By Scott Jacobs

Holstein poolI spent the afternoon Tuesday poolside at Holstein Park, and not alone. My view from the water’s edge is a sea of bobbing heads and writhing torsos. Twenty minutes after it opened, the Olympic size pool is filled to capacity (300). With the temperature hovering in the low 90’s, a hundred more swimmers wait outside for someone to leave.

To sit by a public pool in Chicago is to watch the unbridled enthusiasm of youth. The mostly teenage kids couple and de-couple in mock water fights, ride piggyback on each other, venture forth into the deep end and, just as quickly, retreat back to the shallow. Some wear goggles, others tattoos. There is a contingent of young women who have staked out a corner of the deep end deck––that which holds the sun longest––for reading, tanning and talking on their cell phones. And four boys doing flips off the side nearby, should any of the girls care to notice.

A slow scan of the wide angle scene reveals such a remarkable tableau of diversity you can’t help but believe you are in Barack Obama’s post-racial America. Who is black, brown or white hardly matters; there are so many shades of each so closely packed together they are like brush strokes on a Degas painting. One notices more who is fat, thin or just plain scrawny. Whose swimsuits barely cling to their hipbones and whose belly falls wantonly over the top.

There are 18 strollers lined up next to the kiddie pool. Although the pool never gets deeper than a foot, half the children bask in its glory and half cling to the edge until mom, dad or nanny lead them in.

The lifeguards are a trip unto themselves: temporary help, mostly college students on summer vacation, probably ushered into the job by helpful parents who know the park district’s obtuse hiring rules. My favorite Simon, who sports pink spiked hair, is off today. But the others dutifully sit on their observation towers, life preserver in hand, watching the clock until once an hour, on the hour, they blow a whistle, empty the pool, and see whether there are any bodies left under the surface.

What I like about Holstein Park, and all the parks in Chicago, is the very public nature of them all. While the pool teems with swimmers, summer camp kids play baseball on one diamond, and kickball on another. All the kiddie swings in the playground are filled. Blankets are spread out under shade trees. Mothers sit atop them, a toy chest full of trucks, plush dolls and balls scattered around them as if they’ve brought their living room to the park for a day.

Across the street is Senior Citizens Park, a small grove of trees with a sidewalk winding through. Four winos sit on a bench drinking beer out of bottles in paper sacks. A homeless woman pauses to rest with her plastic satchel of belongings on a ledge decorated by tiles children made at the last Bucktown Arts Fest.

There is commerce in this park, none of it authorized by the park district. A bicycle cart vendor named Morelia sets up outside the playground to sell ice cream bars, announcing her arrival with a fanfare of cucaracha music. Two seven-year-old neighbors sell lemonade from a folding table under their mom’s watchful eye.

It’s summer in Chicago. A time to let the cares and woes of winter go. (Not that they will disappear.) Yes, it would be great to get away, but there are plenty of options if you can’t. Holstein is one of 552 parks in the Chicago park district. They contain 33 beaches, 51 outdoor pools, 16 lagoons and 10 bird and wildlife gardens.

If you haven’t been to the lakefront lately, take the bus down and see what’s new (Don’t drive. Trust me, the parking lots will be full.) Play volleyball at North Beach. Sit out under palm trees at Oak Street. Try the beach at Promontory Point in Hyde Park or, if you have a dog, doggie beach at Montrose.

If you’re looking for simple peace and quiet, check out the secret lily pond in Lincoln Park or the Art Institute gardens downtown; or pick a tree, any tree in any park, and lie under it reading a book.

The best things in life are free.

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