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The Deep End

At 13, George Romero is beginning to navigate a world of romance, danger and possibility. The Wheaton-Glenmont Pool is a good place to start

By Wells Tower
Sunday, September 5, 2004; Page W16

This man, apparently, is drowning. He's a large fellow, sagging listlessly a few feet below the surface of the water, which, in the glare of the morning sun, is the pure hue of old Coke-bottle glass. A girl about one-third the victim's size swims over and starts trying to hitch an oblong lifesaving cushion around his trunk, but somehow it is not working. The seconds tick away. Then the victim gets impatient, gives a quick, churning kick, breaches and sighs a spray of pool water from his lips. "Here," he says to the girl, gliding into a more manageable posture, "You got to . . ." She slips the cushion under him. "I'm a lifeguard," the girl says. "I'm here to help you." The rescue more or less achieved, the lifeguard swims back to the side of the pool. The victim, who is a lifeguard himself, takes a breath and sinks again, awaiting his next savior, who leaps from a line of teenage lifeguards, queued up in drill formation beside the pool.

Ryan White, manager of the public pool serving the suburban communities of Glenmont and Wheaton, is looking on. Ryan is having the guards practice rescues this morning because this evening the pool is having a get-together for local teens, who, all of this careful preparation seems to indicate, might have an exceptional knack for drowning. "On average," Ryan says, "you've got about a minute after someone starts to drown before they sink to the bottom."

George Romero tries to chat with Ana Chicas at the Wheaton-Glenmont Pool. (Photograph by Greg Miller)

A drowned patron is, of course, chief among a pool manager's worries, though there are lots of other hazards, mishaps and disturbances of the peace Ryan strives constantly to forestall: sunstroke, fistfights, loudly uttered curse words, scraped knees or cracked teeth of incautious people who run and trip on the concrete, electrocution via lightning bolt, spinal injuries, lost children, broken glass, unhygienic lapses in the pool's chlorine concentration, and bees, which today, are infesting the water slide tower and, as the day wears on, wind up stinging six of the patrons in Ryan's charge.

Ryan is 23 years old, about 6-foot-5, with a muscular, swimmer's build, a healthy mane of sun-lightened hair and a stern, capable demeanor. Late afternoon, Ryan stands in the guardhouse. His veneer of calm authority is showing signs of strain. "I'm irritated on many levels, for lots of reasons," he says to a couple of lifeguards. "I really want this to go smoothly tonight, or" -- he points at his temple -- "hemorrhages." But, for now, he has other problems. Someone has just fouled the leisure pool.

"It wasn't diarrhea, was it?" Ryan asks one of the guards. A brief, unappetizing conversation about the mishap's specifics ensues, and then, armed with a form reading "Fecal Contamination Clean Up Procedures," Ryan ducks out of the guardhouse. The pool in question has been cleared, but Ryan needs to go down to the pump room to crank the chlorine level up to E. coli-annihilating intensity and let the filter run for a couple of hours before the pool can be reopened.

This is Ryan's third year as manager of the Wheaton-Glenmont Pool, and, if all goes well, it will also be his last. Ryan graduated from the University of Maryland in the spring, and he's hoping that when the pool closes after Labor Day, he'll be able to start a career with the Secret Service or the CIA, which he seems to imagine will be a less trying line of work than managing a public pool. "When I got into this, I knew it was gonna be bad," he says, walking briskly past the contaminated pool. He breaks off midsentence, eyeing a brown bit of something in the water. He goes over and investigates what turns out to be a stone. "But there are so many things about it I didn't anticipate, dealing with kids, dealing with customers . . . You go home at the end of the day, and you're tired and sunburned, and you're so exhausted you can't talk to anyone, and it's the happiest you've ever been in your life. You're swearing up and down, 'I hate this job,' but I still come back, so I must like it, I guess."

Back in the guardhouse, a full-lipped, soft-bodied 13-year-old named George Romero is lying on the black Naugahyde daybed, suffering, he says, from dehydration. Ryan goes to the freezer and hands George a packet of gelid blue first aid slush to press to his head. George is one of the local boys who come to the pool every day, and Ryan knows him well -- a little too well, sometimes. Aside from George's medical condition, Ryan has just had a complaint that George flipped someone the bird.

"George, they told me you flicked off some woman," Ryan says.

George's eyebrows rise suddenly. "What woman?" he asks with vigorous sincerity. "I didn't do anything."

"George, I heard it was you on several accounts," Ryan says. "You know I'll be a lot less [ticked] off if you just tell the truth."

George sits up and nervously palpates the packet of slush. "What did I do?" he says, imploringly.

"I told you. Put that on your head," Ryan says, pointing to the packet.

George pauses. He knits his brow. "I showed her the finger?" He holds up his hand. He has a beige rubber band looped across the tip of his middle finger. He flexes his finger against the tension of the rubber band, as if to imply that if someone thought he'd given her the bird, she'd probably just gotten the wrong idea about the new finger exercise he was trying out.

"Yeah," Ryan says. "You showed her the finger."

Expelling troublesome patrons is a big part of Ryan's job. He has ejected so many people from the pool that he sometimes describes himself as "one of the most hated guys in Wheaton." But he does not eject George Romero today. "George is a good kid -- you want to help him out," Ryan says later. "But then he does things like this."

Anyway, Ryan's got other fires in need of putting out. Another lifeguard comes over, looking vexed. "Ryan! There's a little girl in the pool who doesn't have a bathing suit on, and she won't get out."

"Ryan!" And so on until evening, an unspooling chain of miniature crises, all needing Ryan's particular attention. As Ryan does his circuit, the sunset reddens and dims. "Teen night" staffers arrive, and so does a full complement of police, uniformed officers and also plainclothes officers with bulky Kevlar vests under their shirts. It's a little disquieting -- the avidity of the security detail; the visible, if holstered, firearms; the portent of pandemonium hanging thickly in the air. The line of people in the parking lot lengthens. Inside the fence, staffers, police and lifeguards hurriedly attend to last details, radiating the tense alertness of a ship's crew battening down for heavy weather.

BEFORE THE WHEATON-GLENMONT POOL WAS BUILT IN 1968, there were no municipal swimming pools in Montgomery County. In his forthcoming book, Contested Waters: A History of Swimming Pools in America, historian Jeff Wiltse cites a 1959 survey by the Washington Evening Star that found that in the 10 years following the desegregation of public pools, attendance at the District's eight public pools plunged from 416,000 visits in 1948 to fewer than half as many in 1958, "and seven of the eight pools," Wiltse writes, "were used 'predominantly' by blacks. Where had all the white swimmers gone?"

A lot of them had gone to the suburbs, to places such as Wheaton. The new suburbanites still went swimming, but in privately financed "community" pools -- built by developers to entice home buyers to their freshly manufactured neighborhoods -- not in public pools built on the county's dime. The community pools were popular among those suburban whites who had preferred the days of racially segregated pools; community pools, which operated as private clubs, gave members the right to restrict membership rolls, which tended to exclude their black neighbors, Wiltse writes.

In 1968, when Harry C. Press, an African American radiologist at Howard University Medical Center who lived in Wheaton, applied to the Wheaton Haven community pool, the pool's board rejected him, Wiltse writes, "and then passed a bylaw restricting membership to whites." A few months later, an African American woman named Grace Rosner tried to visit the pool, as a guest of white members Murray and Rosalind Tillman. Rosner was admitted, though the next day the association's board rejiggered the bylaws essentially to prohibit white members from bringing black guests to the pool. In a lawsuit that eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, Rosner, and the Press and Tillman families (with the support of Montgomery County), won a 1973 decision forcing Wheaton Haven to open its doors to African Americans.

By then, however, swimmers of all ethnicities were welcome at the new public swimming pool that the county had built five years earlier next to Wheaton High School. The opening of the county's first integrated, government-financed pool signaled the demise of the private community pool trend and presaged the changing cultural landscape of Wheaton itself. Through the '70s and '80s, Wheaton, which had been a white, lower-middle class community, became more richly marbled, attracting increasing numbers of African American and then Asian and Latino residents in search of a quiet, inexpensive place to live with a relatively short commute to downtown Washington.

But as Wheaton developed, so did the sorts of urban troubles its residents had come here to escape: traffic jams, drugs, crime. "When I was growing up, Wheaton was, like, the best place you could ever want to live," says Ryan White. But by the early 1990s, he says, he noticed things were taking a turn for the worse. "It was, like: 'People get shot in Wheaton. People get hit by cars.' I started seeing things in Wheaton I didn't want to be around."

By the '90s, as Montgomery marshaled resources and courted businesses to breathe new life into neighboring Silver Spring, Wheaton's vitality continued to flag. In areas such as the Connecticut Avenue Estates tract, across Randolph Road from the pool, homeowners were moving out, adding their houses to Wheaton's declining rental market, which had bleak effects on the neighborhood. Membership in youth gangs climbed, particularly the notorious Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, began climbing, says Officer Robert Musser of the Montgomery police department's gang unit. Wheaton now has among the largest concentrations of gang members in the county.

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