Porchester Baths

One is out there, on the primal edge, legs pounding away on the 8:30 morning exercycle to nowhere.  The bicycle may be stationary, but the blood supply isn’t.  In the California December exertion is all that makes this possible for your typical quadriplegic…actually a quadriparetic, the distinction all the more critical when the afflicted person is working an exercise machine with his legs.  Yes, it is the blood flow that counteracts the cold flow, vis-à-vis night temperatures in the 30s Fahrenheit.  Things could go wrong, as I keep saying, here in the cold storage of my carport.  The concrete slab traps the night’s temperatures, a reminder of the dark even as the sun continues to rise, the day opening and warming.  But for now it is my legs that are doing the only effective warming.  They are my lifeline, and I am conscious of this, how fragile it all is, my neuromuscular existence…with possible scenarios unfolding, just in case.  Just in case the cold does something to my legs, thwarting my ability to stand, and I am stuck here.  There is some slight basis in fact behind this.  Cold always being unpredictable with my oddity of a nervous system.  The limbs get more spastic or less spastic.  That is to say, there is generally an overall tightening of the body, while the same cold can make extremities relax.  All speculation.  We will see, I tell myself, legs flying about the morning air.  I really should memorize my upstairs neighbor’s phone number, just in case of moments like the one being contemplated.  Just in case.

There is that sense of pushing things, not letting the fear of cold stop me…the fear of the unknown, really…that makes all this worthwhile.  Yes, the exercise is good, but still being able to do something of muscular substance on my own, risks be damned, that is even better.  As to the cold, there really is not much historical experience to account for my current fear.  Except one occasion.

The Porchester Baths.  They do not exist anymore, according to a quick web search.  Although Westminster Council now proclaims something called the Porchester Centre, providing for multiple sports under one roof.  And why not?  The Porchester Baths were old and out of date when I first used them.  Which was probably in the autumn of 1969.  And whatever complaints I may have about the temperature in the locker room, what transpired there was much more than anyone could have expected.  Despite the downside, which will reveal itself shortly.

Of course, by British standards, the Porchester Baths were not old.  I believe they must have dated from the 1930s.  My sense is they were actually Turkish baths, steam rooms, and perhaps even a public laundry.  The swimming pool, all that concerned me, was only part of the operation.  The ‘old’ aspect was the temperature.  The changing rooms may have been totally unheated.  They certainly felt that way.  Never mind, for I was young and hearty and determined in those days.  And Bob, almost exactly my age, was in his own way equally unstoppable.

We had a natural affinity.  Before I had even met him, everyone among the extended German Jewish clan of Bendixes in and around London had assured me that we looked a bit alike.  We were not at all alike temperamentally, but we balanced each other well.  Bob was more outgoing, fun-loving and lighthearted in approach.  That he had this capacity for the antic in the company of a person who was recent incapacity was still feeling very tragic, added up to a gift.  

Bob was a doer, wanting to accomplish things.  Without ever telling me to ‘get on with it’ British-style, his being led me in that direction.  It may even have been his idea that I try swimming.  Which struck me as a bad idea, I recall.  But he inspired confidence in some intangible way, and so I trusted him to accompany me in the shallow end of the Porchester Baths, a 1930s era swimming pool, if memory serves me.  There I progressed like a child, thrashing about in the shallows, until I gained confidence and began swimming for the far, deep end.  And from there it wasn’t such an impossible reach to actually do a lap.  And another.

Do remember that this account of ‘swimming’ comes from someone who has one functioning arm and leg.  The dysfunctional arm and leg did not remain on the dry concrete deck, one must point out, but accompanied me, both reacting to the cold water in unpredictable ways.  They tightened, not unlike my balls.  But the latter are of little use in a swimming pool, and the stiff arm and leg were an actual encumbrance.  Fortunately, I was not in the company of someone given to much introspection over such matters.  This was time for action, aquatic action, for much like the carport exercycle of today, the only way to deal with the water temperature in the Porchester Baths was to move.  And move I did, learning to flail as best a semi-quadriplegic could.  It is entirely likely that the other swimmers were alarmed by my technique.  Controlled drowning would not be an unfair description.  Here, I suspect, Bob made himself invaluable in ways that were utterly unobtrusive.  Such was his British knack, the smallest word or two, intonation communicating 90% of the message, which was ‘thanks, but he is fine.’

Swimming had its benefits.  It still does, but changing my clothes has become just complicated enough for me to get in water much less often.  Still, I must confess, this is probably a foolish choice.  Who knows exactly what happens to the disabled person in a swimming pool?  Something good, that is the only answer.  I have heard physical medicine types talk about the simultaneous virtues of buoyancy and muscular activity, and while this is certainly true, the sum total is even greater.  In short, I emerged from the Porchester waters not only exercised, but improved, endorphins or good energy or something bounding about my 22-year-old system.

Back in the cold locker room, Bob helped me dress.  In 1969, Britain had ideas about heating that have since fallen away.  There was still a certain belief that money spent on heat in a changing room was unnecessary.  This was a public place, after all, serving British people, hearty and proud of their indomitability.  Why waste?  Heat the swimming waters, to some extent, and the rest was unnecessary.  At least, that is my take on the matter.  

Even with Bob’s help, I could not get dressed fast enough.  Nor could I get into Bob’s heated car fast enough.  We drove through West London, heading for his parents’ home, where we must have planned to have dinner.  I asked him to turn up the heat in his car.  Once inside the door of his parents’ centrally heated townhouse, I expected the chill to abate.  It did not.  I had a cup of tea in the dining room.  My teeth were now chattering.  I crutched upstairs to the sitting room, feeling as though the 70°F interior was actually more like 40°F.  I could not get warm.  In the end Bob’s twin sister Caroline must have suggested the bathtub.  I filled it with hot water, got in and waited.  It took a while, but this did the trick, bringing an end to the hypothermia.  For that is what it was, the body chilled beyond its ability to warm itself.  Perhaps to be expected when a person’s movement is so restricted.  A new discovery, a defining of the neurological edge.  I had pushed it, of course, and mostly to my benefit.  A certain pattern getting established.

Naturally, I returned to Porchester Baths.  At that time, Bob worked for a British corporation that made cement.  I had no idea that it would take me almost a decade to find full-time work anywhere.  I envied
him, naturally, but he was at pains to set the record straight.  It was a job.  It was good to have a job.  But his work was dull.  The routine of office life was hard to get used to, he told me.  Understated British code for fairly intense dissatisfaction.  Bob was destined for greater things, it turned out, and so was I.  For now, he had this convenient fact of working life, that he was somewhere in the West End every day, and it was not hard to meet for a bit of exercise at the Porchester Baths.  Which we did, on one particular evening perhaps a year after my first dip in the swimming pool.  

We emerged into a summer night, most likely, or a fairly warm autumn one.  I wasn’t shivering, that is the point.  I was going to hobble with Bob the few blocks to either the Marble Arch tube station or the bus stop.  Doubtless tired from my swim, I probably said something about how it was hardly worth it, the difference between crutching to transit and just heading to my bedsit in Holland Park being not that different.  I might have said this, speaking wholly from emotion.  My room in Norland Square was a good two miles away.

Why not, Bob must have said.  And so we were off, me hobbling down the Bayswater Road.  The real goal was to get as far as we could before I gave up and boarded a London Transport double-decker bus.  What was the worst that could go wrong?  That in the long reaches between bus stops I might collapse?  Possibly.  But after surviving the hypothermia adventure, relearning to swim and simply making it through an entire year in this cold foreign city, why not indeed.  Soon Hyde Park was drifting by me.  A normal view to anyone else, it seemed, but utterly exotic to me.  Something I only saw, when I saw it, from the bristly upholstered bench of a bus.  And it was all there, the normal world, visible in the failing day, able-bodied couples out for a stroll, someone kicking a soccer ball across a distant lawn.  And at least I was up and moving with the rest of the London populace.  Not waiting for a bus or a ride from Bob.  Not waiting for anything.

Who knows how long it took me to get to Lancaster Gate?  But incredibly there I was.  And somehow even to the next tube stop and neighborhood, Queensway.  Even on to Notting Hill Gate, where I must indeed have been flagging.  But when one is in sight of a quadriplegic world record, nothing gets in the way.  There is no giving up.  There is also almost nothing else, one’s mental state being badly worn down at the peak of such exertion.  

I had forgotten about my stairs.  I do recall that much.  But there at the very end of two miles of hobbling were these high stone Victorian steps.  Somehow I got to the top of them, Bob asked if I was all right, then left.  It was only about 8:30 PM, but I immediately went to bed.  My legs were shaking, and things neuromuscular were generally off, but this was a milestone, of some sort.  Two milestones having been achieved, if one wants to get literal.  And what did it mean, and what did it add up to?  A negatively stated positive.  Why not?

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