NEW YORK — Call it California dreaming.
Faced with miles of Atlantic beaches and empty chairs, New York City is trying to lure lifeguards from the West Coast.
So severe is the shortage here that only 400 of 1,200 positions have been filled so far--forcing portions of some beaches to close.
And unless additional lifeguards are found, the situation is likely to get worse when 55 municipal outdoor swimming pools open this summer.
"We do not have the pool culture and the beach culture that we had in the '50s, when every kid wanted to be a lifeguard," said Henry J. Stern, commissioner of the city's Department of Parks and Recreation. "The days of the Beach Boys have come and gone. It's more difficult to recruit.
"California has the beach culture. We are saying: Go East young man or young woman. Spend the summer in New York. Spend the summer on the Atlantic," Stern urged on Thursday. "The surf may not be as good, but the ground is solid and doesn't shake."
"New York City has 14 miles of pristine open beaches," added Craig Konieczko, a parks department spokesman. "If crack Santa Monica lifeguards want to come and try out, show us their stuff, they are more than welcome."
The city first attempted to lure local candidates with an appeal by "Baywatch" regulars Michael Bergin and Angelica Barnes in Manhattan's Washington Square Park. But an initial ripple of excitement--300 people signed up for duty--quickly faded when applicants were faced with the harsh reality of swimming tests. Less than 10% passed.
Lifeguards must be at least 16 years old and able to swim 50 yards in 35 seconds as part of an examination that includes a longer swim. They also must pass a vision test. Successful applicants are paid $412 a week for the beach season, which began May 23 and ends Labor Day.
Ocean lifeguards in Los Angeles start at $15.75 an hour. As part of a competitive examination, candidates must swim about a half-mile in the ocean against waves, currents, jellyfish and riptides. Only the top 80 finishers continue the process, which includes oral and physical examinations and background checks.
"The surf gets so much larger here in California, and our rip currents are extremely strong," said Fire Lt. Mike Cunningham, public information officer for the Los Angeles County lifeguards. "We made over 14,000 rescues in 1997. There was one drowning.
"As of right now, we have plenty of guards," he added.
Parks department recruiters say New York's booming economy has opened up office jobs during the summer for many young people, who are concerned with getting a head start on their careers.
Besides, Konieczko observed, offices have air conditioning.
New York's beaches--which range from Coney Island with its historic boardwalk to Orchard Beach, a cove in the Bronx--can be stifling in July and August. The temperature can soar to 100 degrees in the sun, with high humidity.
Two additional obstacles facing the Big Apple as it tries to lure West Coast lifeguards are New York stereotypes and California surf chauvinism.
"It's a nice place to visit. I don't know if I would want to live there," said Eric Dymmel, 31, a lifeguard for 13 years at Huntington State Beach in Orange County.
"Most certainly the surf is not as good. . . . I wouldn't want to deal with the stereotypical New York attitude: people who talk real fast and are high-strung. The pace out there is living just to work. Out here, we work so that we can live."
Some New York lifeguards retort that they do enjoy advantages, despite tough conditions.
"It's a good job. People have a good time," said Leo Perlmutter, 51, a lifeguard since 1964.
"We are more exposed to the elements than in California. We have to sit on chairs out in the open. In California, they have lifeguard stands," he observed. "A plus for us is that we don't have to deal with the smog. You guys have to wear gas masks."
Still, some California guards did show interest in New York's offer.
"I'd go for it. I'm always keeping my options open," said Jeff Darney, 28, who watches over swimmers at Huntington State Beach. "I think of New York as a town that never sleeps. I've always wanted to go out there."
Times special correspondent Lisa Meyer contributed to this story.