The old man's penis looked like Santa Claus' nose poking through a grayish, bushy beard. All the old men's penises looked like that. These were the first adult penises I had ever seen, and as an 8-year-old, it scared me enough to make me feel uncomfortable changing in locker rooms for the rest of my life.

This was the mid-80's, and while it doesn't seem that far away, the rules and regulations at the YMCA have probably come a long way since then. I can't imagine these things happening today, but I'm too frightened to check out the YMCA locker rooms to find out.

My parents, of course, knew about this at the time and told me that I shouldn't be concerned. They argued that the standard excuse, “They're old and don't give a shit so neither should you,” applied to this situation.

They just wanted me out of the house and mostly out of their sight during summer vacation. Admittedly, I was a bit of a pain in the ass (“I'm bored, what can I do?”), so it's understandable that they'd want to give me some structure and forced entertainment to fill the tabula rasa of my summer.

“There's nowhere else he can go. The early bird catches the worm. The late bird catches syphilis,” my dad said. Every May during my elementary school years, we had the same argument about my summer plans. I wanted to putz around the house, with grand visions of playing video games and baseball with my friends in the neighborhood. Of course, that's the last thing my parents desired, especially my father, who, as a New York City high school teacher, had summers off and wanted to play with his lawn and drink wine in the backyard, with a few naps thrown in. A kid running around the house all day, possibly with friends, was the last thing he wanted.

The conversation went back and forth a few times before my father would say, “No fucking way you're staying around the house all summer.” And that was that. The gavel had been sounded and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

In the spring of 4th grade, I tried to fight back because I had just gotten Nintendo, albeit five years later than most kids in my neighborhood. To get the game system I had to sign a contract, a given in my household, promising that if I was to have permission to purchase the “Entendo machine,” as my father called it, then I would have to agree to a laundry list of rules, variously involving unpaid labor around the house and restrictions on its use. However, summertime was free time and I was older and more mature, so I thought I had a convincing argument.

When May came around, my summer video game plans were all set: Tecmo Bowl in the morning and Baseball Stars after lunch. My neighbor across the street, Curtis, also had Nintendo, but it was in the basement and access was limited: it was under lock and key. He celebrated my acquisition of the video game system almost as much as I did. So, you see, I had set plans—important plans—with my best friend.

In hindsight I should've foreseen my father's reaction to my proposition. He was the most predictable man alive. He awoke at 6 a.m. every morning. He drank a glass of wine at dinner. He would pee during the extended commercial break between Double Jeopardy and Final Jeopardy. And he wouldn't want me around every minute during the summer.

“No fucking way,” was his precise reaction. My father's parental training obviously took place way before parents were advised not to curse at their children on a daily, often hourly, basis.

I laid out some pretty good arguments, mostly revolving around how camp would get in the way of my summer reading, put me behind in my studies, and set me on a career path that involved crack and selling myself outside the Lincoln Tunnel. I knew the ways to pull the strings of a high school teacher, but, as a high school teacher, his bullshit detector was quite strong, and so we compromised: I would go to camp in the morning, leaving the afternoons free.

Unfortunately, that's where the conversation ended for a few weeks. In the back of my mind, I hoped that maybe my parents forgot the agreement. Perhaps they would say, “Oh forget it, just stay home.” I shouldn't have gotten my hopes up.

By the time mid-June came around, and all my classmates had their plans set, my mother asked me what I would be doing for summer. “Oh, just hanging around,” I answered, as vaguely as possible.

“Oh no you aren't.”

She laid out ten or so pamphlets from various summer camps in the surrounding neighborhoods around Queens and Nassau County, where New York City ends and the real Long Island begins. From science and math camp to baseball and soccer camp. I was still of pre-pubescent age and enjoyed playing sports, and given the trauma that my previous summer's science camp had inflicted upon me (who wants to spend all day looking through a microscope when it's sunny outside?), I told them either baseball or soccer camp would be fine.

When she called and was told that both were full, my heart sank and I agreed to either of the nerd camps. At least the participants in those camps couldn't beat me up. Unfortunately, all were full.

My mother called every pamphlet on the table. No space for me in any of them. I had visions of popcorn and ice pops and video games. Then my father entered the room, glaring at me, as if it was my fault all the camps were full. True, I could have said something sooner, reminding them of the need to place me in one of the camps before the end of the school year, but I had other plans.

“What about the YMCA?” he asked.

My mother coughed in concern. Always worried about the safety of her child. “Can I talk to you in the other room?” she asked him.

He didn't move. “There's nowhere else he can go. The early bird catches the worm. The late bird catches syphilis.”

They signed me up for YMCA day camp that afternoon.

“He'll be fine,” my father assured.

My mother and I could hear Michael Jackson's “Billy Jean” blaring from the giant yellow school bus before it turned the corner. As it pulled up in front of us, we first noticed that “FUCK” had been spray-painted in large red letters on the side. My mother squeezed my hand.

The bus was full, but to call the population mixed would be wrong. I had never previously thought about skin color, about race. My elementary school was not very diverse, especially for a New York City suburb. We did have a 10% or so foreign-born population, but it was mostly composed of kids whose families had escaped the USSR. During my childhood the neighborhood was mostly Irish and Italian. Diversity only really existed on television and outside the immediate vicinity of my neighborhood.

In short, I was the only white kid on the bus and not quite sure what to make of it. At that time, I was the product of an isolated neighborhood, whereby skin color only mattered on TV: Mayor Dinkins, Bernie Goetz, Tawana Brawley, Crown Heights, Howard Beach. None of that applied to me.

“Edward!” a teenage girl shouted, head down on a clipboard. She wore a tight, bright red, body-length leather outfit, which I remember distinctly because I thought she was crazy for wearing such long pants in June. It looked like something from an early Michael Jackson video.

“Yes,” my mother said. “This is him. Please take good care of him.”

“Does he have his swimsuit?” the lady asked.

My mother nodded and helped me onto the bus.

I hiked to the top of the steep stairs. All eyes switched from the window to the aisle. I could feel the weight of their eyes as I stared ahead, trying to avoid eye contact. Like a character from a low budget zombie movie, I waddled toward the back, not sure where I could sit. An arm reached and grabbed me.

“You can sit here.”

I nodded and sat.

As the bus pulled away from my house, drove down my street, and away from the comfort of my neighborhood, I felt scared and a bit dizzy. I was headed someplace strange, away from the comfort of my neighborhood.

The kid next to me proffered his hand and opened it like an unraveling lotus flower, revealing a sweaty Mentos. “Want one?”

I nodded and grabbed it, chewing it right away.

“You should let it melt a bit,” he said. “Let it get soft first, then start chewing.”

Ronny turned out to have quite a collection of candy. Before we made it to the YMCA, we had consumed Fun Dip, Now & Laters, Nerds, and finally a fistful of Bazooka Joe bubble gum.

When the bus squealed to a stop in front of the YMCA, everyone bounced forward a bit. Ronny grabbed his stomach, and then puked between his legs onto the floor.

“You okay?” I asked.

He nodded and wiped his mouth. “Don't tell anyone. I'll get in trouble.”

I nodded, and we exited the bus with everyone else, leaving his masticated and partially digested candy on the floor of a warm bus on a summer day.

The camp turned out to be a lot of fun. We played on slides and swings at the local public park. We played regular Tag, Freeze Tag, and Capture the Flag. We ate sandwiches and apples from boxed lunches. We had a competition to see who could spit the farthest. I placed second, which was quite a shock because I was really good at hocking loogies, the best on my block in my divisional age group.

The last activity of the day was swimming, which basically entailed flopping around in the children's section of the pool. Because we had been running around and sweating all day, the camp counselors herded us into the locker room and told us to go shower before we were allowed to go into the pool.

Upon entering the locker room, we froze, eyes wide before looking down. The crowd of old, wrinkly white guys strolled around the locker room. Towel-less. Shameless.

Apparently with old age, men lose the hair on their heads and torsos, and it either shifts or is replaced by white hair on ears, noses, and crotches. These were the first adult penises that had ever dangled in front of me, and from then on I didn't look forward to old age.

These wrinkly, pasty, old white men were so thin they appeared malnourished, almost dead. Their grunts to each other reminded me of Labradors barking. They seemed to just be lingering about, hanging out in the locker room.

Most of the kids in my group kept their heads down and shuffled inside to the lockers, to change and shower. Fat chance I was going to do that. Too many after-school specials had taught me otherwise:

Say “No.”

And go.

And tell someone you trust.

No way was I going to shower with these old men. I turned to Ronny. He looked as scared as I'd ever seen anyone look and have ever seen anyone look since. He shook his head.

We told the counselors that we'd both forgotten our swimsuits, even though it clearly stated on the pamphlet to bring swimming attire. The counselors had even asked my mother about the swimsuit when they picked me up.

We did this every day for the first three days. For the rest of the two weeks, I was able to convince my parents to tell the camp counselors that I had an ear condition that prohibited me from going into a swimming pool. I never entered the locker room again. I just watched everyone flapping and laughing in the pool.

YMCA summer swim camp
Not pictured: me.

Ronny got over it, joining the others in the fun. I secretly hoped that he'd throw up in the pool, get banned, and have to come and hang out with me, but that never happened.

Given the “catch a predator” world we live in, where every male over the age of 18 is considered a possible pedophile, it seems impossible to imagine a locker room consistently intermingling 10-year-old boys with unrelated naked old men.

To this day, I still hesitate going into locker rooms and get a little weirded out by Santa's nose poking through his off-white beard.

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