Two weeks ago, when neither the brutal cold of winter nor the totally oppressive atmosphere of the summer’s serial heat waves could be cited as an excuse, I returned to one of our city’s great gifts to its citizens.
With the welcome and the “Go the extra mile” spirit of four members of an amazing staff, I got back into the swim at an oasis named East 54th Street Recreation Center. As a long-standing jewel in a network of indoor and outdoor pools throughout the city, it attests to history, progress and the people who give all facilities their true value.
One week before my return, I had savored the luxuries of a water aerobics class as a guest of my member-friend at her Upper East Side club. That experience sent me scurrying to MTA’s Second Avenue local to renew my membership in my less luxurious but equally healing option for swimming. And like its upscale variations, the historic four story neo-classical structure that opened in 1911 has expanded beyond its original mandate to enrich the sanitary and bathing options for working class New Yorkers.
Presently, it offers exercise rooms filled with machines of every sorts, running tracks and even walking ones for the running-averse, classes and practice areas for dancers and basketball players, and even a distinctly 21stcentury media lab. History buffs will note that the basketball court and jogging tracks at 54th Street are connected by two wrought iron work spiral staircases and there remains a Guastavino tile vaulted ceiling in the gymnasium. The lobby ceiling also harks back to the Center’s early 20th century origins as do the locker rooms’ marble walls.
On my long-delayed return, however, the most notable of the facility’s amenities turned out to be its remarkable young staff.
A phone conversation with Jamal (pronounced as if spelled with a final “e”) set the tone of welcome home to a too-long absent member of long-standing. In his world, it was evident that nothing is impossible. Upon arrival at the building that has the air of a 19th century hub of learning and civility, I met Yolanda and Melanie, two of Jamal’s colleagues who shared his “of course you can” spirit. So, in short order, my membership was updated and I was firmly set on the road to health, healing, and increased mobility of the sort walking on the city’s concrete cannot replace.
Did I want to use the Smart phone to register? No problem. Would I like to sit down next to the wall-sized picture window that looks down on the massive pool while I searched for the card I knew was somewhere in my overcrowded handbag? Motivated by knowing I was now only moments away from returning to take advantage of the “General Swim” hours that accommodate all levels of skill and speed I made quick work of the search. Although the trio assured me that if it was not found, there were many easy alternatives. It was of this impromptu welcoming committee that I asked the name of the person responsible for the operation whose face to the public they are.
They pointed to wall mounted photos of Mayor DiBlasio and Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver who has responsibility for the network of Recreation Centers, and seemingly endless amenities including gyms and pools that dot the city. I asked if I might take a photo of the trio in front of that panel, but they quickly recommended that I take the photo without them. And so I did. But only after I asked, “How does he find staff like you?” Their answer: “We just apply.” I made peace with their unfeigned modesty, responding, “Well, I hope he knows how fortunate he is to have assembled a cast I mentally named “Commissioner Silver’s Gold.”
Each encounter of my “first day back” was equally reassuring. Locker/dressing room attendant Audrey replied when thanked her for her assistance in unraveling the mystery of my newly purchased “swim shoes,” that she considered that was why she was “here. After Lifeguard K saw me into the shallow end of the pool, Daniel assured me that it was his pleasure to save mefrom the need to leave the water and walk to the opposite end of the 50+ foot pool to secure a foam rubber “noodle” to facilitate exercises. “I’m here all the time, so just let me know if you need something,” Daniel responded.
Meanwhile my simple research about the Commissioner and his wider domain revealed that this born-in-Brooklyn (its prospect Park” urban village) New Yorker had amassed too many degrees, fellowships and other honors to list.
For me, this cursory research awakened me to the truly amazing number and variety of options available to New Yorkers in its 30,000 acres of “parklands.” I was drawn in by the lists of tours of historic homes in all five boroughs whose online schedules can be accessed; most include the welcome news that they come free of charge.A few are still accessible through the month of September.
A sampling of websites may serve to welcome or welcome back people like me who may have lost current touch with the glories of a city whose lavish parklands are gold mines of discovery. And of welcome!
Opening photo: Bigstock; photo of Recreation Center panel by Annette Cunningham.