SI Vault
Bruce Newman
February 14, 1994
Seduced by the sparkle of those turquoise waters, America has fallen head over heels in love with the swimming pool
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February 14, 1994

Off The Deep End

Seduced by the sparkle of those turquoise waters, America has fallen head over heels in love with the swimming pool

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I cover the waterfront.

Kidney-shaped, chlorinated, gin clear—it's all in the note-hook. Artesian spring, hot sulfur spring—water is my beat. Filtered, heated, treated, water turquoised to within an inch of its life, you read about it here first. Water covers three quarters of the earth's surface and all of my brain. This is the swimsuit issue. These are the swimming pools. I am the pool boy.

Edgeless pools, endless pools, infinity pools—I have the pruned skin, the blue lips. Natural pools, fake natural pools, football pools, car pools, secretarial pools, Ed Kranepool. I have been there. I have swum. I wear my goggles tight.

I am here to blow the lid off the Jacuzzi. Do you want to talk about the difference between a spa and a Jacuzzi? A Jacuzzi and a hot tub? Get a life. You press a button, you get bubbles. There is no difference. The pool boy knows these things.

Just as dog owners often look like their pets, most pool people have a shallow end and a deep end. To them, there is a spiritual connection between the walled-off, $100,000 chlorinated hole in their backyard and our last big kick turn in the evolutionary gene pool. "We're all born from water," points out Hollywood's most famous swimmer, Esther Williams, in her foreword to Kelly Klein's 1992 book, Pools. "What could be more natural than to swim all your life in that wonderful weightless medium." The pool boy would like to know how many birthday parties for sticky, Kool-Aid-engorged six-year-olds Esther Williams ever floated through in "that wonderful weightless medium."

To Williams, we are all tadpoles who have just wriggled out of the primordial soup, searching for a chaise longue that is facing the sun. Sixty-five percent of the human body is made up of water (5% is suntan lotion, and the remaining 30% is believed to be licorice and nachos), which may account for why we enjoy pools so much. We're in our own element, after all.

The idea of a swimming pool in every yard was simply a postwar refinement of Herbert Hoover's 1928 campaign promise of a chicken in every pot, though the pool construction boom that took place in the 1950s would have been unthinkable without the introduction of inexpensive, sprayable concrete. "Then it became socially correct to have a pool, and everybody had to do it; a house was not fully potentialized unless there was a pool," says Bob Easton, a Santa Barbara. Calif., architect. "If you didn't have one, it meant you weren't with it. But on a deeper level the boom happened because people have always instinctively wanted to live next to water."

Hotel pools, motel pools, we go down to the sea but never leave the swimming pool. The beach is too sandy, too equipment-intensive, there's too damn much salt in the water and not enough on the margaritas. ("Oh, pool boy. More margaritas!")

YMCA, YWCA, why, oh, why are swimming pools almost always hidden away in people's backyards? What's going on back there that they don't want us to see? "Being in the water is a great moment of privacy," explains Janice Bagdasarian, a writer-producer who has a 65-foot "natural" pool in her yard. "If you have to wave at passing buses, that's lost." The electronic gate that seals off the Bagdasarians' eight-acre mountainview estate near Santa Barbara tends to hold the bus traffic down to, well, none. And still they put their pool in the backyard.

From the air, the slanting rays of Southern California's winter sun seem to race from one backyard to the next, the light collecting in the swimming pools in a series of small explosions, like flashbulbs popping. The turquoise kidneys and the blue-green hearts form a kind of magnetic resonance image of Los Angeles: a many-chambered nautilus of pools in the prosperous precincts of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, while in South Central L.A.—where municipal pools must often close for lack of funds—the organs appear blackened and necrotic.

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