is a lot more that could be said about all of the above. For now, though, I’ll just note that while some of these factors are more complex than others, they all have their roots in the heartbreaking levels of under-funding that have plagued our recreation infrastructure for years. As would answers to other frequently asked questions like: “Why are the pools not open longer hours?” and infinite variations on “Why are the pools not better maintained?”

If our pools – and the larger recreation, parks and library system that they are part of – are important to you (and, I suspect if you are reading this, they are), please take five minutes today to let our City Councilpeople know. For the first time in recent memory, a Philadelphia mayor is proposing investing in our rec centers! The mechanism would be a 3 cent per ounce tax on soda and other sugary drinks, which would bring in $95 million/year for Pre-K, Community Schools, and rebuilding our parks, rec centers and libraries. This proposal has garnered fierce, multi-multi-multi-million-dollar opposition from the beverage industry (and various counter-proposals, all of which would bring in less of the needed funds). For more info on all of this, check out Philadelphians for a Fair Future.

Over the next week and a half – starting with a vote this coming Wednesday, June 8th – the 17 members of City Council will decide what the future of our parks and pools will look like. They are getting tons of visits, calls and postcards sponsored by the beverage industry. We need to make sure they also hear from those of us who want to see the maximum amount of new revenue generated to rebuild our glorious, but crumbling, recreation infrastructure.

Here is their contact info:

Philly-City-Council

Keep swimming!

Pool season is a week longer this year! I don’t know why this is, but I suspect that it’s more likely to happen again in future years if we take advantage of it now.

These nine pools (listed in rough order of how much I love them) will be open for splashing, floating, lolling, swimming, and other water-based wonderfulness through the end of the day next Thursday, August 27th (all other pools are closed or closing today):


KellyKelly (in Fairmount Park, next to the Please Touch Museum): The biggest, not to mention the only pool in the system with grass, inside the pool deck, that you may lie on. Weekend hours: Lap swimming 12-4:45pm; open swim Sat 12-4:45pm; family swim Sun 12-4:45pm. Weekday hours: Lap swimming 11am-6:45pm; open swim 1-4pm; adult swim Mon, Wed, Fri 5-6:45pm; family swim Tue, Thu 5-6:45pm.

ManderMander (on the edge of East Fairmount Park, at 33rd and Diamond): I was in lifeguard training with longtime guard Reina and would trust any member of my family’s life in her hands. She may have gone back to school at this point, but her mother, head lifeguard Nancy, runs a tight ship as well — and leads water aerobics during adult swim.
VareVare (at 26th and Morris in South Philly): If you love to swim and live South, it’s wise to familiarize yourself with Vare, which is usually the area’s first pool to open and last to close. Its spirit harkens back to the early days of public pools, when working-class boys turned reformers’ baths into joyful, raucous playgrounds.

MyersMax Myers (at Hellerman and Horrocks, just north of the Boulevard off Bustleton in the Northeast): Representing the opposite end of the rules spectrum from Vare. As long as you expect to shuttle back outside of the pool gate every 45 minutes, this large, T-shaped pool is a lovely place to spend a day — especially if you snag some deck space next to the veggie garden.

WaterlooWaterloo (at Cumberland and Waterloo in Kensington): A true neighborhood pool. Small and hemmed in, but somehow here that feels cozy rather than cramped. Ask the staff about their rec leader, Anthony Washington, if you want to inspire yourself to be a better person.

AwburyAwbury (at Ardleigh and Haynes, by the Awbury Arboretum in Germantown): It’s cooler up here in the trees, and there are benches to sit on. I’ve had more experiences arriving at this pool to find it closed than I wish to remember, so if you’re coming from another part of the city, maybe call first.

FeltonvilleFeltonville (off Wyoming between A and B, a few blocks south of the Boulevard): I’m excited this pool will be open, as I haven’t swum here since 2013 and am looking forward to making it back. Feltonville (which rumor has it is an especially well-run rec center) is generally the pool with the longest season up this way.

VogtVogt (at Unruh and Cottage, in the Tacony section of the Northeast): Another large, T-shaped pool in the Northeast. Vogt’s schedule has something for everyone. And it’s sort of charming how the staff climb through a hole in the rec center wall to get out to the pool.

Christy

Christy (at 56th and Christian in West Philly): Extremely easy to find, right there on the corner. Where Mayor Nutter swam as a kid.

Pool pictures

So this is the time of year that I could update this site and people would actually read it. But who wants to be futzing around on a computer when you could be in the water?

I do take pictures of the pools I go to, if you’d like to check them out on Instagram. (I try to include info on special hours, features and events there too.) And if you really, really like looking at Philly pool pictures (I’m with you!), the Pop-Up Pool Project and #phillypooltour15 are also very exciting.

Here’s to enjoying pool season while we have the chance. And here’s a link to Parks and Rec’s pool listing and map if you need it.

Wonderful pool openings – Updated with official schedule

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If you’ve spent much time at Philly pools, or any public pools really, you’re probably familiar with the buzz of manic anticipation in the moments when everyone’s standing along the edge of the water, just waiting for the lifeguards to blow their whistles.

Thousands of people around the city are experiencing that right now, and they’re scouring the internet for news of when their pool will open. I know this because a lot of them end up here, and my blog analytics show me their desperate search terms.

Parks and Rec has not yet announced the opening schedule. (I know this because I stalk their social media.) But below is the word on the street. It’s probably about 90% correct. Any errors in it, any pools you show up at to have your hopes dashed, should incite annoyance at me, not at the City, and certainly not at any innocent human beings on site. PPR will probably release the final schedule soon, and I will update this accordingly.

UPDATE: There was one change to the original schedule posted here (Pleasant and Belfield switched opening days); the schedule below should now be correct.

A few other notes: A pool’s opening day sometimes includes it getting filled with water, so it’s wise not to show up too early. A pool’s first week or two is a learning and adjustment period for all involved; please be patient, flexible and extend staff the benefit of the doubt. On that: The pools still need more lifeguards. If you know anyone (conscientious, 16+, able to swim, interested in $12.33 an hour), send them here. If you’re looking for a beginner’s guide to the pools (map, schedules, what to wear, etc.), check this out.

And now, the most wonderful list in the world, when Philadelphia’s public pools are scheduled to open this year:

Tomorrow — Friday, June 19th:

  • Kelly (next to the Please Touch Museum in Fairmount Park)
  • Mander (33rd and Diamond, East Park/Strawberry Mansion) – opening-day event
  • Max Myers (Hellerman and Horrocks, Northeast Philly)
  • Vare (26th and Morris, Gray’s Ferry)

Monday, June 22nd:

  • Awbury (Ardleigh and Haines, Germantown)
  • Bridesburg (Richmond and Buckius)
  • Feltonville (Wyoming between A and B)
  • Fox Chase (Rockwell and Borbeck, Northeast Philly)
  • Francisville (18th and Francis, just north of Fairmount Ave.) — home to the inaugural Pop-Up Pool Project
  • Lee (44th and Haverford, West Powelton) — home to Swim for Life Camp
  • Vogt (Unruh and Cottage, Northeast Philly)
  • The five indoor pools also (re)open today:
    • Carousel House (Belmont and Avenue of the Republic in Fairmount Park) — for people with disabilities
    • Hartranft (8th and Cumberland, North Philly)
    • Lincoln (Ryan and Rowland, Northeast Philly)
    • Pickett (Wayne and Chelten, Germantown)
    • Sayre Morris (59th and Spruce, West Philly)

Tuesday, June 23rd:

Wednesday, June 24th:

Thursday, June 25th:

  • American Legion (Torresdale and Devereaux, Northeast Philly)
  • Barry (18th and Bigler, South Philly)
  • Cobbs Creek (63rd and Walnut in Cobbs Creek Park)
  • Gathers (25th and Diamond, North Philly)
  • Lackman (Bartlett and Chesworth, Far Northeast)
  • Lawncrest (Comly and Rising Sun, Northeast Philly)
  • Ziehler (B and Olney, Olney)

Friday, June 26th:

  • Anderson (17th and Catharine, South Philly)
  • Hancock (Hancock and Master, Fishtown)
  • Heitzman (Castor and Amber, Harrowgate/Kensington)
  • Mitchell (Whitehall Lane and Chesterfield Road, Far Northeast)
  • Morris Estate (16th and Chelten, West Oak Lane)
  • Francis Myers (58th and Kingsessing, Southwest Philly)
  • Penrose (12th and Susquehanna, North Philly)

Saturday, June 27th:

  • Dendy (10th and Oxford, North Philly)
  • Jacobs (Linden and Jackson, Far Northeast)
  • Kingsessing (49th and Kingsessing, West Philly)
  • McVeigh (D and Ontario, Kensington)
  • Murphy (3rd and Shunk, South Philly)
  • Piccoli (Castor and Cayuga, Lower Northeast)
  • Pleasant (Boyer and Pleasant, Mount Airy)

Monday, June 29th:

  • Amos (16th and Montgomery, North Philly)
  • Athletic (26th and Master, North Philly)
  • Chew (19th and Ellsworth, Point Breeze)
  • Houseman (Summerdale and Godfrey, Northeast Philly)
  • Hunting Park (9th and Hunting Park, North Philly)
  • Mill Creek (47th and Brown, West Philly)
  • Sacks (4th and Washington, South Philly)
  • Shepard (57th and Haverford, Haddington)

Tuesday, June 30th:

  • 39th and Olive (just north of Fairmount Ave., Mantua)
  • Ford (Snyder between 6th and 7th, South Philly)
  • M.L. King (22nd and Cecil B. Moore, North Philly)
  • O’Connor (26th and South)
  • Scanlon (Glenwood and K, Kensington)
  • Schmidt (Howard and Ontario, North Philly)
  • Shuler (27th and Indiana, North Philly)
  • Tustin (59th and Columbia, Overbrook)

Wednesday, July 1st:

Pool planning

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It is really very hot. What would you NOT have given, these past few days, to have glided through some clear cool pool waves?

So many people have asked me when the pools are opening that at this point I feel like I should mention that I am no longer a lifeguard, nor any sort of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation employee. I have no official knowledge or relationship to these most wonderful elements of our city infrastructure. That said, as this site may attest, I do spend a good portion of my free time sniffing around for information about them. And so [drumroll please]:

The pools will start opening Friday, June 19th.

We’ve got six more days to sweat it out. And – more importantly – to plan.

Pool season is brief. All told this year, it will probably be about eight weeks, and some pools might be open as little as four. If we want to make the best use of them, we might as well start thinking about how.

Some questions to consider:

  • What’s your closest pool, from where you can pad home in just a bathing suit and towel? How many days a week can you get there? Will you introduce yourself to the pool staff, maybe even thank them for their work?
  • What other pools do you want to visit this summer? Who will you invite to join you?
  • What reading do you want to get done with your feet in the water? How many laps do you want to swim? How many neighbors would you like to meet?
  • Are your kids ready to be signed up for swimming lessons? Do YOU want to learn how to swim, or how to float, or feel comfortable putting your face in the water?
  • What can you do to help everyone remember that the pools belong to all Philadelphians (including/especially boisterous dark-skinned and/or working-class children and teenagers) – and that taking care of them is all of our responsibility?

Some potentially useful tools and tidbits:

  • Parks and Rec’s list of pools (by section of the city).
  • The best map I know of (though some pools are missing, some are in the wrong location, and others are no longer open). Anyone know any GIS gurus who’d want to work on a new one of these?
  • Some destination pools to consider:
    • Kelly (next to the Please Touch Museum in Fairmount Park) Our biggest pool, and seven feet deep in the middle. There’s grass to lie on within the pool gates.
    • Francisville (18th and Francis, just north of Fairmount Ave): The poor man’s infinity pool, with a view of the skyline. This year home to a very cool event.
    • O’Connor (26th and South): “The Country Club,” people from other pools would scoff when I told them I worked there. That, or “the Taj Mahal.”
    • Athletic (26th and Master): It’s got SLIDES!!!! Plus a sprayground next door.
  • And once you’ve checked those out: