Sunday, February 23, 2020

Recognized and Unnamed

I've been swimming at the local county pool since before my children were born. It's good exercise, but for lap swimmers it's rather solitary, which suits me fine. I want to go, get in my mile, and head to work. I use the time to let my mind wander as I go back and forth across the pool; I sort out problems or come up with new ideas to make the time seem more productive.

The other half of the pool not sectioned off into lanes by ropes is the social side. It's where the aqua-aerobics people meet in the mornings, and kids play in the afternoons. The people over there chat as they are led through different routines.

There is a core group of regulars at the pool in the morning. The aqua-aerobics classes are mostly women, and lap swimmers tend to be men, although there are obviously exceptions. Few people cross from one side to the other. Everyone recognizes who goes where.

Here is the thing I've been thinking about lately as I cross the pool 64 times in a row: When we think of people in our lives, we think of friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances. We don't think as often of the vast number of people who populate our days whom we recognize but can't even name.

There is the person with blue-green hair that usually rings me up at the pharmacy who is always patient with us, even though we are often confused. There is the man in the turban at the liquor store who sells me Everclear and tells me the cautionary tale every time about a local woman who drank herself to death with that stuff, and I remind him that I don't drink and the grain alcohol is for violin varnish work, but I don't think he believes me. There is the nice woman at the security desk at my daughter's school. There's the friendly person who remembers I like extra almonds with my salad at the drive through. There is the checkout guy at the co-op who never makes me feel guilty for not being a member there. There's our mailman whom we've made cookies for to thank him for coordinating with the carrier who delivers to the side entrance of our violin store building. And our FedEx guy who is always pleasant. The list feels endless.

The same is true at the pool. It's populated with a familiar cast of characters, and in the decades I've been going there, I can only give you two names. There is Carol, who is always friendly and kind. She uses a walker, and she makes lovely earrings that she gives away to other people at the pool, but I don't have pierced ears so I only admire them. I gave her a copy of my new novel the other day, simply because I like that there are generous people in the world and it was something I had that I could share. (I have no idea if she'll like it or thought that was weird, but it seemed like the thing to do in the moment.)

The other person is Tracy. (I think.) She was "Around the World Woman" in my head until at some point she either told me her name, or I heard someone else say her name. She was in a local news story when someone found out she tracks her distance in the pool with the goal of swimming the entire circumference of the earth. Apparently they showed on a map just how far she's gone. (I don't think I want to know how many miles I've swum by now.) Tracy is really nice, and good to be paired with if I have to share a lane since she swims at a similar pace.

Name-wise, I have no idea who anyone else is, although I recognize many of them. There is Flounder-Guy, who has a unique way of swimming on his side. There is Santa, who has a big white beard and wears a red suit. (He swims for exactly ten minutes and leaves.) There is Tomato-Lady (in the locker room she went on once about her bumper crop of tomatoes), who walks the shallow end of the pool and swims the deep end. There is an old man in the aqua-aerobics class who works out up against the lap lanes (along with the few other men in the group) with a giant colorful back tattoo of a coyote in a South-Western looking scene who I think of as Guatemalan-Insanity-Pepper-Guy based on a Simpson's episode voiced by Johnny Cash. There's Bald-Tattoo-Guy (he's a fast lap swimmer), and Sprint-Dude, who wears blue trunks and he goes very fast from one end to the other, but then waits forever at each end.

I recognize all the lifeguards and watch them change shifts about every twenty-five minutes or so. (Short-Guy-Who-Looks-Like-Seth-Rogan, Tiny-Blond-Woman, Friendly-Woman-With-A-Brown-Ponytail, Bored-Dude-In-A-Tank-Top, Other-Tiny-Blond-Woman) There's also the whole array of other staff who check the water, man the front desk, or hang out in the back room behind windows doing I'm not sure what. (Big-Beard-Man, Grey-Hoodie-Guy-With-Brown-Eyes, Blond-Woman-In-Jeans-Who-Looks-In-Charge, Piercing-Woman, Cap-Guy, Dreadlock-Man)

I've been thinking about this lately because Swim-Cap-Speedo-Guy is missing.

There's a little old man who shuffles carefully along the deck whom I've been swimming alongside as long as I've been going to the county pool. He has always seemed like he's 90. He wears a swim cap (which I discovered when he was walking to his car last year covers a surprising amount of hair) and a small black swimsuit. He made a joke once when I asked if I could share his lane about how that was going to be like chasing a rabbit he'd never catch, because I swim so much faster than he does. But he's consistent. He swims every weekday, and for about as long as I do, which is usually 45 minutes. We've chatted a few times. I don't really know him, but I like him. He nods when he sees me. I have no idea what, if any, nickname he has for me in his mind, since I'm one of the unnamed people of his world.

I took two months off from swimming recently: December (because December things were happening), and January (because the pool was closed for maintenance). When I hit the pool again at the beginning of February, no Swim-Cap-Speedo-Guy. We're now most of the way through the month, and still no Swim-Cap-Speedo-Guy.

Is he sick? Is he on vacation? Is he dead? I hope he's not dead. But how do you ask after someone who for you has no name? Whom would you ask?

Other people from the pool have gone over time. There was an older woman with a British accent who wore a yellow suit who used to be a regular at aqua-aerobics, and about two years ago I heard the others in the locker room saying she passed away. There was a woman with large glasses I liked very much who used to take yarn donations for charity projects she was crocheting. She used to tell me I could leave any scraps of yarn I had in a particular locker and she'd collect them when she was in. I haven't seen her in a long time.

When I think of the people in my life, it's amazing to realize how much of my day-to-day interactions are with these unnamed-not-quite-acquaintances. I think we need to be more conscious of how we play that role for many others, and it means more than we often assume. That wave to the crossing guard might be a bigger deal than you know. That smile in the elevator could tip someone's mood one way or the other for the rest of the day. I know my simple interactions at the pool in the morning influence the start I get off to. The people you recognize but are unnamed matter. You probably matter to some people who don't know your name.

I hope Swim-Cap-Speedo-Guy is okay. I wonder if he'd be surprised that I care.