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He had led a checkered life until the moment that defined his character. He hadn't aspired to fortune or fame and hadn't made any mark on family, friends or colleagues, much less the world. He used up all his "Get out of Jail Free" cards and scraped by.
Upon his death he would have vanished from memory, except for enduring Social Security records.
But a single event in his life, an accident of chance, earned him at least a transient's visitor's pass to heaven, although probably not sufficient to merit his matriculation in the University of Pearly Gates, after he questioned whether the pearls were natural.
"I could hardly swim, but that day I conquered the waves," he said.
He was on a beach in Malta with his wife and kids, (one of whom had built a jamming device, using stuff laying about in his dad's garage, to interfere with signals to other people's annoying boom boxes. This son was later to become a daredevil aerial stuntman).
There was a commotion.
A screaming man was struggling against a riptide. Despite all the witnesses, including some people who looked like they spent their whole lives cross-training, nobody bothered to get involved.
He rushed in, on automatic psychic pilot, and rescued the guy who flailed, resisted and cursed him out all the way back to shore. It was not a typical panic. The near drowning victim in a vanity-fueled paroxysm of false virility, was embarrassed and became belligerent.
Once he regained composure, he claimed it was a prank. He berated his rescuer. He reverted to showing off again.
The rescuer had no regrets. "I got to be a lifeguard! All my life I've done impersonations, pretending to be someone I wasn't and fooling nobody. Except for opera stars, the people I always admired the most are lifeguards. You can't fake it. I was a hero that day"
He had a way with words but action had a way with him.
Saving lives is the stock in trade of lifeguards. But unless they can find an unusual angle or it's a slow news day, the media don't cover routine resuscitation. Last summer, a bike rider collapsed at Atlantic Beach. He had no heartbeat and for 12 minutes, no detectable pulse. Today the guy could be a triathlete.
I knew a person who survived two interrogations by the Nazi Secret State Police, made a hair-raising escape across the German border, schemed her way onto a boat that was later torpedoed on its return voyage, and venerated a statue in New York Harbor that she mistook to be Eleanor Roosevelt.
Only to nearly drown at Orchard Beach a few weeks after her miraculous bolt for freedom. To her, the greater miracle was the lifeguard who saved her.
Lifeguards don't just soak up the sun and luxuriate carefree with their peers like in a Beach Boys song. It's nonstop high alert: dangerous currents, swimmers, sometimes stoned on booze or drugs, on bravado overload, occasional shark sightings, a myriad of other dangers that arise in an instant, and jacked-up risk of skin cancer from the beloved merciless sun.
The summer has just started and the predictable chronic shortage of lifeguards is already evident at beaches and city pools. Less than half of the needed 1,400 have been hired. Swimming is prohibited when none are on duty.
The city just jumped the hourly salary of new lifeguards from $16 to $19, after successful urging from its members union, DC37's Local 461, led by executive director, Henry Garrido. To ease the shortage, a new class of lifeguards will be assigned to the city's mini-pools. The qualifications have been fine-tuned without sacrificing standards for optimum performance in the water.
But the pay boost is good for this summer only. There will be two sunsets in one day in early September: this deal with the city and at dusk on Labor Day. The general public should pressure the Office of Labor Relations to make it permanent with periodic jumps thereafter.
It would be both cost-effective and life-affirming. A lifeguard should earn more than an ice-cream barker, no matter how hot the sand is. Nobody's asking for a replication of the $500,000 that some lifeguards in Los Angeles County made in 2021.
In December 2021, a 20-page Department of Investigation report report blasted the Department of Parks and Recreation for "failing to properly oversee the city's lifeguard program which it first flagged in the 1990s when it found mismanagement, union interference (not Local 461) and deficient record keeping,” according to Labor Press.
According to New York Magazine, there was a rooted, persistent and corrupt internal culture in the practices of Peter B. Stein, head of the supervisors, for decades.
It sounds like it’s not a union problem or a problem union, but rather the unchecked hubris of Mr. Stein. The bill of particulars of the wrongdoings attributed to him would make a great but improbable screenplay. Maybe it would be a suitable first project for a rusty writer after returning from the writers strike.
It appears he ran his organization like a private fiefdom.
According to the article, Stein was making more than the police commissioner 20 years ago, but that, in and of itself, is not wholly extravagant, since he was himself a full-time gym teacher and boss of the "largest lifeguard corps in The United States."
The article alleged that Stein depended “on a playbook of patronage, power brokering, and intimidation.” It went on to note that “his supervisors have rigged swim tests, shielded sexual predators, and falsified drowning reports.”
In 1994, a report from the office of then-Public Advocate Mark Green found that the lifeguard program was “swimming in mismanagement, negligence, secrecy, favoritism, conflicts, and even deception.”
That ancient history lingered. But it has no bearing on the rank-in-file lifeguards and their union and never did.
The shortage of lifeguards needs a long-term solution beyond the ad hoc, Band-Aid approach of 300 pennies an hour for 2023 only. More can be done.
No solution of any kind should ever be tried or even proposed without the full consent and endorsement of the lifeguards union.
Social media is a starter tool for tapping human resources. First-responders, such as firefighters, should be allowed to moonlight as lifeguards. Many of them already have skills and certifications. Unfortunately, double-dipping is forbidden by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1987.
How about recruiting from overseas, as is commonplace for camp counselors? The Department of Education, some years ago, enlisted teachers from Spain because of the shortage of Spanish teachers. And Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the Vengeance Rockets, was lapped up by the U.S. government because we needed his talents for our space program.
Tapping recent migrants might ease the shortage, provided they are given some temporary legal status to work and have been vetted to be sure they are not cartel lackeys or mules.
Budgetary constraints have long been the city's excuse for failing to act on essential staffing needs. There are so many administrative bureaucrats in city agencies who are the equivalent of empty calories. Lifeguards are essential nutrients of New York.
When I was a kid, I had fantasies of being a piano prodigy. I had little talent but a giant need to impress.
This was the era of long-playing records. At that time, anybody could rent a studio for an hour and make a recording. It wasn't too expensive. So I did that, and typed onto the spare label that was given, my name as soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven's Emperor Concerto.
I actually fooled a couple of classmates. I had such a need to believe in myself that I practically fell for my own ruse, which was more therapy than prank.
I could have fooled myself into thinking I was Vladimir Horowitz or the president of the U.S. But never that I was a lifeguard. Because true heroism cannot be faked or even imagined. It must be lived.
We need more of them.
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