I live a couple of minutes down the street from the Artillery Park Aquatic Centre. These places were called community centres back when I was growing up in England. A place where you got to know some of your neighbours and worked out some of your frustrations. I remember plenty of startled young dads standing around outside in their gold and black Oxford United scarves, bellies over their belts, while their kids thrashed around in an off-green pool, steam running like despair down the old windows.
I played in a table tennis league too and would bike one evening a week to the big hangar in Blackbird Leys for a practice or a match. We took our ping pong mighty seriously. On other nights my dad and I would book a badminton court. Parents leaned against the walls or gossiped outside on the dim, threadbare lawns. There was a grinding sort of poverty being inflicted on most of us back then by Margaret Thatcher and we all swore a lot, and nearly everyone smoked. My dad has a well-worn story about riding home from the British Leyland car factory on his bike every Friday, checking his back pocket repeatedly to make sure he hadn’t lost his pay cheque. My mum was at home counting the potatoes.
In some ways not an awful lot has changed, The world is still arranged pretty starkly into haves and have-nots. But when I head over to the gym in the morning I realize that I’ve got it better than most. Through some measure of good fortune and some mild personal industry I’ve swapped a mighty dreary set of hangouts for brighter, better ones. Progress is being made.
The Aquatic Centre here is a leveller of sorts - you don’t know whether the person next to you is a doctor or a student, whether they’re looking for harder abs or just somewhere to stay warm for an hour or two. That anonymity is a significant part of the charm. It doesn’t matter who you are so long as you treat your neighbour with respect. It’s a real part of why these places are so important: they are very good indeed at teaching us to how to behave around each other.
Which brings me to Louie.
See, Louie says that he doesn’t sweat. And so he’ll be damned if he’s going to wipe down any of the machines he uses on his circuit of the gym. I’ve asked him (nicely to start with) to respect the rest of us. Come on, Louie, none of us want to get sick, etc etc. When that didn’t work I offered in good faith some literature on how germs are spread. I’ve gestured at all the signs posted in the room, and finally made the point that this isn’t really an optional behaviour; if you want to run an indoor half mile, you should damn well wipe down the grab bar after your wolfish trot has come to a slobbering, breathy stop.
Louie, though, sees it differently. All the exercise has made him more than a bit lippy and I’m “a goddamn motherfucker”, he says, for calling him out. It could be a virus talking, I suppose, something he’s picked up from the pulldown that he wipes his nose with over and over, but I tend to think that Louie just doesn’t give a damn. He’s just out for himself.
Louie is, in other words, the Donald Trump of our local gym. The mouthy know-it-all with no time for science because he’s, like, way too smart for all that. It goes without saying that if he owned the joint none of us would be allowed in. Trouble is, this isn't what community centres are built for. They're intended to bring us together in common purpose and mutual respect. Even as an ill-mannered kid, my eyes tearing up in the hyper-chlorinated waters of the Temple Cowley Pool, I understood that. And in my book, and in these supposedly more enlightened times, to act so damn selfishly within their warm four walls is to prove yourself undeserving of the membership card.