The inflatable pool is the official symbol of America's lost summer
By MAURA JUDKIS | The Washington Post | Published: July 20, 2020
Stars and Stripes is making stories on the coronavirus pandemic available free of charge. See other free reports here. Sign up for our daily coronavirus newsletter here. Please support our journalism with a subscription.
On a hot summer day, Trent Theiler loves nothing more than going to his apartment's rooftop with a cold beverage and lowering himself into the pool.
Or, at least the parts of him that fit in it.
Theiler is a 6-foot-2-inch, 33-year-old man. The pool is an inflatable frog-shaped children's wading pool that holds about 4 inches of water. It is smaller than his torso. The water soaks his backside and little else, but Thieler has to take relief where he can get it.
Such is life in America, in July, in a pandemic.
Two of his friends bought matching frog kiddie pools, and, most weekends, the three of them sit in their separate pools together. The group has started calling their pool cluster the "Ribbit Rooftop Cantina." A few feet away is their Washington D.C. apartment building's actual swimming pool, which is covered and closed for the season because of the novel coronavirus.
"I thought it would be a little bit bigger just from the picture," Theiler said of his kiddie-sized replacement. "You know, it was kind of a bummer. But, I mean, a little bit of water is better than nothing."
If this summer has a theme, it's "better than nothing," and if "better than nothing" has a symbol, it's the backyard inflatable pool. It represents an attempt to claim a seasonal entitlement during a time of interminable austerity. We may not have baseball, concerts or parties, but we will find our way into a pool, even if it's janky and filled with hose water.
People with enough property and cash went upmarket. "I have never seen anything like this in my life," said Burton Gray, owner of Town & Country Pools in Springfield, Va. "We cannot even get to all of them that are calling." But many of those prospective buyers soon learned that an in-ground pool is an expensive project that can take as many as nine months just for the permitting, and they want a pool now.
And so did everyone. The inflatable pools started selling out everywhere. First the nice, big ones that can fit a whole family, then the smaller ones, and finally, the rinky-dink toddler pools. Soon even those were on back order, which is how Aaron Kraus's kids ended up spending the summer splashing around in a pool made for dogs.
"We went on Amazon to look for kiddie pools, and they were sold out until, like, way into the fall," said Kraus, 37, of Rockville. "We told them it's a doggie pool. They couldn't care less."
"It's very 2020," he added, meaning the act of "putting together really ad hoc solutions to a dystopian nightmare."
It's 2020: Take a nice cold dip in all of your abandoned dreams.
Some pool-seekers have plunged into something more like farce. Jess Flynn, of Boise, Idaho, bought what she thought was a five-foot doggy pool on eBay. When it arrived, Flynn said, "I just kind of screamed, kind of laughed": The pool was just large enough to fit a very small hamster.
"'This is so 2020,' is what I thought as soon as I saw it," she said. "Like, the promise of something fun. And then the reality of what this year has brought." Flynn said she might use it as a water bowl for her and her neighbor's pets.
The same thing happened to Bill Ribas of Pittsford, N.Y. — same product, same disappointment. Ribas says he was offered a full refund if he would pay to ship the pool back to China. Instead, he has reclaimed it as a foot bath.
Some of those who succeed in acquiring a dog- or even human-sized pool are finding that these inflatable substitutes can become a reminder of how much you miss the real thing.
For Carla Green, 28, of Los Angeles, it came down to "the balance between how good of a time I had and how much of a pain it is to inflate it," she said. And draining it is no simple task, either. "When you fill a pool with that much water, it's really heavy," Green said. "You can't just, like, dump it out." She realized that the hard way when she temporarily flooded her backyard.
Robert Burke, 39, bought a large inflatable pool last summer for his backyard north of Pittsburgh, but his children barely used it because the water was too cold and the bottom got slimy. This summer, as the pandemic stripped away many other entertainment options, Burke saw an opportunity to really do it right.
Thus began a series of Amazon purchases, all side-eyed by his wife: hoses, a pump, a pool skimmer, a chlorine float, various chemicals and test strips, a WiFi-controlled timer for the filter, a weatherproof cabinet to house the pump, an underwater vacuum, valves, clamps and a custom pool cover. His $60 kiddie pool quickly turned into a $560 pool.
If kiddie pools are symbols of compromise, Burke's project was a symbol of defiant resolve. "I'll always think of it as, like, this manic dumping ground for all the things I wished I was doing," he said."And really what we're talking about is a bunch of water that two kids pee in." (As for his children: "When they're in it, they love it," Burke said, but given that they have the attention spans of a 2- and 4-year-old, they will often climb out and make a beeline for the swings, instead.)
Naomi Seiler's kids won't go in the small, inflatable pool she bought for their D.C. backyard. Her kids freak out about the bugs it attracts, despite the net and umbrella she put over it. And so the pool has become a "sad little oasis" that Seiler will sometimes visit, alone, to soak her feet.
Better than nothing.
"To work all day and just get out of the stale air conditioning and into this nice body of water with my little cocktail and just sit there for 45 minutes and relax," said Heather Hart, 43, of Minneapolis. "It was lovely. Totally worth $124." (Even though her dogs are scared of it, and it's killing some of her grass.)
Makisha Thompson, 46, of Stockbridge, Ga., was brainstorming with six friends about safe, socially distanced ways to see each other. They realized they could each get their own inflatable pool for $22.
"We literally went from Aldi to Aldi," she said, referring to the supermarket chain, "looking for these pools until we had enough."
It took hours to fill them all up. The women then separated the pools with tiki torches and arranged them in a circle around a giant watermelon-shaped sprinkler Thompson found at Walmart. Then they settled in for a sunny afternoon drinking boozy punch. "We call ourselves the little backyard beauties," Thompson said.
A pool itself can be a little backyard beauty amid the wreckage of a disastrous year. A wishing well for better times not yet visible on the horizon.
Or it can be a sinkhole, swallowing up all remaining optimism.
In May, Sarah Hamm, 34, of Pittsburgh, saw an ad on social media for a heart-shaped inflatable swimming pool from the company Ban.Do. Her response was preordained. "It was like I entered a fugue state and then came out of it with an order notification in my email," Hamm said.
It wasn't until the pool arrived that Hamm realized she was unprepared. First, she didn't have an air pump, so she had to inflate the pool through sheer lung power, an hour-long task that called upon her training as a middle school flautist. Exhausted, she then realized the hose she bought for the pool — despite not having an outdoor spigot — would not connect to her sink faucet, foiling her plan to run the hose through the kitchen window. She MacGyvered it to the sink with a pair of tongs, a Mason jar and a roll of tape. Then she turned on the water.
The rig worked, kind of; the pool slowly — slooooooowwwwwlyyyy — filled with water. At about four inches, she ran out of patience and climbed in with a glass of sangria.
"After taking a couple of selfies, I was like, 'The sky seems pretty dark,' and then it started torrentially raining. And I just sat there, laughing like a crazy person. I'm just watching the pool fill up with dirty Pittsburgh rain water," she said. "And finally, I was like, all right, we're done."