In twenty odd years [some odder than others] of living in New York City, I took numerous part time jobs. Golly. The catalogue of which would be a good read on its own. In my early twenties, married to a woman with a young daughter from her first marriage, I needed to contribute some income. During this period, I studied acting, got some TV commercials, did plays off-off Broadway, and performed with a company that made short tours around the country. I pieced together a living. At one point I worked as a life guard. Twice. A young woman named Carol was in my acting class. She was tall, with luxurious long brown hair and had a kind of Judy Holliday quality, of being less than bright, but street smart and possessed of a personal dignity. As an actress, her work was limited, but cast in the right part she could be lovely, just being herself. (A lot of actors have made good careers understanding that.) At one point we worked on a scene together. In fact, it was from Born Yesterday, the role that won an Academy Award for Holliday, as Billie Dawn. Carol lived across the George Washington Bridge and I, in lower Manhattan. I had a car at the time, and to rehearse, I’d drive to her high rise in Fort Lee, NJ, with its panoramic view of the Hudson River. It was a nice place, nicer than what most struggling actors could afford. And, she dressed in expensive suburban clothes. Not especially hard working as an actress, Carol could get easily distracted by phone calls, or digress into conversation. One day she told me about her job as a receptionist at a midtown massage parlor. It was frequented by a lot of film and television executives, writers, and businessmen, and I think she thought one day she would be plucked from obscurity. It wasn’t cheap to be a member. Yearly dues were paid, and an entrance fee was required for every visit to the club. Massages were extra, and tips were expected. She asked me if I needed a job. I did, actually. What? The club had a pool, and the state required a life guard be on duty. I had been a life guard in high school and college. Was I Red Cross certified? Oh, yes.
Well, once upon a time I was, but my certification had expired. The massage parlor needed it to keep on file – in case anything came up during an inspection. I visited the Red Cross headquarters in Manhattan, not far from the massage parlor. Red Cross also had a pretty young receptionist. I told her my situation, that a job depended on my having the certificate, and could I simply have mine renewed. No. I would have to retake the life guard course and exam. I have a family to support, I told her, and I don’t have time to do the course. More than that, my grandmother was one of the first Red Cross volunteers during the Spanish-American War with Teddy Roosevelt. (That was true. We called her “Grandma Red Cross.”) Isn’t there a way to make an exception, I asked? She was so nice and seemed to want to help me. She played with papers on her desk. She said, let me go speak to someone, and walked away. When I glanced down, I saw she had fanned out blank life guard certificates. I looked up and the receptionist was talking to someone in the big open office. Her back was to me. I picked up a blank license and put it in my briefcase. She slowly returned and said she was sorry. Would I like a schedule of classes? Yes. I thanked her, sincerely, and left. I filled out my stolen certificate, handed it to Frankie and his wife, who ran the club, and got the job.
The club, in the basement of a Deco, door-manned, building on West 57th Street, had been a gymnasium at one time. Originally designed for residents to use for working out, rather than as a luxury suite of assignation, the ceilings were claustrophobically low. It had been remodeled in hues of silver and black, with a 1970’s eye for fern and chrome. The entrance opened into a wide lobby, with lots of potted plants, glass tables, and plush sofas, which no one used. Lights were kept dim throughout. The first thing you saw was Carol sitting behind a broad desk. As hostess she wore the uniform bikini that all the girls wore, distinguished by high heels and a long, sheer diaphanous cover. The bikinis were the same style, in various colors, and tied behind the back and on the sides for quick release. The girls rarely wore their tops. The gentlemen clientele wore only big white towels they would fling aside to take a dip. Off the reception area were two locker rooms, a hall with individual massage rooms, and the pool. Five feet at its deepest end, most adults could have stood up rather than drown. It was 30 yards long, 15 wide, and you could actually swim. A grouping of tables, chairs and chaise lounges were at the far end. Drinks were available, which Carol, or one of the girls, would serve. There was a rotating mirrored disco ball, which shared the area over the pool with a trapeze, the bar of which was a foot and a half above the water. A girl would often take refuge on it, and it was a good way to advertise. She had to hook her feet over the bar, and pull herself into a sitting position, swinging playfully like a naked moonlit damsel in an art nouveau poster. Sometimes, one of the fat-assed executives would attempt to mount the swing, struggling with bravado to hoist his corpulence. If they couldn’t make it, they’d just plop back into the pool.
They weren’t all fat. In the six months I worked at the club, I recall four who weren’t. The club had a small, but complete weight room just off the pool area from the days when the gym was an amenity, and it was still part of the lease agreement that it be available to residents. Only two continued a membership. I thought of them as Tweedledee and Tweedledum, short, pear-shaped, twin brothers in their early thirties, who wore matching Olympic-styled weightlifting onesies in different colors, like the bikinis. They would work out two or three nights a week. They exchanged pleasantries with the girls, but never with the clients. The twins took a liking to me, and they showed me body building magazines, and suggested that I take up lifting. In two or three years, they said, I could look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. The other two slim fellows were an actor who starred in a 60’s TV series called Twelve O’clock High, about a World War II bombing group, and the writer Gay Talese. (It turned out he was writing an expose, and our club was prominently featured. My wife called me one day, and started giving me hell. Did I know there was an article in New York Magazine about the club where I worked? She was furious with me. You’re in the article, she said, and I know what you’ve been doing. The thing is I hadn’t been doing anything. I even wore a Speedo and was never nude around the girls. I was perplexed, and tried to assure her I was innocent. Eventually, she started to laugh; she’d been having me on. I wasn’t mentioned. Nevertheless, the article was quite the talk of the town for a while, and Talese was not only a chronicler of the massage parlor phenom, but an open participant and a proprietor, as well.)
The girls all used one name, a made-up Continental name. Danielle, Alena, Shari, Veronica. My favorite was Luba, which she told me was Russian. Very tall, with thick black hair cut into a short bob. I was in the theater, and saw gorgeous actresses and dancers all the time. This was an assembly of astonishingly beautiful women, something akin to the original group of Victoria’s Secret models that would appear a decade later. Only these girls were up for grabs. I will say this, Hell Hath No Fury Like a Whore who didn’t get the tip she expected. When they would come back out after an appointment, you could see it, feel it, and you knew not to talk to them. They’d dive into the pool as if to scream under water. I didn’t hit on them. The last thing any of them wanted was sex for fun. I was the harmless side kick, who made a few lame jokes, share a smoke, someone they could make small talk to. All the better to see them, stand close, inhale. I was like the little match girl, looking in at all the sumptuousness, but couldn’t have any. I was all right with that. (You might say, “Well, you were married.” As if that ever stopped me.) I understood this was not my world and I wasn’t any part of it. I made it almost seem like a regular job, someone to chat with on a break. I was utilitarian, like the women who vacuumed or empted the trash in the massage rooms. Mine was the only dick the girls didn’t have to look at or deal with. (Each new girl would have to go through a “training” session with Frankie. Though, there wasn’t much of a turn over; the money was too good.) Danielle was a bony blond who chain smoked, and talked openly, and we would sometimes share a cab downtown after work. She invited me up to her loft one night, and I met her boyfriend. Funny, she didn’t seem to lose any of her edge, or become anything like carefree when she got home. I never saw any of the girls really relax, or be genuine, or let down their guard.
I said I’d been a life guard twice in New York. I don’t recall why I quit the club. I think, like the girls, I couldn’t stand the men. I left on good terms, I guess, as I got a recommendation to life guard at a real pool in the unreal location of a high floor in a condo on Manhattan’s East Side, directly across the street from one of the city’s top restaurants on First Avenue, called Maxwell’s Plum. (The New York Times gave it their highest score of four stars and wrote of it, “the flamboyant restaurant and singles bar, more than any place of its kind, symbolized two social revolutions of the 1960’s – sex and food.” I first met my wife’s family at a dinner there.)
This was a bit of play land for the couple of months of sticky hot summer heat in NYC. About twenty stories up the building narrowed, and the rectangle pool was outside, open on three sides, with fencing. The forth end butted up against the higher tower of the building. Access to the private pool was from the elevator, and it was always packed, because it was beautiful with it views of Manhattan to the North, South, and West toward Central Park. I never rescued anyone accept to clean up glass if they dropped a gin and tonic, and the sexual traffic was of the pedestrian type, mostly. I did meet a young woman who was put up in one of the condos by three businessmen. She had her own version of play land.
When the pool closed for the season, I hung up my Speedo. I think back to the young woman at the Red Cross office - “Always there in time of need…” She rescued me. “Trained individuals…ready to use their Red Cross skills to save lives.” In truth, I was a reluctant life guard. I didn’t like to get wet. But, I could have got a john out of the pool. “To alleviate human suffering...” Well, Grandma Red Cross, not sure. Maybe some of your gentleness helped me offer a shade of relief to some sad girls.