It paid a buck over minimum wage. It was not the allure of a sun-drenched suburban summer that attracted to me to lifeguarding. It was only the money. The line between childhood and adulthood is blurry, but certainly a milestone during the transition is when you first learn how little a dollar is really worth. I realized this when my parents told me that I would be getting a job that summer, the one before my junior year of high school.
I was a swimmer in high school, and that sport was a funnel to the lifeguarding profession—at least half of my teammates guarded at various clubs and pools in the area. Compared to other summer jobs, there’s little labor and good pay, and, as long as you’re a competent swimmer, you’re basically guaranteed to find work somewhere.
So I went through the training sessions and certification programs, and then one day in May, I arrived for my first day of work.
The sign above the gates read: “Aspetuck Country Club.” Aspetuck was not the name of the town, but rather of an old village that used to exist in southwestern Connecticut. Its borders are indeterminate, but they extend throughout a number of towns. These boundaries are symbolic; the village had ceased to exist several centuries ago. The one thing that stuck was the name—“Aspetuck Wildcats,” and “Aspetuck Dry Cleaners,” and so on.
The name has a certain crisp, British tinge, which is perhaps part of its allure. The country club, after all, strives for the sort of effortless elegance that Americans associate with the English countryside. And what better way to convey that than a large and ornate sign above large and ornate wooden gates?
I passed through them and onto the pool deck, which I still remember as blindingly white. The sun was shining, and the sky was glassy, and the cement was reflective.
I had few expectations, I suppose, never having been to a country club before. I had grown up in a middle class household in Los Angeles, and had only lived in Connecticut for a few years. The wealthier environs were all new to me.
I had vaguely expected there to be waiters at the club, but there was just an affable kitchen staff. I had expected crisp linens and disdainful members, but the patrons seemed friendly enough, and they brought their own towels. The reputation of country clubs as havens of snobbishness was, like most reputations, true to some extent, but largely irrelevant.
All the same, there was a certain culture to the place. The town where the country club was located, and where I lived, was an odd mixture of old money and liberalism, to which Aspetuck largely adhered. It may have been slightly further right, but that came across mostly in small snatches of overheard conversations about economics and the like. Some would, for example, fault Obama’s economic policy (the word “socialism” was never uttered, only implied) for the drop in membership.
The culture, though, was separate from politics. An aura of privilege that surrounded the place. There was no embarrassment about it, largely because there was little self-consciousness about it. Success was taken for granted.
Almost all of the conversations I had during my three summers at Aspetuck were cheerful, but the patrons who I talked with were never afraid to remind me that they were exactly that: patrons.
One day, not long after graduation, I was at Aspetuck, lifeguarding. I remember it was early morning, when the pool was still quiet. The only sounds were the chirps of the sprinklers, and the distant hum of the filter. I was making my way around the deck, ensuring that everything was spotless, when one woman spoke to me.
“You’re Elliott, aren’t you?” she asked. I had spoken at graduation, and a number of the members had children in the school, so some of them recognized me. I was glad, too, that she ignored the nametag, where her answer was already written in green cursive.
She asked me about my summer plans, my college plans, and so on. And then she asked if I could bring her some coffee from the kitchen. It’s not that it was an uncommon request—in fact, it was a very common one, even though my job description did not include waiting on people.
I brought her the drink, and she thanked me, and we went on about our days, she lounging by the pool and reading a magazine, and I sitting in the guard chair, watching.
Social interactions like these are invariably awkward (at least for me). Do I say “Princeton” or “a college in New Jersey?” Do I talk about working at the club? Do I ask about her summer plans? I am, for the most part, fine with the awkwardness, which seems to be just part of life. But I was jarred by the suddenness with which our roles switched—one minute we were on equal ground, just acquaintances, and the next I was waiting on her.
Not only that—she didn’t seem to think the shift odd. She wasn’t even embarrassed about asking, which seemed so strange to me. I got embarrassed whenever I saw anyone who served me. When I saw janitors in the hallway, it seemed unfair that I got to go to school, while they had to clean up my mess. But the member was not at all apologetic. It seems petty now, but I was insulted. And then I wondered why I cared in the first place.
Employee-customer relationships are well defined for most jobs. At most, a little small talk is required. But it was different for me. I spent three summers with the same customers, day in and day out. I got to know them from quick poolside conversations. I gave their children swim lessons, saw them progress from crying in the shallow end to doing flips off the diving board. But those things earned me nothing, apart from my paycheck.
I could say that none of the members wanted to befriend me. It seems plausible—it’s easier to be served by someone you don’t know than one you do. And I expect this was the case for many members. I simply wasn’t worth the trouble. They didn’t want to get to know me, which was fine, because I had no need to know them.
But there were others, who I talked with more often, who let me play with their kids, who invited me over to babysit. Despite the fact that I got to know these people, they felt no compunctions about reverting to the employee-customer relationship. And, to be fair, I felt none about getting paid. There was always an implicit understanding of the basis of our friendship. It’s hard not to think now that all of my niceties were done in hopes of a better tip, which makes them non-niceties to begin with. But it was summer, and I needed the money.
In southwest Connecticut, the middle of summer is not only hot, but also incredibly humid. Water fills the air, and you can never quite tell if the moisture on your skin is sweat or just condensation. It’s one of my favorite times of the year. It stays light out until nine, and my friends and I would spend our evenings at the beach, or driving around with the windows rolled down and the breeze roaring in.
But those were the evenings. My mornings and afternoons were spent at the club, which was always crowded with families desperate to leave their hot and stifling homes for the hot and stifling club. At least the latter had a pool.
And on one such crowded afternoon, I was on duty near the shallow end. Lifeguarding, though sedentary, requires a keen eye and unwavering focus. The thing that lifeguards sometimes do, when they twirl their whistles around their fingers, is not the product of abject boredom, but rather of intense concentration, like a physical version of a Zen mantra.
I was watching a horde of kids frolic in the pool. Some were playing on the stairs, some were doggy paddling in circles, some were chatting by the lane lines. To my left, a member of the club came up, and asked if I could watch his child for a moment. He pointed to one boy, by the steps, deeply involved in the water whooshing through his fingers.
“I’ll do my best to keep an eye on him,” I responded. “But there’s a lot of other kids that I have to watch over too.”
“I’ll only be gone for a second,” he promised me.
“That’s fine. I’ll watch him, but I can’t stop watching everyone else.”
At this point, he started to get upset. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I do remember the words “fucking ridiculous.” As in, “it’s fucking ridiculous that you won’t babysit my child for me.” He left, off to wherever he needed to be. His son, meanwhile, was still discovering fluid dynamics in the shallow end, as absorbed in an activity as he’d ever been in his life.
The experience left a bad taste in my mouth. I couldn’t place it until much later, but I realized that it was because a father was acting like a petty, spoiled child, in front of his own child. I rarely saw adults acting like this at the club, but, I think, that was because they rarely didn’t get whatever they wanted. That their wishes would be fulfilled was taken for granted. If this is how parents acted, how would their children act?
At Aspetuck, children grew up with privilege. They swam in a large, crystal blue pool, with a special diving well on one end. They ran around on freshly manicured grass. They spent their afternoons playing tennis or golf, if they had developed the motor skills for it. They had access to their parents’ account, with which they could “purchase” food from the kitchen—my suspicion is that most of the children were unaware of how much their burger or ice cream cost.
This is not to say that they were all spoiled brats (although I ran across my fair share of them). Many of them were wonderful kids—sweet and inquisitive and joyful. But they were all living a life of luxury and comfort, and I could not help but wonder what that meant for them. Some of them would turn out fine, and some would be insufferable. I can’t say if growing up in a country club will make one more spoiled, but it certainly doesn’t help.
Kids from my school were members at Aspetuck. Some days, I would be working when someone I knew, someone my age, would walk in. We would chat for a minute, and then go on about our ways. But no kids I knew from school, even these who I had never spoken to outside of Aspetuck, ever asked me to wait on them. They were aware, to some extent, of the boundaries of their privilege. They could have asked me for something from the kitchen, but they never would.
They understand that there is a boundary to privilege, some line that it feels wrong to cross. I am that line. But I’m the exception, not the rule. They won’t know any of the other employees who serve them. And this makes it easy to forget that the person on the other side of the nametag is just that—a person.
Sometimes, especially on those days where I saw kids I knew, I wondered how much of a person I was at my job. The actual lifeguarding, though it required concentration, always seemed to be a little mindless. What’s more, while I was on the chair, I was separated from the patrons below. I was an outside observer—I saw everything, but nobody saw me.
And there was a certain cruel irony to the job. I got to spend my summer by the pool, just not in the way that I might have wanted. Meanwhile, there were other kids, who could just as easily have been me, enjoying their summers of leisure.
I wondered if they pitied me. I wondered if they cared in the first place. I wondered if I cared. It was always easy to revert to the money mentality—I was just there for the paycheck, after all. It was easy to say to myself “they’re a bunch of rich spoiled assholes, so I might as well take their money.”
But the truth was more complicated about that. I know so, because I still cared about them, and I couldn’t help but think that they cared about me, at least a little. I think some of the members, including some of the other kids, understood that I was more than just an employee. One day, towards the end of the summer before my freshman year at college, I was talking to a mother of someone in my grade. She asked me how I liked the job, and I told her that I didn’t mind it.
“Hang in there,” she told me. “College is right around the corner.”
I was grateful that she pitied me. But I pitied her too. I pitied the children who would grow up and get everything they ever wanted, who would buy their way into college with tutors and consultants, who would get jobs that pay well. They would have a family of their own, who would be members of a country club. They would pay for a maid to clean their cavernous homes, and they would joke with waiters when they went out to dinner, and they would get angry at salesmen over the phone. They would forget that they were surrounded by other people, with their own lives. I pitied Aspetuck.
I wanted to hate country clubs. I wanted to hate Aspetuck. Many days, I did. The job seems especially prone to existential worries—long hours of sitting, left alone with your thoughts. But there was some good that came from it too. I was in an environment where who I was and what I had achieved counted for nothing. This is fine. This is good. Spending time at a place where my personhood was ignored was good for me—it forced me to remember my personhood.
My last day at Aspetuck was shortly before I left for college. I didn’t have many goodbyes to say. I walked out of the wooden gates, and crossed the parking lot towards the employee lot, a small and unpaved patch of dirt. I got into my car and drove off, happy to be done, happy to be gone.