"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Gym

I was not sure what to expect when I joined a Washington sports club a few years ago. I had not been inside a gym or locker room for over 20 years, and I knew that in that time the culture of physical fitness had been born and had matured. Sure, I knew about the hamster wheels, racks and Torquemada machines; but I couldn’t imagine what it actually would be like inside. I knew it had to be different from my sweaty jockstrap days, but the question was how different.

I joined because my arthritic hip needed daily lubrication, stretching, and strengthening, and I was told that swimming and the stationary bikes would be particularly good for all of that. I had a bad image of the bikes – I grew up on the real thing, a Schwinn with pedal blocks and later an English bike which I rode up and down the Connecticut hills near my home. No helmet, three gears, lots of dogs and potholes. Until recently I could never even imagine speed-pumping in a phalanx of sawed-off half-bikes.

My gym-locker room experience had been limited. There was summer camp where the only thing that mattered was the Holy Grail of communal showers – taking a piece of flesh out of the fat boy’s ass with a wet towel. Not just any wet towel, but one just wet enough – not too heavy, not too light and with the proper furl at the tip – one flick of the wrist and a cast as accurate as a fly fisherman’s.

Then came the college gym where I had to go because I failed the freshman physical fitness test and where I stayed on to work on my love handles (“Them’s the first to come and the last to go, boy” said the gym instructor). There never were many people at the gym. Other than the dweebs who failed the physical who would choose working out over squash, tennis, intramural football? This was Yale, after all; a Yale that had not yet been invaded by urban nerds; a Yale where everyone was still bronzed and sculpted after summering on the Vineyard and played games, rowed, and fenced .

Finally there were two stints in public facilities: the Newark YMCA where hoops were serious; and where locker rooms, facilities, amenities were not part of the action; and later the pool at the local DC high school not far from my neighborhood. You really had to want a free swim to go there. All the locker door latches had been jacked, crowbar-ed and bent from break-ins. The floors were slimy from mold, the urinals stank of piss, and the toilets were always jammed with shit and toilet paper.

Since those days I had been playing tennis almost every day, swimming outdoors and taking long runs and walks on the Canal. “Go outside and play” had been my mother’s rule, repeated by my boarding school whose masters marched us out to play on the frozen tundra. At summer camp only on seriously rainy days would we make lanyards in the crafts room. Otherwise we were run ragged, swam until we puckered and played softball until it got dark.

So what were these young people doing in the sweat shop? How could dry humping on stationary bikes be satisfying? Glimpses into the windows of storefront gyms reminded me of my days in the industrial Northeast. Every day as I walked to school I passed the grated basement windows of the factory and saw the workers at their stations – in rows of different machines, cranking pulleys, hoisting iron, curling dead weights, punching metal, stamping, banging.

Not only did I have this heavy-duty history behind me, but joining a fitness center was the first concession to decrepitude. I was not joining to look good but to keep from falling apart.

The pre-sign up run-through at the Sports Club was encouraging. The club had a lobby with leather armchairs, carpets, coffee tables, and a view of the squash courts. It was air-conditioned and didn’t stink. It had pukka lockers and bathrooms, whirlpool and sauna, the works. This was definitely a club, not a gym. It had cachet. If I had to give up tennis and the outdoors, why not here? There were plenty of stationary bikes, but in two rooms, ample space between them, and maybe a third occupied. Very genteel.

The locker rooms were a return to my roots. They reminded me of those at the Country Club where I played golf and tennis as a teenager. Separate shower stalls, stacks of crisp, clean towels, carpeted floors, and polished wood benches. All they lacked was an attendant to hold a towel as you came out of the shower.

Still, I was a little apprehensive. What was the etiquette? Where to look, when to avert the eyes? I was sure the rules of decorum were very different from earlier times; and besides, this was a sports club, not a gym. There had to be many additional layers of social rules.

I chose one of the back corner lockers, speed-changed my clothes, and headed for the machines. There was no need for modesty as it turned out. The habitués were not only uncovered, but unhurried. No towels, no scurrying for shelter, no hiding the bulging overhangs and misshapen bits. It was all so normal and routine. This was a definitely a power club – even in my first minutes I had recognized a member of a former cabinet and overheard a discussion about a Supreme Court case – but I was unprepared for the nudist camp quality of it all. Mortgages, St. Albans, and vacations in Tuscany were all discussed as if the buck naked speakers were in suits.

How could anyone possibly ignore the moles and swollen tits, the spindly little legs, the purple and grey splotches, the chicken chests and bird wings? How could you concentrate on mortgage rates, immigration law, or homeland security in the face of staple marks, scars, welts, bruises, fiery pimples, and crack hair? How could you discuss spinnakers, fetch, or SATs staring at heavy, slack, and sagging bags? How could anything be taken seriously when confronted by such an array of blunt-nosed, bottle-, and prow-shaped whangs; especially those so compressed by gut and thigh fat they retracted inside themselves like turtle’s heads. 

After joining the Washington club I had the chance to use a gym in my home town. It was the local YMCA where I went on rainy Saturdays as a kid, it had been billed on the Internet as “fully modernized and fully equipped to the highest standards of physical fitness”, and it was offering a special one-week $25 trial membership. It was OK, basically the same set-up: machines, weights, and pool; but no Pilates or belly-dancing, no personal trainers, and nobody to clean up after you. By the side of every exercycle, treadmill, and machine was a spray bottle of disinfectant and a towel wipe.

What I noticed most was the locker room modesty. Not only was there no power talk (New Britain was Rust Belt and fading fast) but no casual nudity either. Could there be, I thought, a correlation between immodesty and class? The confidence of the empowered, the reticence of the poor? Washington-speak. The YMCA could not afford to provide towels, so you had to bring your own. And unless you brought them with you from locker to shower they would be gone when you got back.

So where were the beautiful bodies at the Washington Club? The more I went, the more I was convinced that people were either trying to regain the beautiful body they thought they had or extend its pull-by date. Neither effort was very successful. The pull-by women were stringy and bony and had mummy skin; and yet they thought they were hot shit, and quacked loudly about abs and reps so the fatties could hear, making them feel small and squeaky.

For the rest, even if they ever had a hard body, it was only a distant memory; but they still puffed and wheezed on the treadmills, worked all the equipment until they looked popeyed, and hopped and jumped in the aerobics classes. The rolls of flubber just kept expanding, and every week more and more squeezed out of the top of Spandex shorts and sports bras. The meat locker thighs never slimmed, but stayed thick, mottled, and pocked, deep blue and purple bruises on the abutments, skanky blue highway varicose veins tracking down the sides. The fat ankles would never be slim no matter how often they were stuffed into little white kidskin tennies. The great cow-udder tits would only increase in size. Fat lines and caesarian scars tattooed on sagging stomachs spread like a fungus.

There was a group of middle-aged women who never had any intention of doing anything at all about their bodies. They thought they looked plenty good as is and just took up space on the equipment. They wore make-up, dyed their hair, favored black leotards, and made a few perfunctory pulls at the machines while chatting with the neighbors. Where did they come from? Brighton Beach? Were they foreigners? They had a certain breathless grace when they pulled or pushed. No exertion was without dramatic effort.

I have been a member of the Club now for four years. I come at all times of the day and have yet to see one sexy, lithe, unblemished, pouting beauty. Not even for a light retouche. I’m not picky, and these days even used merchandise looks pretty good, but nothing has even come close.

There was one group that passed a basic training kind of muster – serious thirties who cranked new chrome, flashy, lowdown slipstream cycles to Eighties disco. No pounds to be shed here, only buffing up fit and tanned bodies. Great clothes - twat-huggers and wife-beaters showing off all the right bits; but the spiky hairdos and anklet butterfly tattoos suggested an early return to smoking and heavy eyeliner.

Before my sports club was built, the high school pool was the only indoor place to go if you wanted to swim; and in its heyday before it got nasty and scummy everyone from the neighborhood from power lawyers to retired government workers went there. There were three lanes – Fast, Medium, and Slow. The Fast lane had the sleek bodies in Speedos who shivered and shook their arms to limber up before getting in, who did powerful somersault turns and who churned back and forth with ease and grace. The Slow lane had the old rollers who bobbed up and down the pool like dead fish on the tide. The Medium lane was problematic: what, exactly, was “medium” anyway?

There were a lot of bad decisions in that lane. I was a Medium-laner and I was constantly poked on the heels by a sleek body coming up hard astern; or caught in a queue of swimmers behind a bobber. At least one always tried to pass the bobber but crashed into a sleek body steaming south. Both lanes became blocked while the bobber oblivious, stuffed with earplugs and blind behind fogged goggles, rolled his way north.

This would never happen at my sports club. First, it has more carrying capacity. Second, only two people are allowed in each lane; and the etiquette is impeccable. “May I join you?” is the proper introduction before joining a lane. Touching is a no-no, although it is hard to avoid. Particularly bad are the back-strokers who tend to flail; but things never seem to escalate beyond petty playground stuff. Only once did I see two guys face off in the shallow end. A minute or two of rooster struts and it was over.

Every weekday between 10 and 11 there is a water aerobics class. It is for the truly fat whose knees and hips have collapsed under the pressure of hundreds of pounds of excess weight. The pool is the only environment in which they can do normal activity – walk, run, even dance. On one of my first days at the club and before I knew the pool schedule, I decided to swim at ten o’clock. Since the aerobics class takes up two full lanes, there was only one half-lane left for lap swimmers – the one right next to the class – so I had no choice. On each stroke of the crawl as I dipped my head underwater then lifted it to breathe, I got a view of bobbing flowered bathing caps on top of the water, jetees and croisement de pieds underneath – ballet steps that the dancers hadn’t performed in 50 years. A hundred prancing, fluttering girlish feet. Fifty women lightened magically by the water, dancing in flowered hats and frilly tutus.

There may be no beauties at my club, but there are no Greek gods either. The overstuffed and misshapen men are less noticeable because they don’t do anything in groups. There are no fatty classes for men, no salsa lessons, no Pilates; but the real head-turners – gorilla back hair, factory boiler bellies – are there. It’s just harder to spot them. Jabba the Hut, for example, a 500 lb. cashiered government clerk can always be found in the whirlpool. He displaced half the water in it before his gut operation and a quarter after. Bronco Billy has legs so bowed he can’t fit on all the equipment so he’s always doing crunches and curls; and Ratty, a pointy-faced no-neck little guy with twitchy nose hairs is always scurrying on the treadmill sucking a water from a hamster bottle.

The club was turning out to be far more than I ever expected.

The rules of political correctness prohibit ogling and discourage lingering looks. Smiles are rare and acceptable only within pre-formed groups or pre-club friends. Despite the Wahabi moral code – and maybe because of it - sex at the club is hot. Really hot. Picture this: a tall, muscled, young black trainer straddling his middle-aged client, pushing gently but firmly on her legs until they go up and back, leaning into her the farther they stretch, until she protests “I’m so tight, I’m so tight”, and he calming says “Just relax” and she looks up at him pleadingly “Is this better? Am I doing it right?”

When it’s over, flushed and happy she hugs him and demurely asks him about her next “appointment”. She gives him a breezy good-bye and a last, meaningful over-the-shoulder glance.

These trainers have a great job. When they’re not fantasy fucking, they are shooting the shit with male clients or yammering on about dogs, kids, and appliances. No more than half the patrons of the Club come for a serious workout. The remaining half is there to gossip or socialize. Union rules on the machines: 2 minutes work, 5 minutes blather. No sweat, lots of bonding. “Once these women get on the equipment” a trainer confided, “they never get off.”

“Did you hear about Bob?” (push, release) “He got fired and they’re going to have to move” (flex, relax) “How awful” (legs straight, tighten thighs) “Where will they go?” (release).

Most middle-aged women have been so whipped by car mechanics that they don’t even dare to try to figure out the fitness equipment, and new chains of user-friendly clubs have been designed especially for them. They are more expensive than ordinary clubs because instead of asking women to adjust the variable weights on one machine, they simply put in more single weight machines. I have seen more than one woman pass up a free machine at my club just because the weight was wrong.

Most women get around this dilemma by paying for a personal trainer. They not only get the fantasy fuck but can have someone deal with the machines for them.

Men waste time just as shamelessly, and few have any intention of busting their balls getting into shape. As far as I can tell most are just groupies. They like to hang around the trainers, talk sports and cars and be – maybe for the first time in their life – one of the guys. Most men with trainers make absolutely no progress. They remain stuck on the baby weights, gain no visible contour or definition, no endurance or strength; and at $120 an hour three times a week, spend a lot of money on jock talk.

Maybe I am being too hard on everyone. Maybe I am just an obsessive-compulsive crypto body addict Type A that has to get in and out in under an hour, can’t miss a machine in the series (if I don’t finish up with leg splits I feel like I’ve left the stove on), and still fall somewhere between the neurasthenic and the slightly tubby. Well, OK, suppose I am. At least I use the machines as they were meant to be used.

There are a lot of facilities at the club. In addition to the exercise equipment and the pool, there are tanning rooms, saunas, and steam rooms. I had never been in a steam room before and only once in a sauna. After years in India and West Africa, I avoided any excess heat. In Ouagadougou the summertime temperatures rose to 125F in the shade, much more in the sun, and probably near 180F in a car left exposed. I learned to park in the shade, walk on the shady side of the street, sit in the flickering shadows of tree leaves. A sauna was illogical and crazy. I had a much better image of steam rooms. There was something exotic about Turkish baths. I visited one in Tbilisi that had been built in the 8th century. It was hot and slimy and smelled of sulfur but it was old and everyone from medieval crusaders to Soviet apparatchiks had shvitzed there. The Baths of Caracalla were my favorite ruins in Rome. I could imagine the languor and elegance of Roman aristocrats shedding their togas and bathing in the hot springs.

Once again, I was concerned about etiquette – what did one do, exactly, in a steam room? What did one wear? Was a towel preferred? Again, I needn’t have worried or confused shvitz with Rome. It was like a hot bus. You opened the door, took a vacant seat, and got out at your stop. Nobody cared or looked. The only remark I ever heard in the steam room was: “I presume everyone likes it hot”, and I have heard it many times since. The speaker is invariably an ex-jock, early forties, a macho-man for whom jacking up the temp to max is a statement. When a steam room is really hot the air sears your throat and lungs, the sweat and condensation pours off your face and arms, visibility is reduced to zero. It cannot be good for you; but who could object? And what? Admit to being a weenie, a wuss?

The big thing among guys, although they won’t admit it, is that they compare lift weights with other guys. The scenario is the same: two men of the same age checking each other out. One doing the curls, the other on the pulleys. One finishes, gets up and walks around nonchalantly in front of the other, and does a quick eye-flash on the weights. Depending on the information, he moves on to the next machine either smirking or trying to hide what he now knows are his chicken wings.

I read where there is a new chain of male ego-sensitive gyms that disguises the weights – puts them in intaglio with no paint so that they cannot be seen from a distance. It’ll never work. Guys are used to counting the number of weights stacked up on the pulleys and can easily eyeball the difference between a 25 and 35 lb barbell.

My club is not big on pumping iron. There are no serious lifters – the ones with leather cinches, gloves, and talc. Very different from my hometown YMCA where the weight room is the biggest of the lot, and belts, do-rags and eye-popping muscles are the rule.

In DC there are lifters, of course. Old guys with their little 10-pounders; zit-faced teenagers who hope to put some bulk on dorky bodies; and fortyish guys trying to get some definition on the upper body – put some good looks between the bald head and the sagging paunch.

There is something about men, weights, and mirrors that can quickly change reality into fantasy. Once you have pumped iron, no matter how sickly the weight, you can see the difference when you look into the mirror. Muscles have more form and definition. Veins are barely contained by newly-hardened forearms and pop out from elbow to wrist. A patina of sweat gives a burnished veneer to the upper body; thighs bulge and strain like a 100 yd. dash Olympian. There is a muscle-bound swagger to even the hollow-chested. How can you possibly walk normally when your iron thighs, drum-tight gluteus, and sledgehammer calves force your gait into powerful strides?

I am not sure how much longer I will keep going to the gym – or rather, how much longer I will put off a hip replacement. I want to get back to a normal life. Running up and down imaginary hills and cycling through virtual meadows is not holding up like it used to, no matter how interesting the circus around me. I need fresh air and sunshine. Two years of an underground body factory has taken its psychic toll.

At the same time a hip replacement scares me. I can’t help but picture myself lying on the operating table being sliced up like a piece of meat, plugged with saline drips, a breathing tube jammed down my windpipe, my bones and joints sawed up like osso buco. Hip replacements, by the way, are the discussion topic among men over sixty in the locker room, beating out – maybe for the first time ever – sports, cars, and women. Well, that may not be exactly true. The major stated reason for a new hip is to get back on the tennis court, ski trail, or golf course. So there’s the sports angle. The discussion about new hips is as technical as automotive mechanics – ceramics vs. space-age titanium, p.s.i. factors, torque and resistance equations, etc., etc.

However, the real reason for getting a new hip – the reason that trumps all others - is to be made whole again, to recover youthful fitness and strength, to stop gimping along like Peg-leg Pete, creaking in and out of cars, and one-stepping up stairs. It is time to be men again before it really is too late. No more dreaming about wet, creamy, young pussy. It’s time for us to have it. Before long we and our wheelchairs will be shoveled into vans for the trip to the Senior Center. The only lift we will be on will be the one installed on the stairs by our children so that we won’t wipe out while they’re away.

My days at the gym are numbered, I guess. I will either suck it up and try to disguise my starboard list or go under the knife. Either way is OK. Fatalism seems to be as inevitable as grinding joints. Whatever I decide, it has been a good ride, even though much of it has been on sawed-off half bikes.

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