It is the time of the year when we all look so ugly. Every single imperfection about us emphasized by the grayish paleness of the skin and too much roundness about the face is apologizing for too long a winter yet again. Regardless of biological age, we all look like we are sixteen; that awkward stage, when everything about our bodies is unformed, undeveloped, some wild work in progress out of control waiting to finally bloom and become its best.
It is absolutely necessary to get distracted and animate the spirits, go and see pretty things, visit new, unexplored places, engage in new activities, connections and friendships, be seduced by the unknown, cross borders yet uncrossed.
Broadway in Brooklyn, almost perfectly aligned with Williamsburg Bridge is an example of a very special border. Both; the bridge and the street divide 2 totally different worlds; the world of hipsters North of it, and the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood; South of it. It is quite hard to think of two more unlikely next door neighbors. They really could not be further apart in terms of culture or lifestyle, yet they coexist in harmony each minding their own business along the lines of Broadway and the bridge, which, by means of unspoken mutual agreement became the marker of where the ‘Hipster Williamsburg’ ends, and the ‘Hasidic Williamsburg’ begins, or the other way round. They are divided by Broadway in the sense that when you cross it you see immediate change, but they remain connected by mutually respectful symbiotic relationship.
On hipster side everyone’s beautiful, stylish and 20 years old. Designer cafes selling designer coffee; $5 an Americano, hip young designer boutiques, trending bars, rooftops and clubs. On the other side everything is modest and raw. I can’t say that for a fact, but I would imagine it has not changed since the 40’s of the last century, or earlier.
I was first fascinated by this unlikely coexistence a few years ago; in 2011 or 2012 when, while being young, fabulous and broke I got a membership at the city’s cheapest gym; NYC Parks and Recreation Centers. For a yearly due of $127 at the time, I had access to whatever the facilities had to offer, which wasn’t much, but my location of preference; on Metropolitan avenue (about 7 blocks from Broadway), chosen due to relative proximity to where I lived that year, or month (wherever it was, I don’t even remember, because by now; I have lived everywhere really) had what I really needed; a swimming pool.
With my swimming skills not having progressed much since second grade which is when I took swimming classes for the first and the last time, and having had a slight trauma of a near drowning experience twice that same year (once on a lake and once in a pool; both times saved by my heroic father) I am quite a hopeless swimmer. Fearful, weak and un-adventurous. Never mastered freestyle, butterfly is in the realm of wildest dreams (alongside managing a decent serve or backhand at tennis, and drawing, to name just a few other talents that I displayed at an early age and somehow have maintained at entry-level fetal form ever since. But that’s a different story). I can, however pull off a floppy breast stroke, I can more or less float, and I sure do enjoy it.
At the time the Metropolitan Pool had different hours for different target groups depending mostly on age, gender, and procreative status. There was a certain time during the day dedicated to seniors, another dedicated to families, there was a co-ed swim for everyone, and there were certain hours reserved for women and girls only. I remember being a little confused and having trouble matching those categories with my schedule. I wanted to swim, but I wanted to follow the rules, and did not want to show up at a time that was meant for a target group I would not be considered a part of. The times which allowed everyone to swim, without any restrictions of gender, birth date or number of allowances claimed completely did not work with my free time. I sure wasn’t a senior, so that was out of the question. The only two time-slots that worked with my ‘profile’ and the time I had for potential swimming were ‘families’ and ‘women and girls’. I made some research and the conclusion was that to be considered a family you could not show up at the pool by yourself, you needed at least +1, and at least one of them had to be a child. You could not just bring your cousin, grandfather, or mother-in-law. These family ties did not qualify. So I eliminated that one also. I imagined showing up as the only childless person, and everyone giving me the ‘and what are YOU doing here’ look. After all you are not allowed to enter a city playground without a child. It is only reserved for caregivers or babysitters with actual babies or kids. To my knowledge if you do enter a playground childless you are breaking the law, or least of all you’ll be perceived as a potential pervert. So no; I did not want anyone to think I’m a pervert, I wanted to fit in, I wanted to execute my splashy floaty breast stroke with my people, so naturally I went with the ‘women and girls swim’.
It is 2011 or 2012. I am young fabulous and broke. I do have a bikini that I wear for summer beach trips to Coney Island and Far Rockaways, but I don’t really have a proper swim suit. I am very close to ordering one on Amazon for a sale price of $24.50, but it hasn’t happened quite yet. I put on my summer two piece under eleven layers of clothing, because it’s an exceptionally cold November or March and I go swimming.
Ladies’ locker room. I mind my own business. I mind my own mind. I am in my own mind. It is an exceptionally cold November or March, and I am most likely sad (because what is there to be happy about in an exceptionally cold November or March). So I mind my own mind. I most likely have something on it. I get rid of my eleven layers. I pay attention to no one. I get ready; swimming cap, swimming goggles, flip-flops and all, and off I go.
I am looked at. I am naked. Not literally; I am wearing a bikini, but everything else is bare. My arms, my shoulders, my legs, my stomach. My long hair, before I pull it all up and put on the blue rubber swimming cap. When I enter I stir a controversy for a split second. Just for a breath all eyes turn to me. Not in disgust. Not in adversity. In discreet curiosity. Of my bare skin. I am swimming with all the other women. Young and old. Little girls, teenage girls. Mothers, grandmothers. All of them are wearing dresses. Dresses in the pool. When they get in the dresses get puffy with air against the surface of the water and open up like parasols. And a minute later; there they are all floating like a fantastic bloom of jellyfish in slow motion. Jellyfish in stripes and polka dots, floral jellyfish, solid jellyfish of all colors. Marc Chagall could have painted them. Not a single stray hair sticking out from underneath the swimming caps of the married women. Few stray hairs flying away here and there in the water like floating halos around the heads of the little ones. I am curious and fascinated. They are curious and fascinated. Especially the little ones. We are all swimming together, all learning something new today, maybe something unheard of up until this very moment.
When I head back to the changing room I take off the swimming cap and everything else and shower. Again; I am the only one more naked then everybody else. I get dressed quickly (it is an exceptionally cold November or March, and there’s not much heat in the changing room of NY’s cheapest gym) and fully clothed I start combing and blow drying my long hair. And this is the most naked I have ever felt in my entire life. Not any moment of the closest intimacy in full nudity and bright daylight, has ever made me feel more naked. At this point the little ones in the changing room can’t hide the excitement and confusion. Their faces turn to me, eyes wide open, almost hypnotized, showing a mix of disbelief and bewilderment. I think some of them are witnessing anything like this for the first time in their lives. What they see is disturbing and mesmerizing. I am the cause of this. I am the one who’s different. It does not make me feel uncomfortable. I don’t want to be a cause of unease for anyone either, so I just smile at them in the mirror and keep drying my hair. In the meantime mothers and grandmothers are changing wet dresses to dry ones behind changing room doors and curtains, and privately switching swimming caps into perfectly dry, perfectly styled wigs. It is a very intimate moment of exploring, learning and understanding for me and for them. I feel especially connected with the little ones, because they are the ones who are experiencing this for the first time in their lives, just like me. They whisper among themselves, smile back at me in the mirror and I know there will be questions after they get home with their mothers, grandmothers and sisters this evening.
In Hasidic Judaism the slightest form of public nudity is a sin. Nudity understood not as showing too much, but as showing any bare skin at all. That is why the women stay covered neck to toes even in scorching heat of New York summers. Opaque stockings, skirts covering the knees, long sleeves. Dresses in the swimming pool. A woman’s uncovered hair is equivalent to physical nudity, so it is also sinful. That is why, when they get married their heads are shaved and covered with wigs or turbans. Did I break the nudity taboo for some of these girls? Maybe. Did their mothers hate me for inspiring some uneasy questions? I don’t think so.
There’s nothing exceptional or especially revealing about swimming in a pool with a group of women, showering with them in a common gym shower, or changing to dry clothes and drying your hair with them, and yet… everything about it is exceptional. All of these activities are profoundly intimate if you think about it, and if you observe someone enjoy their swim in a public pool and dry their hair after in the manner that represents their culture, it is an intimate exchange of cultural codes and meanings. There is the simple, culturally conditioned, yet very personal behavior, like the way you enjoy your swim in a public pool and there is the ‘why?’ and there is the answer. Then there is understanding, and then there is respect. The more we know about each other the closer we become.
Fast forward. I am bare on Broadway again. But different. I am nude on the inside under a heavy winter coat on an exceptionally cold evening of a relatively warm March 2016. I am naked on the inside; beneath layers and layers of clothes and it feels so pleasant. I’m totally naked, there’s no fear or shame left. I have asked and answered so many ‘whys’, ‘ifs’ and ‘whats’, understood and processed so much and became so much closer to myself and everyone I’ve ever met.
Who is running now? Where and why? What does it mean when you don’t appreciate me? Don’t acknowledge my needs, my talents, my greatness, what does it mean for me, what does it do to me? And why doesn’t it do absolutely anything? Why am I getting so high on me? Is one’s place in heaven worth giving up for a certain kind of kisses? And if so; why are you so afraid? What do I want from this very here and now? And why am I not afraid to say it out loud? How can I laugh till I hyperventilate again, the way we did with A. in sophomore year in college before anyone ever cheated or died? How can I be dancing the way one can only dance after they’ve decided that nothing can ever hurt them anymore, and that from now on everything is going to be just fine? How and why am I so happy and so alive?
I am so happy I could be the parasol woman. I am the fantastic jelly fish woman and Marc Chagall painted me. I am floating in the air, I cross the border and fly over to South side. It is totally unchanged. Quiet and peaceful, same old buildings with bars in the windows for protection, with simple, modest store fronts, solid metal balconies where children play safely during long summer days like quiet domesticated birds in a cage. I cross the border again, fly over to North side. And a moment later; I disappear and I am no more.