What Can and Can’t be Learned From a Book

How learning to swim at 24 led Syam Palakurthy to first-hand lessons in gentrification.

Syam Palakurthy | Longreads | October 2016 | 13 minutes (3,188 words)

 

When I woke up on January 1st of 2012, I resolved not to drown. At 24 years old, I still lacked a crucial survival skill that most American children pick up before finishing elementary school.

It wasn’t for lack of opportunities. As a toddler my parents enrolled me in classes at a local YMCA; while I did develop an electromagnetic poolside grip, I did not successfully learn to swim. Later, I took a few lessons at a neighbor’s pool until those ended abruptly following rumors that another neighbor was threatening to alert the authorities to the unlicensed swimming business. In high school, during a harrowing water-treading test, my gym teacher hovered nervously over me as I flailed my gangly limbs to keep my face just above the water’s surface, and when I looked up I saw in his eyes my own terror reflected back. Knowing that he wouldn’t want to be responsible for a kid drowning in his gym class, I was certain he’d happily let me switch to the more terrestrial bowling/tennis/golf PE track that term. After high school I went to a college that had a somewhat absurd but rather practical requirement that in order to graduate, you had to be able to swim two pool lengths. I passed by back-floating across; no one seemed to mind that it took me nearly a half hour to “swim” a total of 50 yards.

Being in the water terrified me, evoking the kind of primal fear that our ancestors learned, generally, to heed. But I rarely told anyone; I was too embarrassed to admit I couldn’t swim. Attending an outdoorsy college with more riverside ropes to swing on and cliffs to jump off than I cared for meant that I often found myself in the water hoping and praying that I could thrash my way to some semblance of dry land before swallowing too much water–or before a fate worse than death to my idiotic college-addled brain: to have to be saved from drowning by a peer.

So on New Year’s Day that year, I promised myself one final chance to figure the damn thing out before resigning myself to a lifetime in fear of three quarters of the Earth’s surface.

My first autodidactic attempt ended abysmally. I plopped into the water of a nearby pool with a borrowed kickboard, ready to Rocky my way to a passable freestyle. As the momentum from the first push off the wall dissipated, my body slowed and my legs sank underneath me as if I were an astronaut unmoored in space. I kicked furiously, as hard as I could, which kept my legs from sinking but didn’t keep me moving forward. I slowed. I stopped. I went backwards (yes, it is possible to swim backwards). I gave up and, panting harder than a chainsmoker-post-marathon, lifted my torso out of the water to survey my progress: ten feet and no more, driven entirely by my initial push off the wall.

I needed a new game plan. After a Google search for “learn to swim for sinkers”, I found a blog that turned me onto a book and accompanying video by Total Immersion swimming guru Terry Laughlin. In terms of production values, both the book and the video suggest the pre-digital roots for “One Weird Trick to Lose Fat and End World Hunger.” The book’s illustrations bring to mind the sedate but doomed passengers on inflight safety cards. The video is straight out of Public Access TV. At one point, Terry—whose physique evokes beer buddy more than athlete—is shown in an endless swimming pool, and when a pedestrian momentarily enters the camera view it becomes clear that this part of the video involved unauthorized gonzo filmmaking in a crowded midwestern indoor mall of the kind that happens to have an endless swimming pool inside. But although his presentation underwhelms, the man and his method are pure pedagogical genius. Take it from a life-long sinker: Terry showed me the light of a passable freestyle swimming stroke. (Despite lacking a corporeal presence in my life, he became a first-name-basis character in conversations with my girlfriend and a poolside Ben Kenobi that I turned to in times of aquatic distress.)

When the materials arrived in the mail, I immediately inhaled the first eight chapters of the book, all devoted to Terry’s pontifications on why traditional swimming lessons are broken (yes, there actually are eight chapters and over 100 pages critiquing traditional swimming pedagogy before he gets to the actual instructional component; he’s got a lot to say on the subject). Next I took in the first set of practice exercises, supported by live-action examples in the video, which involves lying face up with head unmoving while the rest of the body rotates. I practiced on the rug of our living room, which felt strange, especially when my girlfriend walked in and saw me rolling around on the floor. But for this to work, I needed to trust Terry and his technique. I quickly mastered the first exercise in the dry comfort of my apartment . Now I needed an inexpensive pool, in order to try it out.

Enter Garfield Pool in the southeastern edge of the Mission District of San Francisco. My girlfriend and I had recently moved ten blocks over to escape the ever-increasing rents of Valencia Street and the western side of the Mission. We were repelled not only by the outrageous rents but by the impact they had on the neighborhood as well. When the cost of living becomes prohibitive for single-income families, and the only way for businesses to remain viable is to sell ultra-expensive drip coffee and bacon-topped-sriracha-infused muffins, a neighborhood stops feeling like a neighborhood and starts feeling like a set from a TV show about young wealthy urbanites who spend very little time at work and a lot of time in the types of cafes that might sell ultra-expensive drip coffee and bacon-topped-sriracha-infused muffins.

I craved a place where regular humans planted themselves—not just a stopover between one trendy spot and the next, but a place where residents grounded themselves indefinitely. I naively hoped the southeastern Mission would become my own socioeconomically diverse and multicultural version of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, a place where I got invited to backyard barbeques and bouncy-castle birthday parties, and neighbors took care of each other. I wanted to be a real member of the community, not a passerby. Fully aware of the irony, I wanted to get away from the transient kids who obsessed about artisanal foods and worked at tech startups, even though I myself was a transient kid with a love for small-batch chocolate and a job at a tech startup.

But in moving to the “realer” side of the neighborhood, I also desperately did not want to be a tourist in my own home. In his essay “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace wrote that to be a tourist “… is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you.” This negative connotation carries particular bite in the Mission District because the neighborhood has seemed to exist from its beginnings in a vacuum of permanent ongoing upheaval and displacement. It started when the colonizing Spaniards forced out the native Ohlone in the late 1700s. Following the 1849 Gold Rush and the Mexican-American war, the now-Mexican descendents of the Spanish were in turn pushed out by American settlers. In the wake of the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, Irish, German, and Italian immigrants settled the area after losing their homes in other parts of the city. After World War II, those families fled to the suburbs as Latin American immigrants began streaming in, first from Mexico, then from other parts of Central and South America. Since then, a gay and lesbian community, African-American families, and an artsy punk movement have all grown and then diminished, all before a background of predominant Latino influence. Now, particularly for those Missionites and their descendents who arrived during the latter half of the the 20th century, a general sense prevails of a neighborhood rapidly losing its character under the onslaught of new wealth.

Garfield Pool was a neighborhood institution, but one that was welcoming in such a way that I didn’t feel like an interloper. The pool was a warm 85 degrees with enough chlorine to cure anything short of syphilis. The same regulars consistently showed up, especially at 6 a.m., the time I preferred, when I could avoid crowded lanes: a Latina grandmother teaching her young granddaughter to swim (I definitely begrudged the girl for swimming faster than me); a late-thirties Latino man shadow-boxing under water; an elderly Asian woman with the most intense and intimidating snorkeling mask I’ve ever encountered; construction workers who went there just to use the shower in the morning. No one looked like me, a scrawny 24-year-old Indian-American from the suburbs—I rarely even saw another swimmer close to my age.

Terry’s swimming technique begins with the premise that most of us learn to swim the wrong way, with our arms and legs rather than with our entire bodies, and that for some body types, that traditional approach precludes swimming at all. To counter that, his technique adopts a neonatal approach to swimming, starting on one’s back, arms glued to sides, propulsion generated by a corkscrewing motion of the torso and feet-kicking, as the swimmer’s face stays pointing up at the ceiling, mouth and nose just above the surface of the water. I spent hours that way, often moving so slowly I couldn’t tell if my body had frozen mid-lap. Watching the ceiling at Garfield might have been the pool-equivalent of staring at clouds on a lazy Sunday afternoon, except instead of pleasant daydreams, my wandering mind drifted to questions such as: will the Superfund site-levels of chlorination mottle my skin in tie-dye colors before they find me at the bottom of the pool? Between thoughts about the ways I could die in the water, I got to know every crevice and imperfection of that ceiling, the white and aqua-green perpendicular beams that evoke the bland beauty of old factories and public works projects, the colored flags that graciously inform swimmers that they are approaching the pool’s edge. Not since childhood had I observed a ceiling with that level of scrutiny. In those hours on my back, its image was seared into my brain with the kind of fidelity that if my life were an M. Knight Shyamalan creation, the memory-photograph of the Garfield Pool ceiling would at the end somehow translate into a perfect map that allowed me to unexpectedly but conveniently save the world.

My trips to and from Garfield afforded me a chance to see the neighborhood in a new light—literally in some cases. In the early morning darkness on my way to Garfield, the ordinarily busy streets of the neighborhood lay quiet. The businesses on bustling 24th Street still had their gates shut; nearly all the homeless remained asleep next to and on top of their stuff; and I only crossed paths with those few yawning morning shadows who happened to have long commutes or jobs that started before the sun rose. I’d disappear into the time warp of my lap sessions in Garfield, and, on exiting the pool, experience the photo negative of my earlier walk. Light streamed onto cars starting to fill the streets, and backpacked children starting to fill the sidewalks. At first I viewed the walks to and from the pool as prosaic and unchanging from one day to the next. But as my trips accumulated, the nuances surfaced. On Tuesdays and Thursdays the traffic flows changed as neighborhood cars played musical chairs to avoid street cleaning tickets. A Volkswagen van, spray-painted with traditional Hindu scenes across its sides, popped up in different places along my walk, a hippie Where’s Waldo for me to try to locate. (Beyond its shifting position, I never once saw proof the old van actually functioned as a mode of transport.) I found inexplicable delight if I happened to pass by at the moment the two grocery stores across the street from each other simultaneously opened, their proprietors turning loud cranks to lift their security gates, each wordlessly indicating that they would never cede their prime grocery real estate to the other.

On another walk to Garfield Pool, I witnessed something far worse. At that point, my swimming, while still terrible by any standard, was decent enough to manage swimming during the busier afternoon lap-swimming hours without irritating every other swimmer in my lane. As I crossed the last street before the pool doors one late afternoon, I heard four loud pops in succession (gunshots? no, probably fireworks) causing me to whip around.

Fireworks in the Mission are hardly unusual. Stop by after a Giants World Series victory and you’ll have to make sure you don’t accidentally drive over a roman candle lit in the middle of the road. But it seemed odd to hear them with the sun still up. I watched two teenage-looking boys with bandanas over their faces run out of a house fifty feet behind me and down a side street. My mind immediately went to the most dramatic possibilities, but I chided myself for resorting to the obnoxious stereotypes of violence that so many non-Missionites held about the neighborhood. I told myself it must have been a teenage prank on a friend and kept walking toward the pool.

When I emerged from Garfield after my swim, police sirens drowned out the usual evening sounds. I asked a policeman what had happened, though I already knew: a shooting. I told him what I’d seen earlier in the evening. He took my number. I never heard back.

For days afterwards, my girlfriend and I checked local crime blogs for more information. We found out a few days later: despite being only a few blocks away from San Francisco General Hospital, one of the two victims, a 19-year-old kid, had died shortly after reaching the ER. If I had followed my first instinct, could I have done something? Could I have seen where the shooters went, or called an ambulance, which may have gotten to the scene more quickly? Had I acted like the naive bystanders who do nothing as awful events transpire in front of them? These questions bounced around in my head, but I didn’t want to broadcast what had happened—not to the brother who lived a ten-minute walk away, not to my parents, and not to my friends in the city. I told myself this was a one-off, the kind of terrible event that could happen in literally any place in the world. Defensively, I didn’t want to validate the fears of the San Franciscans who already had strong and negative impressions of the “other” side of the Mission, where I lived.

I continued to pass the house where the shooting took place every day on my walk to Garfield. A shrine popped up in the doorway. Small at first—just a few lonely flowers—it grew as the days passed. Pictures, letters, flowers refreshed regularly by family and friends. The victim went from being just a blurb in an unread crime blog to a human defined by a thousand other memories, the neighborhood reclaiming one of its own.

The same sense of community also emerged in more mundane ways. Before getting back home from the pool, I often stopped by the corner deli next door to grab a snack and say hello. I’d commiserate with one of the clerks, Jesus, about the joys and perils of owning a motorcycle in the city, and we’d also talk about his family in Guatemala. One morning I got a knock on our door from Omar, a co-owner, as he stalled a parking officer threatening me with a parking ticket for violating street cleaning hours. Being spared a parking ticket from the Galactic Empire that is the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority because of the thoughtfulness of a Middle Eastern co-owner of a small corner store in a historically Latino neighborhood led me to believe I’d actually found the diverse Mayberry I sought.

When I hit my New Year’s continuous-laps goal, I started to think of myself as a good swimmer. My daily routine began to trail off, but when I went I found a pensive joy in mindlessly watching the tiles at the bottom of Garfield Pool pass by. I had reached a Zen fluidity, no longer fighting the pool as I once had.

Or so I thought. I asked my girlfriend to video record me as I swam a couple of laps, partially so that I could observe my mistakes and work out small tweaks, but mostly to capture my exquisite form. But watching myself swim dashed that idea. It also wrecked my self-image as a swimmer. My legs dragged behind and under me while my torso and head tilted up to the water, as if my body were dithering over whether to swim or walk. When I turned my head up to breathe, my body over-rotated to the point that my stomach almost faced the ceiling. As my hands reentered the water at the top of a stroke, they plunged down rather than forward.

After witnessing the messy reality of my swimming, I faced a choice: double-down and commit to improving through (much) more work, or tally my completed resolution and return to all the other activities I’d put on hold in the process. I could commit or I could move on. I chose the latter.

By the time I felt I could stave off drowning, I also began to feel like a local. I had succumbed to the delusion that tricks so many tourists: that if I tried hard enough to blend in, the locals would stop noticing the tourist among them. They didn’t stop noticing, because they had a preternatural understanding that I lacked about my own role in the neighborhood. They knew, before I did, that we would move sooner rather than later, that the move would have no serious negative financial or emotional consequences for us, and that living in this neighborhood would just be a “phase” in our lives.

Eventually we did move, for my girlfriend to pursue a graduate school opportunity. Before we left I held out hope that we would return, maybe to the same apartment and definitely to the same neighborhood, with all the neighbors we’d come to know there to greet us on our homecoming. Days before we finally loaded up our U-Haul to leave, I met the tenant who would replace us, a friendly Big Tech Company employee who would pay 50% more than we paid each month; whoever eventually replaced him since probably pays another 50% more. Despite my wishes at the time, we will never move back to that neighborhood, for the simple reason that we can’t afford to. In the final karmic irony of our five-year vacation in the Mission, the gentrifiers were gentrified out.

* * *

Syam Palakurthy runs a small business helping people with chronic diseases.

Editor: Sari Botton