Dawn Patrol

6:45 on a weekday morning in July. I pull up on my bicycle in front of Cumberland Pool and look through the chain-link fence at the lap swim area. Most of the 10 lanes are already taken.

There's Chris, with his distinctive yellow swim cap. I don't really like swimming in the lane next to Chris because he's intimidatingly fast. There's Marian, with that graceful stroke I'm always trying to duplicate.

There's that peculiar old guy whose name I don't know. The first time I saw him swimming here, I thought he was drowning. But no, that's just the way he swims. He's out there this morning, looking like he's drowning.

And the three Russian ladies who never swim are walking up and down their lane, submerged to the shoulders, carefully keeping their large, complicated hairdos dry. From here they look like a small flotilla of battleships. They are shouting at one another in Russian.

Good, I think to myself. All is as it should be.

Every city is a community made up of communities. Some are officially recognized: your church, your school, the local tavern where you watch the Browns. The members of these organizations derive part of their identity by saying things like, "My son is an honor student at Shaker," or "We go to St. Malachi," or "I passed out at Parnell's last night."

Then there are the mysterious, serendipitous communities we drift in and out of throughout the week. Almost every morning at 8, I stop for coffee at a cafe near my house in Cleveland Heights. I don't know anyone there by name, but I recognize most of them. We nod at one another in a particular way that means, Here we are, going about our daily business of drinking coffee in the same room at the same time together, doing our small part in maintaining the status quo.

But the other morning I went in there at 9. I didn't recognize anyone. The 8 o'clock shift of coffee drinkers and status quo maintainers had been replaced by the 9 o'clock shift of coffee drinkers and status quo maintainers. I had no one to nod to. No one nodded at me. It was weird.

So I am part of an unofficial community, The People Who Swim at Cumberland Pool From 6:45 to 7:30 Most Mornings in the Summer. Most of us don't know one another. In the locker room, we rarely say more than, "Mornin'." In the pool, of course, we are all underwater, making conversation difficult.

It is an odd community in that we spend our time together in a state of almost total nakedness. We would not recognize one another with clothes on. We are mostly older people, "north of 40," as Chris puts it, and partly we are swimming because we're anxious about this fact.

Marian, a retired historian who has been swimming at Cumberland for 15 years, tells me that back in the 1870s Cumberland Park was a vineyard called Preyer's Lake View Wine Farm. Women came from Little Italy to tend the vines. In the 1920s it became a community park with a graceful brick pool house built in the grand style of the times. Marian loves the feeling of all that history around her.

Chris, an English professor, has three kids, so this is about the only time he can work out. Also, he likes to humiliate me every morning by swimming roughly twice as fast as I can.

As for the Russian ladies, you don't mess with them. Their lane, the middle one, is called The Russian Lane. Nobody would ever dare to swim in The Russian Lane. Only one of the Russian ladies seems to speak any English. I think her name is Lisa.

One day, as she and the other two ladies were guiding their massive hair arrangements majestically down the lane, I asked her why she liked coming to Cumberland every morning.

She regarded me with astonishment. I had violated the unwritten rule of our unofficial community, which is that most of us never talk. But once she had recovered from this breach of decorum, she drew herself up and said, "Every day for 40 year I work in Russian factory! Now no more! Now my job just being every day in pool!"

As for me, I swim at Cumberland for all the usual reasons. Fitness. The pleasure of being up at that quiet hour. But I also like swimming with my little pod of nearly naked near strangers, wordless as a school of fish.

It is reassuring to think that any of them, even the Russian ladies, would pull me from the water if I were drowning. And if I don't show up at the pool for a week or two, someone in the locker room, whose name I don't even know, will say on the morning I return, "Hey, where you been? We missed you."

And that, I think to myself, is what a community is all about.

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