Javier Rodriguez is coming up on his 40th summer in the New York City lifeguarding world. He started as a 17-year-old looking for a paycheck and a way to stay near the water during the swimming off-season at SUNY New Paltz, and now he’s a city Assistant Lifeguard Coordinator.
amNewYork caught up with the powerful-chested swimmer at the Chelsea Recreation Center pool, where he and colleagues were overseeing testing for new lifeguards.
Rodriguez was passionate about the eager cohort of teenagers and adults who will be protecting miles of city beaches and dozens of city pools this year. But he kept his eye on one or two who seemed to be having a hard time towing “victims” the length of the pool.
“If it takes you a calendar day,” he said, “we encourage you to keep practicing.”
Have you always been a lifeguard?
I was also an attorney. I used to defend police officers, correction officers. I worked out of a firm in Mineola . . . I enjoyed it. I didn’t enjoy the business aspect of it. Having grown up on the Lower East Side, if you came to me and said, “Jav, I need your help, I don’t have the money but I’ll pay you in two weeks.” That didn’t turn out too well. I did that a lot.
Sort of pro bono cases?
Unintentional pro bono.
On your spare time you were still lifeguarding?
Yes. In summer, after law school. I’d come to the beach. It was a good getaway.
Is it a stressful job?
It’s more preventative. We try to teach lifeguards not to be reactive. [By that point] it’s too late. If you see people swimming, even your good swimmers, you want to keep them in because anything can happen, even for a good swimmer.
What makes a good lifeguard?
It may not necessarily be the fastest person. You know what I mean? It could be the person who is attentive.
Did you ever have to rescue someone?
Oh yes. It’s a great feeling to make a difference in someone’s life. It’s rewarding.
Walk me through what it’s like [Rodriguez describes rescuing a woman in Manhattan Beach]
They blew an emergency whistle. For us they blow one long blast, it catches everyone’s attention, and wherever you are you basically go.
So what’d you do?
We had to form a line, search. Perpendicular to the shoreline . . . We sweep.
And someone pulled her up above the water?
I did. I felt her, I grabbed her, and the adrenaline rushed. I felt her arm so I grabbed her arm, I pulled her up, I grabbed her and ran out onto the shore. You have to wade through the water until you get to shallow water where you can start moving. It’s an adrenaline thing.
Are there moments when you’re alone on the beach?
You have to be there on rainy days?
Yes. People swim on rainy days. You have regulars. Come rain or snow they’re in the water.
What’s the social life of lifeguards?
Well when I became a beach guard, most of the guys I swam with in college worked in Coney Island. So I decided to go to Coney Island. My mother barely saw me.
Where would you go out when you were there?
Joe’s Clam Bar. Randazzo’s. They had these specials at Joe’s Clam Bar, I don’t know if it was like 5 dollars for a dozen clams at the time. Then you’d go to Randazzo’s for the calamari with the tomato sauce. There was a bar on Emmons and Cropsey.
Did you get a lot of cachet being lifeguards?
No, I don’t think people were impressed.
Should they be impressed?
No, I don’t think so. It’s something I enjoy doing. It makes me happy. I think it’s an important skill. It helped me pay for New Paltz, helped me save for law school . . . I think it’s a lot nicer in my opinion to have a job working on the beach or at a pool, making a difference. My son, one of his first jobs was working in a catering type of place and he used to complain, “Dad I’m on my feet all day, prepping, cleaning.” I said there are better jobs out there.
And then did he do lifeguarding?
Yes. In Queens.
Any message to beachgoers this summer?
I think the most important thing for beachgoers is never swim alone. [And] swim in supervised areas . . . There are too many sad stories out there.
Any advice to lifeguards?
Put lotion on your face. Wear a hat with a brim. You’re gonna be there all summer. You’re gonna catch a tan, you don’t need it all in one day. It’s not healthy.
Is New York a good beach city?
I think so. You have Orchard Beach, around that area which is well known for their seafood. We have Coney Island, the amusement park. Rockaway since Sandy has a lot of foodies, if you will. Have you been to Rockaway lately?
I mean, you can find, in addition to your hot dog and hamburger, you can find arepas, lobster rolls, I mean, gourmet coffee. You have everything over there.
This interview has been edited and condensed.