Stanley “Snake” Faison, Sr.


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?’


“‘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.”


Donna DeShazo


Age: Late 50s

From: West Philadelphia

First pool experience: Kelly Pool in 1962, with her parents

Work with the pools: As a Pool Maintenance Attendant (PMA) and Pool Equipment Operator (PEO, or head PMA) at O’Connor Pool since 2007

Donna DeShazo has worked at O’Connor Pool for seven years and never once been in the water. “On the hottest day, I won’t even get underneath the shower. And people always ask me, people always say, ‘Do you get in the pool?’ No.” But she loves being there. “I love watching everybody else in that water. I love it. I get a joy out of watching people in the pool, that I’m able to watch them. I’m watching over them. I really feel as though God has placed me there to be their covering. To keep them safe, you know what I mean?”

Ms. Donna, as everyone at the pool calls her, has worked at the Overbrook School for the Blind for 26 years. But come summertime, she’s O’Connor’s Pool Equipment Operator. She’s been at the pool longer than any of the other summer staff, has outlasted three Rec Leader supervisors, and carries an authority born of experience as well as seniority. “I know sometimes even down to our staff, I can work their nerves. Because I want the best, you know what I’m saying? I want the best. I’m older, and I know we have young ones that we work with, but I want them to take the job serious.”

When Donna was growing up in Haddington, her mother would put oil in her children’s shoes if they were running wild – and pray for them either way. “That was the covering she placed on us every single day. ‘The prayer of the righteous avails much.’ You got to trust in God. You got to be prayed up every day. That’s what I do, and I continue to do. I trust God to keep us. I trust God to protect us. Because this is world is a wicked world, unfortunately. I just really wish the leadership – the mayor, the governor – to push for the people. It’s not about themselves. It’s not about money. It’s just about the people.”

“When we came up, we had a lot of programs that was given to us, opportunities that was given to us,” Donna reminisces. At Haddington Rec alone, she attended cooking, sewing and dance classes. “For that to happen for our kids would be so great.”

Donna has a son and a daughter, but she’s not just talking about them. “You see a lot of kids that come to O’Connor – parents will put them out early in the morning, to fend for themselves. And the pool – between the pool and the camp at Markward [Playground] – became their home for the summertime. I mean, we had this one particular family of kids that the mother put them out at ten o’clock in the morning. And they were not allowed to come back home until six o’clock in the evening. She gave them no money. They had no clothes. They were raggedy. They would come to the pool; they would go down to the playground, eat their little lunch. They weren’t campers at the playground, but the camp would still feed them. We’re home away from home.”

“We have some kids that have nowhere to go. Parents can’t afford to take them on vacation. The pool is their vacation. These kids need stuff like that. Not even just the kids. Adults. We have adults that come there faithfully. Who work hard each and every day, pay taxes like anybody else, and because they can’t afford to go on vacation, the pool becomes their vacation.”

Donna has a way of talking that invites you to be part of something with her. As often as not, her sentences end with “you know what I’m saying?” or “you know what I mean?” She explains why you’ll never catch her in the water: “I had a bad experience. When I was 11 years old, one of my big sisters called themselves teaching me how to swim. And almost had me drown. And that was a horrible, horrible experience that I need deliverance from,” she laughs. “But I have not gotten deliverance from that. It’s funny. My two kids learned how to swim. My husband know how to swim. Me? No dice.”

Donna’s husband grew up in South Philly, learned to swim at the now-filled-in public pool in “Chicken Bone” – aka FDR – Park, and later became a Navy man. He taught their son to swim at Haddington and Cobbs Creek pools. But he never swam at O’Connor – which, when he was young, was whites-only. Now, Donna says, “This pool is about everybody. It is not about your type or my type. This is for everybody, and it’s for the whole community.”

“I’m at the gate sometimes, but at the same time I’m watching. I’m watching. I’m looking to make sure everybody’s ok, making sure everybody’s doing what they supposed to do. Guys come in who’ve never been there and want to test the waters and dive in the pool when you say no diving. You have patrons where we have a limit, and they have to stand outside, and they wanna cuss you out. You get that. But for the most of it, I have had patrons where even in situations like that, as long as I explain the situation to them, they are so understanding. Like I tell everybody that comes in there: Please just go according to the rules and regulations. We’re here to have fun.”

Natalia Susul


Age: 20

From: Port Richmond

First pool experience: Samuels Pool in 2001

Work with the pools: As a lifeguard at O’Connor Pool from 2010 to 2013

“One of the most important things about growing up,” Natalia Susul reflects from in the thick of it, “is retaining some innocence. You grow up, and so much stuff happens. Everyone has a rough life. Through all the stuff that you’re going through, whether it’s work stuff or family stuff or just life, you have to be honest, be simple. It’s the simplest things in life that are the most important.”

Natalia has the diminutive stature of a gymnast, but her curiosity is huge and honest. She is unflaggingly open-minded and interested in the world – and especially the people – around her.

“With my parents barely knowing the language, they’ve always stressed to me, know as many people as you can. Meet as many people from as many different backgrounds, because you’ll learn something from everyone. It doesn’t matter if they’re rich or if they’re poor. And that was my favorite thing about being a lifeguard. You meet so many different people. There’s doctors that come to the pool. There’s kids in second grade that come to the pool. People of all different backgrounds, of all different jobs, of all different ethnicities can still come to one place and share something in common. Regardless of their income, or regardless of their skin color – regardless of anything. “

Natalia – who, as the LG2 (head lifeguard) at O’Connor Pool, was my boss this past summer – was on track to become a Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation lifeguard by the time she was eight. She and her older brother grew up in Port Richmond (“culturally Polish,” she describes it, and fluent in the language) and attended programs at Samuels Rec, up the street from their house, for as long as she can remember. The summer she was to turn nine, her mother enrolled both kids in Samuels’ Swim for Life summer camp. “I’m pretty sure I threw up in the morning, I was so scared,” Natalia laughs. But by the second week, she was swimming in eight feet of water. She returned to the camp for six more summers, and passed the lifeguard certification at the end. She remembers the lead instructor, Mary Beth, as “the best person in the world. We were always messing around: ‘I don’t wanna swim,’ ‘It’s cold,’ ‘Let’s leave.’ Mary Beth always made us stay in the water, always made us swim.”

Natalia’s first year lifeguarding was 2010, when the City reopened all the pools after the massive closures the summer before. All the pools, that is, except for two that didn’t pass inspection – including the one at Monkiewicz Playground, where Natalia’d been hired. “I called Mary Beth. She looked out for her kids. She really didn’t have to! With all the cuts that were happening – I don’t know the full story of what happened with her and her job – but she wanted everyone to have a job; she wanted everyone to get something out of what they worked for. She within a day called all these different people,” and eventually turned up a lifeguard opening at O’Connor, where Natalia’s worked ever since.

“I knew nobody when I was going up there. I was unfamiliar with the area. I had no idea. I was never in South Philly. In the beginning, my first year, I was the only girl lifeguard out of five lifeguards, but everyone was just super nice. I always felt like someone had my back.”

Natalia waves her hands around as she talks, at times almost hopping up and down with enthusiasm, and laughs loudly and often. She radiates positivity, even when she talks about her brother’s death last year, and the hole that left in her family. Now a junior studying physical therapy at the University of Pittsburgh, she attended Catholic school from the time she was four, first around the corner at her home parish, Nativity BVM, and later at Nazareth Academy. Her goal in life is to help others, and the opportunity to do so is one of the things she loves about teaching swimming.

“It’s not just recreational. That’s the best part about swimming in all these pools; you learn a lot too. Swimming in general – it’s a huge confidence booster. It’s always scary to first learn how to swim. There aren’t many people who are comfortable with it in the beginning. I went to swim camp being like, ‘I really can’t swim; I’m not confident at all.’ And then in a week or two I was already on a better level. And now, seeing kids’ reactions when they can finally put their head underwater, and hold their breath. You see their progress. I’m not even a teacher. I’m not anything special; I’m a kid myself. But it’s gratifying – it’s just so nice to know that you helped. Simple things!”

Philly’s pools are part of the reason, Natalia explains, that she “wouldn’t trade growing up in Port Richmond for anything.”

“I loved growing up in a neighborhood, in such a small town but in the city. We’d play ‘til 10 o’clock at night, and then my mom would call us down the street to come in, and me and my brother would be angry – ‘Ahh, we wanna stay out and play!’ And in the morning it was back out, back out on the street. Freedom was our thing. Freedom was our game. We had a park around the corner; we have a bunch of playgrounds down the street.”

“Growing up in the city, we went down the shore every now and then. But the city gets hot; the city gets sweaty; the city gets gross in the summer. Having the pools is not only a way to cool down, it’s a way to be a kid. Through all the troubles of every day, just being a child again, being innocent again, and just frolicking around. Not everybody does have the money to go down the shore, or has the time to go down the shore.”

“Life is a cycle. You grow up, but there’s somebody else that’s also growing up. Try to think back to when you were a kid. Remembering what you had as a kid – the things you loved as a kid – all kids should have. Hopefully the pools will stay open forever.”


Natalia and other O’Connor Pool staff her first year.

Michael (Kevon) Daniels


Age: 30

From: West Philadelphia

First pool experience: Kingsessing Pool in 1991 (getting pushed in and nearly drowning)

Work with the pools: As a lifeguard at Kelly Pool for eight summers from 2000 to 2013

With 19 rescues, Michael Daniels saved more people from drowning this past summer than any other City of Philadelphia lifeguard. He takes the role seriously. But ask him why he became a lifeguard – or what motivated him to earn his Water Safety and Lifeguard Instructor certifications this fall – and he’ll tell you, “Chicks dig lifeguards.” He says it with a straight face, but also how he says most things: with laughter soft-shoeing around in his voice, like at any moment it might burst out from in between the syllables.

Mike’s good humor is infectious. It’s humor that grows out of struggle. “I wasn’t always an angel. When I was growing up, I did what the average kids in the urban area do. Spraypaint on walls. Graffiti. Vandalism. Stealing cars. I was bad. I was so bad that in fourth grade I got a EH-21 out of the Philadelphia public school system. In layman’s terms, I got kicked out the school district. I got locked up in a group home type thing. A judge got me back into the school district.”

“My sixth grade teacher was Miss Jeanie Walsh, at William Levering Science Magnet School [now closed] on Ridge and Gerhard in Roxborough. The very first day of school, in sixth grade, I walked into her classroom, and I said, ‘I’m not gonna make it.’ And she looked at me. She tilted her head and lifted her glasses up, and she looked at me, she looked at my name, and said, ‘Michael Daniels, you will make it. I will make sure you make it.’”

“That encouragement she gave me, I never forgot it. I thought I wasn’t going to make it through sixth grade. At that time I don’t know how I made it to sixth grade. I never listened to the teachers; I never stayed in class; I never did my work. The Philadelphia School District is overcrowded. You got like 30, 40 kids to one teacher. I’m not going to say people can’t learn that way, but it’s kind of hard when you’ve got 30 and 40 kids to one teacher. I think some of the teachers just passed me so they didn’t have to deal with me the next year. But to this day I still remember Miss Walsh. She’s out there somewhere. And I always told myself – since I could never find anything to pay her back – I said: I will pay it forward. So now, if I see anybody with that ‘I can’t do it,’ I want them to say, ‘You know what, I can do it.’ To take that negative core belief out their head and change it into a positive belief.”

Mike got into swimming at 14 to keep himself out of trouble. He started at Sayre-Morris Pool, taking tips from Larry and Thelma, then moved five blocks west to Cobbs Creek. “Back then, the Fairmount Park Commission [which – before it merged with the Department of Parks and Recreation – ran Cobbs Creek, Kelly and Hunting Park Pools] used to have this Junior Lifeguard Program,” Mike recalls. “I wasn’t actually old enough to be a lifeguard, so I was a junior lifeguard – I would help them out around the pool; they would show me how to swim properly, things like that. I could always swim underwater, frog-style, but I couldn’t swim front crawl. I couldn’t swim on top of the water. I would go three to four times a week, and the lifeguards would say ‘work on this, work on that, work on your kick, work on your swim stroke, work on breathing.’”

“When they were redoing Cobbs Creek Pool, they sent the lifeguards from Cobbs Creek to Kelly’s, and I just followed them down there. Since then, even when Cobbs Creek opened back up, I never went. I just loved Kelly’s. Took myself about three years to get to the swimming level where I was comfortable that I mastered it. Then shortly after that, Mike Murray – he was the director at Kelly’s Pool – gave a lifeguarding class. So I took the lifeguarding class, and I passed it with flying colors, and since then I’ve been a lifeguard.”

“Once you’re at a pool sized like Kelly’s, you never want to go to a smaller pool. There’s nothing like that sun beaming on you, sitting in the middle of the park. You get people all across the city coming to Kelly’s. You get people as far as Chestnut Hill, as far as Wilmington, Delaware, as far as Camden, New Jersey, that all comes to Kelly’s Pool. You got your swimmers; you got your lap swimmers; you got your kids. You have little kids coming to you and saying, ‘How you doing, Mr. Mike? You gonna teach me how to swim? Can you show me how to do this?’ or ‘Can you show me how to do that?’ or ‘What do I have to do to be a lifeguard?’ I can see myself in one of those children, saying a few years ago: ‘What do I have to do to be a lifeguard?’”

Kelly Pool is Olympic-sized, and – unlike most Philly city pools – has a section deeper (at seven feet) than most adults are tall. “It’s pretty deep, and you get people who think they can swim, and then when they don’t feel the bottom they give up and just sink, instead of trying to swim out. Myself and my co-worker Devyn, we had the most saves in the city this year. The primary purpose of a lifeguard is to prevent a drowning. So if you can prevent a drowning from even occurring, then you did your job. But when a drowning does occur, you also want to do your job. And I mean, every time it happens, every time you save someone – you can’t replace that feeling.”

Mike didn’t just make it through sixth grade – he graduated from Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School. Afterward he served in the military, and in addition to lifeguarding year-round (at private facilities in the non-summer months), now does loss prevention work, sings and writes his own music. He’s got three kids and another on the way. He says of them, “I want my children to have better than I had. My father wasn’t always there. I would like Philadelphia to be a city of fathers, where fathers get involved with their children. I would love for Philadelphia schools to improve. To see how some people are struggling – I don’t want that for my family, my children. I don’t want that for anybody.”

Mike does his part. “For anyone that asks me for advice, anyone that asks me for change,” he says, “Don’t ever tell me that you’re going to pay it back. Keep the change moving. Pay it forward.”

Irene McDonald

irene 4

Age: 49

From: Oxford Circle; lives in East Falls

First pool experience: Houseman Pool in 1972

Work with the pools: As a lifeguard at Piccoli Pool in the mid-1980s; as a Recreation Department plumber opening and closing the pools in South, Southwest and West Philly from 1995-2000; and as a pool maintenance attendant at O’Connor Pool in 2013

Irene McDonald greets everyone with exuberance. One afternoon this past summer at O’Connor, watching her welcome people at the gate, our rec leader Katie turned to me and commented, “She’s like the hostess of the pool.” And she was, both in how she interacted with everybody there and how she cared for the facility after the rest of us went home at night (like paying for cleaning supplies out of her own pocket because the City-provided ones didn’t really get the bathrooms clean). “For a summer, you get to know names, you get to know kids, you get to know faces,” Irene says. “And that’s important. That’s what we’re made up of in Philadelphia.”

Irene came to work as a pool maintenance attendant (PMA) at O’Connor each day from her other job as a plumber at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are 534,000 plumbers in the United States, and only 1.3% of those are women. Irene’s plumbing career began in the Department of Parks and Recreation. “In 1993 I became a school crossing guard for the City of Philadelphia,” she recalls. “The city had a program, called the TOP/WIN program, Tradeswomen of Purpose/Women in Nontraditional Work. And they had to put a certain amount of women in jobs by about 1995, because in 1975 there was a lawsuit put out by people that women should be in the trades – be an electrician’s helper, plumber’s helper, truck driver, for the Water Department, the Gas Department, the Recreation Department… And you wouldn’t lose your job – if I didn’t like it, I could’ve gone back to being a school crossing guard. They sent out letters to women who would be topped out and never make a larger salary than what they were making back in 1995. It gave women the opportunity to increase their income. So I did that, and I was sent in 1994 to the Recreation Department. I worked as a plumber in the Recreation Department, out on the roads with 12 other plumbers, from 1995 to about the year 2000, where Recreation Department owned Vet Stadium, and I became the first female plumber in the Vet Stadium.”

Irene is a Philadelphian through and through. She learned to swim at the Houseman Pool on Summerdale Avenue in the Northeast, where she was on the swim team from the age of eight. (“I don’t think we would have the childhood memories if we didn’t have these recreations doing these programs. More and more is taken away and taken away… but what we learned!”) Her daughters Stephanie and Shannon learned to swim at Piccoli Pool in Juniata Park; her son Jimmy worked as a PMA one summer too. That being said: “Being a plumber with the Department of Recreation made me realize how big our city was. I did not really understand ‘til the age of 34 – like, all the way out to Finnegan’s Pool [on South 70th Street near Lindbergh Boulevard]. I did not know there was a pool – I didn’t even know our city existed all the way over there,” she laughs.

The plumbers may not be the people you see every day at the pools in the summer, but they’re the ones who make sure the pools open at the beginning of the season and close down at the end. “You work hard to open them,” Irene explains. “Filling them, and making sure of the health and welfare of the community – the water’s clean; there’s no chemical imbalances; there’s nothing that’s going to be harmful; the drains are going to work, the valves, the chlorinator – so much goes into it. Because, you know, this is for the public. So there is a lot of responsibility on the plumbers. They take an oath for the health and welfare of the community.”

When Vet Stadium was torn down in 2002, Irene joined Local 690, the Philadelphia Plumbers Union. She says of her fellow Recreation Department plumbers, all of whom were men, “They knew I could do it. They said, ‘Go, go, go, you can be this; you can do it.’ They really helped me out, mentally. I would’ve never seen that I could’ve gone into 690 and stayed and built the Lincoln Financial. And I still go back, on female-plumber duty for the Eagles games. But those guys, the ones in my head, who were like, ‘Reen, you have no problem doing this,’ are still there, still supporting me and still encouraging me.”

“I’m glad I started with the Recreation Department. It was new to them, to have a woman come in. And you always have one in the crowd, but he taught me a lot, that one in the crowd, kept me going. And no matter where I go, where I work, since he was the first one, I just kind of compare it to him, and I go: If I could get over that one guy, I can get over anytime I come across someone who just can’t understand a woman being a plumber.”

She doesn’t look it, but Irene is a grandmother now, and thinking about what her life will be ten years from now when she retires. “I’d love to spend more time around the Recreation Department, as a retired person doing whatever I can,” she says. “There are so many nice people out there, when you go in and you go to their centers. There’s a lot of good people out there that you just never know about. They’re taking care of their part of the world.”

Rodger Caldwell


Age: 59

From: Strawberry Mansion

First pool experience: Rice Pool (now closed) at 32nd and Ridge in 1968, when his father pushed him into eight feet of water and taught him to swim

Work with the pools: As a lifeguard at 12th and Cambria, Herron, Finnegan, Chew and Murphy Pools since the mid-1970s

Rodger Caldwell likes to share. Smile at him, and stories come tumbling out. Bring him in as a lifeguard – as the City of Philadelphia has, at pools across the city, for nearly 40 years – and he will, as he describes it, “blow the neighborhood wide open.”

Rodger’s been a lifeguard in North and West Philly, but the pool he describes as “his” is Herron, the much-loved circular pool that cooled the community at 2nd and Reed in South Philly until it closed a few years ago. “There was a lot of Afro-American kids, and in the late eighties they were looking at me like this on the fence,” he remembers, holding his hands up to his eyes like goggles, or the openings on a chain-link fence. “Little kids come up, say, ‘Mister, can we come in?’ And I’m saying, ‘Sure, you can come in!’ Everybody kept saying, ‘Rodger, what are you doing, what are you doing?’ So I kept saying to them, ‘Listen guys, this pool is free! I don’t own this, you don’t own this. Don’t nobody own this, man. This is a city pool! These are kids! You don’t want to have kids go home and cry.’ So the little Afro-American kids came in. The Spanish kids came in behind them. Then some Italian kids start coming in. So basically, my pool became, in the late 80s, I would say, one of the first multi-racial pools in South Philly.”

Rodger was born in Virginia and grew up in Strawberry Mansion, where he still lives today. The most athletic of nine brothers and sisters, he played basketball and – when he was 14 – learned to swim from his father, who’d take him to the city pool around the corner after coming home from work. In the mid-1970s, Rodger was a lifeguard at the 12th and Cambria Pool when the City recruited him to become head guard at Herron. “The City of Philadelphia had a meeting downtown at Rizzo Rink, and they said we need one of the best lifeguards you got to come down here and – I guess what they wanted to say was see if he can take back our facilities from the community. The community basically took over. They started putting water inside the pool from the plug, and they was running the pool themselves. All Irish. Irish and Polacks. Wasn’t nobody down there, you know, no color of skin. No Italians, no Chinese – nobody! So they had a meeting with me down there at Rizzo Rink, some of the big shots for the City, and they said, ‘Rodger, we’ve got a special job for you. We wanna know, can you handle it? Can you do it?’”

“So I walked over there – I was a skinny Afro-American guy, real thin. And they looked at me; I looked at them. The kids looked at me; the adults looked at me. The older men and some of the guys on the corner drinking beer, they didn’t like me at all. Boy, they let me have it.”

“So if I went in on a Sunday, and I came in that next day Monday, I started putting up my rules and regulations. And in two weeks time, three weeks time, the kids fell in love with me. Five years old, six, seven, eight, nine, ten – all up to maybe fifteen – they fell in love with me. And once the children fell in love with me, then the parents started liking me. Then the grandfathers started liking me. Then the grandmothers started liking me.”

“When I came back that next season, I put up my rules and regulations again, and I’m starting to see a change. I started my swimming team. I started things for seniors. I started night swimming. See back then, the pools would close at nine o’clock at night. And we had lights that lit up the pool, and it was gorgeous.”

“And you gotta remember now, I’m the only dark guy around. And they took a liking to me. Every two or three days, people was bringing me food. And then the men from the Del Monte ship that was coming in on the port – because the whole area down there, 2nd and Reed, was basically Longshoremen. Everybody worked on the ships, I mean everybody. And they were bringing in oranges, apples, bananas, pineapples, grapes. And they would say to me, ‘Rodg, could you give them out to the community?’ Because the kids in the community loved me. And every day, I used to have people stand in line, and I gave out bananas; I gave out pineapples. And all these little blond haired, blue-eyes kids was loving me like they my children!”

“My swimming team was very, very good. I’m talking about very good. I think when the kids fell in love with me was how strict that I always was. I mean I came down there, put down rules and regulations, and then the kids seen me teach them how to swim. These little kids was going home, getting bathing caps, swimming gear, everything like that. If you mention Rodger Caldwell at 2nd and Reed, they’ll go back and say yeah, he put our children on the map as far as swimming. Because a lot of those kids today, they can swim because of me. And my career stretched for over twenty-some years at that pool.”

Working as a School District bicycle cop from September to June, Rodger has kept his summers free for the pools. He never wanted to leave Herron but did for a month in the mid-1990s, when the City asked him to go meet with the community around the James Finnegan Rec in Southwest and troubleshoot racial tensions that were bubbling over. (He set up a schedule in which there were certain swim times for every age group. Once it was just eight- and nine-year-olds or fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, it seemed whites and Blacks didn’t have a problem swimming together.) Since Herron closed – when a crack in the pool floor started leaking water into the surrounding houses, and the cost of repair was too great (the site is now a sprayground) – Rodger’s served as head lifeguard at South Philly’s Chew and Murphy Pools. He speaks proudly of welcoming new communities into the water at both – Latinos and whites at Chew at 18th and Washington; people of color, and especially Asians, at Murphy at 3rd and Shunk. “I love everybody,” he smiles.

Larry Brown

Larry 2

Age: 56

From: West Philadelphia

First pool experience: Kelly Pool in 1961

Work with the pools: As a lifeguard, Water Safety Instructor (WSI) and Lifeguard Instructor (LGI) at Sayre-Morris Pool since 1989

Larry Brown’s face lights up when he talks about swimming. “Swimming, it’s an art. Kicking your feet, using your arms, sucking the air in, blowing it out under the water. When your legs kick six times, your arms move once. We need to take more time out to show children how to swim,” he says. “It gives them an outlet to do something that other athletes can’t do. A lot of athletes can’t swim. They’re scared of the water! I’m talking, you’ve got major athletes, who make millions of dollars, scared to put their foot in the water. So now you have somebody, right, doesn’t make all that money, doesn’t have all that fame, can get in and swim without drowning. That’s important.”

Larry knows something about showing children how to swim. At Sayre-Morris Pool since 1989, he’s taught hundreds of West Philly kids. “The most rewarding experience is seeing little kids develop into swimmers, or develop into lifeguards,” he says, smiling. And anyone who’s ever taken a lifeguarding course with Larry (including me) knows that every session starts and ends with swimming laps – and a reminder of the how important it is to swim, and let others see you doing it.

Opening his hands toward the swimmers gliding back and forth through Sayre’s clear blue water, he explains: “It’s a sport where it’s only you. You gotta go up; you gotta come back. Nobody can do it for you.”

Larry is the only one of Philadelphia’s seven Water Safety and Lifeguard Instructors who’s worked at the same pool since he started — and his history with Sayre-Morris goes back much farther than his employment. Larry remembers the pool opening when he was a young teen in the early 70s. “Back then it was gang war. I would come up here knowing that I would get chased. Most of the time I got chased back down home. This is 58th Street; I was from back down 52nd Street. So I wasn’t supposed to come up here. I still would come. After a while I used to come so much that I became friends with the guys up here that was gang-warring the way I was gang-warring. I became their friends. Until this day some of their children play out here; some of their grandchildren I see.”

“Miss Cart was here then. I used to see her out front. I got to know her, and she got to know me. ‘Boy, where you coming from? You’re always here.’”

After getting kicked out of all-boys St. Thomas Moore for discipline problems, Larry graduated from South Philly’s Bok Technical High School (one of the 24 public schools the School Reform Commission shuttered last June) in 1975. After graduation, he joined the Army, where his roommate was a medic, with a penchant for – and access to – hard drugs. Larry was a boxer, and the boxing kept his own drug use in check – until he got out of the service in 1982.

“Before I started actually swimming distance, and getting into the mechanics of swimming, I was a drug addict. That’s all I had time for. And then every now and again, even when I was a drug addict, I would come to the pool. After a while, I got interested into the water, went to rehab. Even when I was at rehab, I was swimming. Then when I came back from rehab, I just took it to another level. I started coming to Sayre every day, to keep myself busy. People in my family that I got high with was betting that I would get high again, and this was just a move I was making for the time being. ‘Just wait, a couple more weeks, and he’ll be knocking on the door with money in his pocket, talking about let’s get it on.’ It didn’t happen. Thank Allah that it didn’t happen.”

He laughs, “It’s been a party ever since. That’s the real party. The real party is being able to not get high, and having money in your pocket. If you got high, you wouldn’t have money in your pocket. Been clean ever since.” Larry was at Sayre so much those days that they eventually asked him if he wanted a job. He’s been there ever since too.

“Larry does a lot,” one of the Sayre lifeguards he supervises commented the day I was there to interview him. “He takes pride,” another replied. In addition to pool inspecting and leading swimming lessons, lifeguard trainings, twice-weekly water aerobics, and boating safety classes, trying to maintain the pool itself is a significant endeavor.

“The pools are not being kept up,” he sighs. “There’s a lot of stuff, even in here, that could be fixed. They just – nobody cares. I think before some major work happens in here, this pool will be shut down. Or the University of Penn or Drexel will own it before some major stuff goes. So we just try to maintain.” He and Sayre’s other Water Safety Instructor Thelma once drained the pool and painted it themselves. It took a month and a half – but otherwise it wouldn’t have happened.

“It gives the kids an outlet during the summer, to be able to go to a pool. Some people in the communities don’t have air conditioning. Some kids don’t have running water. So sometimes this is an outlet to cool off, and sometimes this is an outlet for kids to bathe themselves. I mean, to be truthful! Some kids don’t have running water. That’s why, during the fall, the winter, a lot of kids won’t go to school. For one, they don’t have water to wash their clothes or to wash themselves. So they smell, and other kids keep teasing them. This is an outlet in many ways. You know, you use the pool – it’s not supposed to be used for bathing. And we know that. But sometimes it’s an outlet for people that don’t have.”

“I would like my children and grandchildren to inherit the good times I had at the pools. It’s a lot that’s going on in the neighborhoods that I would like them not to inherit. But it’s gonna be hard. The schools are a mess. We had an abundance of schools with pools that the Department of Rec used to run. They closed. So now they’re talking about maybe four pools compared to eight or ten at one time.”

Larry has been married for 35 years, with five biological and adopted children (four of whom worked as lifeguards at one time). His mother, who taught him to swim, now has Alzheimer’s, and he’d been up most of the night before our interview looking for her after she’d gone out and gotten lost. He also works another job as a court representative for Youth Services Agency of PA, a nonprofit that works with young people caught up in the criminal justice system. When I ask him if there are any other roles he plays, he answers, “Just being a Black leader. I don’t really call myself a leader, but we have a lot of children out here, who there’s nobody to look up to. They don’t see people that come and swim every day, or come to work every day. They don’t see that. But then again, if they look around, they will see it, because I’m here every day. I’m here now, and I’m sick. Thelma comes here if she’s sick. We always come.”

Inspiration for Exploration


Lifeguard swim meet at Vogt Pool, August 8th, 2013.

Even better than my summer as a lifeguard was the training I needed to do to get there. It was satisfying to learn how to do CPR and how to get an injured person out of the water safely. And I was impressed with the maturity and seriousness of my fellow trainees, most of whom were (no exaggeration) half my age. But what really made the training was the lead trainer, an absolutely fascinating Philadelphia character named Larry Brown. Larry conducted most of the twice-weekly, three-hour trainings in a shout, which echoed off the walls of the Sayre-Morris Rec Pool, alternately sounding like an army drill sergeant and a beleaguered uncle. For religious reasons, he swam fully clothed. Long sleeves. Long pants. Boots. And – fully clothed, not to mention being, at this point in his life, a grandfather – he could swim the entire length of the pool underwater without coming up for air.

Larry has been a Water Safety and Lifeguard Instructor in Philly for over twenty years. As such, he not only trains incoming lifeguards but during the summer pool season travels around inspecting safety and operations at pools across the city. He knows every neighborhood in the city – what they’re like now, and what they used to be – because he knows every pool and a sizable number of the people who staff them. I loved talking to him and Thelma, the other WSI running the training – hearing their perspectives on Philly’s people, places, and of course pools. And beyond the shouting (from Larry) and the lectures (Thelma’s specialty), the two of them really bent over backwards to make sure we all got trained right. I’m not sure how many one-on-one make-up sessions they had to do for classes we missed, whether for work trips (me) or senior proms (everybody else), but there were a lot.

A few weeks into lifeguarding at O’Connor, I decided that I too wanted to know all our city pools. My plan was to swim in all 70. I made it to 33, and swam in even fewer (some were drained, or draining; one was filling back up after an accidental draining). Next summer I’ll start earlier.

In the meantime, I don’t want to stop exploring the pools. And so, given that it’s off season, I’ll be doing that here.