Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Monday, March 26, 2012

WALKING IN POOLS



I wonder if you’re familiar with Joe Dante’s 1978 movie Piranha.  In the opening scene a couple of young hikers are lost, walking at night in the mountains, and they discover a mysterious military test site that isn’t on their map.  So naturally it’s a case of “Let’s go inside and check it out.”  They climb over a fence, look around, and immediately find a swimming pool, “Hey far out. Let’s get wet.  Last one in is a rotten egg.”  Yep, the girl really says that.  They strip off, and in they go.  “Hey that’s not funny,” says the boy. “You bit me.  You actually bit me.”  But no the girl didn’t bite him of course, it was a piranha, and before long both young hikers have been devoured by our fishy friends.



Well, a lesson learned there, I’d say.  Since seeing that movie I’ve never climbed into a mysterious military test site at night, and I’ve certainly never plunged into a pool without first checking for piranhas.  In fact I can’t remember ever finding a swimming pool full of water while out walking, though I have encountered a few empty ones.


 A few years back I came across the one above, in upstate New York, somewhere near Kingston.  In fact the pool isn’t absolutely, completely empty: a certain amount of slimy rainwater had collected in the bottom, but even without a “pool closed” sign, and even without a fear of piranhas I don’t imagine many hikers were stripping off and leaping in.


Desert swimming pools, such as the one below, encountered while I was walking around the Salton Sea, are far more inviting, though completely dry, and quite a few people had obviously been there before me, though to express themselves via graffiti rather than swimming, it seemed.  I expect they did some skateboarding there too.



For one reason or another I’ve been rereading John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer.”  Of course it’s a story about swimming rather than walking, but as the hero, Neddy Merrill, swims his way home via a line of swimming pools, he inevitably does a certain amount of walking, at one point crossing a major highway.  “Had you gone for a Sunday afternoon ride that day you might have seen him, close to naked, standing on the shoulders of Route 424, waiting for a chance to cross … An old man tooling down the highway at fifteen miles an hour let him get to the middle of the road where there was a grass divider.  Here he was exposed to the ridicule of the northbound traffic, but after ten or fifteen minutes he was able to cross.”



I think “The Swimmer” is as perfect as any short story ever gets.  Nothing similar can be said about the movie version starring Burt Lancaster.  One of the worst scenes, not in the original story, but invented for the movie, has Neddy encounter a small boy who’s tending an empty pool. The boy's parents are away and the pool has been drained for his safety: he confesses he’s not much of a swimmer.  The lack of water threatens Neddy’s project but he and the boy mime a swim while walking across the bottom of pool.  It’s the first time the boy has managed to “swim” a length, and initially he’s delighted, but then he has his doubts.  He says, “I suppose it doesn’t count though because there’s no water.”
     “But for us there was,” Neddy insists. “You see, if you make believe hard that something is true, then it is true for you.”



Well, this is rubbish, isn’t it?  A lad who can’t tell the difference between walking and swimming is obviously going to find himself in serious trouble before very long.  “Oh, right, I’ll just swim along Hollywood Boulevard.  It will be true for me.”




But the fact is, there is something strangely enjoyable about walking across the bottom of an empty swimming pool.  I think it’s that sense of walking in a place that’s usually not available to walkers; not walking on water, but walking under water, walking where the water usually makes walking impossible.



As everybody now knows (I mean, it was a plotline on Seinfield for Pete’s sake) Cheever’s sexuality was a troublesome matter both to himself and to the people around him.  He liked men, but it seems he didn’t actively hate women.  His story “Goodbye, My Brother” concerns both the agonies of sticking to convenient illusions, and the equal agonies of truth-telling, and it has a wonderfully ambiguous final paragraph that concerns walking and water and much else besides.  The final words: “The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming -- Diana and Helen -- and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.”

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