Where I Learned To Escape
From ages 19 to 22 I was a lifeguard at the same tiny motel pool each summer in upstate New York. When the owner asked if I wanted to work full-time (this was at the start of the second year) I tried to suppress my enthusiasm because it was the easiest and most relaxing job ever. I said not to hire anyone else, I would run the pool full-time. I worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week sitting under a blue umbrella at a plastic table with a tower of books. Occasionally, I interacted with the motel guests who viewed me the way inhabitants of Florida view snow.
Many of the guests were permanent residents. I learned this during my first year working, but in a minor way – my hours were limited and in the morning when it was cool and most were asleep. But working full-time, all day and every day, I quickly understood and witnessed that the motel was a place that drug addicts, thieves, divorced fathers, alcoholics, and general down-and-outters, called home. During my first week I overheard a story about a man being beaten via his head via his own car door via a group of men who were harassing the man’s girlfriend. The man left, the girlfriend stayed.
At first I found the atmosphere unnerving. One afternoon, a known heroin addict, stripped her clothes on a hundred dollar bet from two southern contractors and did two laps, backstroke. I discovered the icebox, on the first floor, was bottom-lined with beer. When the maids came out to smoke one morning they complained about not receiving a tip from a man who committed suicide that morning. They had just found him hanging in one of the rooms, his body dangling above several beer cans. Looking up from my book, I saw his body in a black bag hit with full sunshine taken out the window – rigor morits had set in and it was easier to go the window route then navigate the tight hallways of the motel. The contractors tried to hot-wire his truck. Once, a divorced father crashed his van at a nearby Burger King and I saw him come running up the parking lot limping and into the pool area where he confessed to me what had happened. Simply put, the place was fucked, and I foolishly thought I was living some needed Bukowski dream.
Soon after the man who crashed his van at the Burger King became my friend, spending each day drinking (he started at 10 a.m. every day) and telling me everything about his life, I quickly became a therapist at the pool. No longer did the full time residents of the motel choose to sit in the white plastic chairs outside their room and glance at the skinny kid reading. Now they moved from their rooms in packs and opened the gate. Hardly anyone swam. Instead, they used the pool as an outdoor gathering space to smoke and drink and become an outdoor and shirtless community. And they talked to me. Because I was shy, I said little back and they relished this. They asked about the books I was reading. I wanted to be a writer. They vented about their spouses and jobs. They told me horror stories. I became filled with their stories.
As the summer progressed into longer and hotter days, the stories began to drag me down and I escaped into my books more. I read Kafka’s The Castle twice and treated it like the weirdo bible that it is. I still love that book and go back to it. I want to live in that shifting maze, looking up at the unobtainable castle, and, as an adult, I realize we all are. I studied every sentence Hemingway wrote and took notes in the margins where the paper turned to pulp after I tested the chlorine. I started to write my own poems and short stories. When a man at the pool drew flight patterns in black marker all over his body (he claimed he was a pilot) I barely noticed, deep inside some wormhole of some stranger’s imagination and wanting to be buried there. I let my skin burn and I devoured books. As long as no one was swimming, I could disappear into other worlds for hours upon hours. Looking back, it’s something of a miracle that no one drowned that year.
My pulling away from the reality of the motel and its inhabitants peaked when, one night, a few of my friends wanted to buy beer and we couldn’t contact anyone of legal age. I suggested someone at the pool – the guy who crashed his van at the Burger King parking lot. At first my friends were skeptical, but soon they found it funny, a strange adventure, something we would all remember. It felt dangerous but also safe. So we drove to the motel.
My pool buddy agreed to buy us beer after we agreed to give him money for his own beer. Then he asked the three of us, my friend driving his parent’s Toyota Corolla, a question we hadn’t anticipated: “Where are you guys drinking?” We had no answer. He suggested we drink with him, and in half fear, half excitement, we went along with it and drove back to the motel where he showed us his room where the floor was covered in empty beer bottles and cans and the walls muralled with a child’s – his son or daughter’s – crayon drawings. By this time I had nicknamed the man “Morphine Man” because he had previously told me a story about working at a hospital and consuming massive amounts of liquid morphine. I’m not sure if what he said was true or not, but I believed him. It was another story I absorbed.
That night Morphine Man played “Four Non Blondes” out his motel room windows at a volume loud enough to get him a call from the manager. We sat and drank and Morphine Man told us stories. Several times, a cop car drove around the parking lot and Morphine Man said that there was so much crime the cops just took their chances, one of their runs will eventually end in an arrest. I wonder if my friends were as uneasy as I was because they looked it. Near the end of the night, I saw the hotel owner, an elderly German woman who drove a bright green Volkswagen Bug, pull several black bags from her trunk, aided by two hooded men.
For the remainder of that summer and the subsequent summers after, I read at an insatiable and insane level. This was my MFA. This is where I learned to escape reality and weave my own reality.