My Nana’s story begins on the shoulders of a clown. On the edge of a diving board, fifty feet above the surface of the Greenpoint Brooklyn public pool.
The way she tells it, her first leap was born from necessity, as I suppose they usually are. My grandmother needed a shower. Her family’s four-room tenement was crammed with ten people, each bed holding three or four bodies, their one bathroom shared with another Italian family across the hall. Sunday was bathing day. My great-grandmother boiled water on the stove, strung up a sheet and converted the large kitchen sink into a bathtub. Father first, then mother, then oldest sibling to youngest—everyone took a turn behind the sheet with a bar of hard soap.
The youngest, my Nana had resigned herself for years to a weekly bath in cloudy, lukewarm water. But in the summer of 1936, McCarren Park Pool opened its gates. Wide as a parking lot and surrounded by brick walls, three arched entrances revealed the largest pool that my Nana—from her spot on the sidewalk—had ever seen. Today, the rusted black and white photos show swimmers in unisex bathing suits crowded along the poolsides, legs hanging into the water. Swimmers standing on top of swimmers, running along the slick cement and jumping off the diving boards into water packed with bobbing heads. It was a city pool and the population was dense. But on weeknights the gates were locked and the water belonged to the Brooklyn swim team. Just three blocks away from my grandmother’s apartment, she watched them practice from her fire escape. At dusk the pool was a vast space in a crowded city, offering not only clean water but a rare bit of solitude. Showers and a storage locker she could call her own.
It cost 25 cents to get in. More than my Nana or any child in her family had ever held at one time. She loitered for weeks by the entrance, back pressed to a hot brick wall, sweating in the July heat and looking wistfully at the water. It wasn’t until an off-duty lifeguard headed out to the street for a cigarette or a sandwich and passed her, tracing the sidewalk cracks by the entrance with a stick. “Why aren’t you swimming,” I imagine the lifeguard asking, slinging a towel over his shoulder and squatting down to her seven-year-old level. “I don’t have any money,” she said, and then learned for the first time that sometimes having no money means finding another way. “I’ll tell you a secret,” the guard said, “there’s a synchronized swimming show every Friday night. A clown jumps from the high dive.” He pointed to a platform visible above the brick walls, “and he needs a little girl to sit on his shoulders.”
How do people find the courage to let themselves fall? I imagine my grandmother as a little girl perched on the shoulders of Louie the Clown, fifty feet above a crowd eating peanuts and cotton candy and waiting for the splash. Seventy years later, what she remembers of that night are her legs, wrapped so tightly around Louie’s neck that he had trouble breathing, and her inability to loosen them no matter how many times he pleaded or swatted at her shins. And that when she closed her eyes and emerged from the water moments later, she felt like a celebrity.
I have never thought of my Nana as a particularly courageous woman. She is small and slight with a thin bun of black hair clipped at the base of her neck. Easily excited and worried, she is prone to gossip and tears. But somehow—because of necessity, or innocence, or some streak of daring that maybe hasn’t quite disappeared—my Nana agreed to be part of the show in exchange for weekly admission to the pool. It is from this leap that the rest of her story—which includes my mother’s and my own—falls. Like a string of pearls. Like a somersaulting clown into the chlorinated water of McCarren Park Pool.