About two years ago, a tall, serious-looking Asian man walked into the gym at my local YMCA. He was wearing a full-length red sweatsuit and drinking a Starbucks coffee. He lingered for five minutes, staring at the people on the treadmills. I happened to be one of those people, so I stared back. Then, with sudden, alarming purpose, he flung his leg, karate-style, into the open air. He repeated this high-flying gesture two or three times. He hopped, from foot to foot, like a boxer, for twenty minutes. Then he left.
The Asian man repeated this routine—same full-length sweatsuit, same Starbucks coffee, same karate chop— every day for nearly a week. Then he disappeared. A few members, I had heard, had complained. Some, I suppose, considered him a freaky nuisance. To me, he was a curiosity. I never once saw him sip his Starbucks coffee, nor did I ever see him put it down.
I’ve been a member of the Ambler YMCA for twelve years. I go three to nine times a week. I’m the tallish, skinny guy making a scene on the treadmill: speed cranked to 10, sweat flying, lips pursed as if ready to shout, Fuck yeah! I get off the machine, pouring sweat, lost in my world, blaring teenage love songs on my iPod.
The Ambler Y, like most gyms, inspires bizarre behavior. My wife refuses to go to the Y with me. I embarrass her. I sing along to my iPod. I wear women’s t-shirts. I wear my sunglasses on the treadmill. The lenses make everything look bright and hopeful. Why is this so embarrassing?
What embarrasses me is the behavior of others. Just today, for example, a young, skinny girl grabbed the pull-up bar. She dangled. Then she lifted her legs and started peddling as if on a bicycle. I watched in wide-eyed anger. When she was done, she hopped down, took a look at a notebook. The cover announced, ostentatiously, Penn Athletics.
Younger kids, college athletes, I guess, carry these official notebooks around the gym in open defiance of the Y’s unspoken commandment: You Shall Not Try to Look Cool. But the exercises these kids perform are uncool, so senseless that I wonder if there’s a conspiracy among coaches, a sadistic plan to keep athletes obedient to the rigors of team and sport. The plan is simple: Make athletes look repellent to potential boyfriends or girlfriends.
One kid, a Villanova stud (a stud, at least, according to his swagger), grabs a 25-pound weight, plops down, and vigorously smashes the weight on the ground, to his right and left, for twenty, thirty repetitions. It’s obscene, a loud display of—what? Strength?
Last week, I sort of moped around, stretching, until Villanova Swagger showed up. He commenced his smashing routine. I stared at him until I caught his eye. We stared at each other for a few seconds before he turned away. Victory! Or maybe not: I think he turned to his friend and made fun of my shorts.
Anyway. I suppose athletic programs offer better guidance than Men’s Health. Here’s a genuine article title from the magazine: “Silly Exercises, Serious Results: These 12 exercises may look ridiculous, but we guarantee they’ll build strength, muscle, and stamina.”
I can spot the Men’s Health guy immediately: He’s the guy performing the strange abdominal exercises on the giant red ball.
Does Men’s Health only advocate exercises that replicate the motions of sex? And why must Men’s Health Guy combine the red ball exercise with the gym’s most ostentatious object: the 45-pound weight? Is it essential to perform sit-ups while holding a 45-pound weight? Not to mention: You’re on a fucking giant red ball.
If this is the way to get a six-pack, it’s not worth it.
I’ve met comfortable strangers at the Y. Last year, a blond girl I noticed from the Y approached my wife and me at a local bar. She was drunk, obviously, and she seemed to move in the same way she did, sober, on the elliptical machine.
“You sweat a lot,” she said to me.
“I know,” I said. “I’m a sweaty man.”
“Your wife sweats too.”
She was one of the two or three most famous Y members. She had also approached our friends Charlie and Trish. “You sweat a lot,” she had told them and then proposed a ménage a trois. She was pretty in a did that girl propose a threesome? kind of way, but the night we met her, she wore a pair of last season’s UGGS. When I saw her the next day at the Y, she ignored me. She fascinated us for a few weeks before she disappeared, a la Karate Chop Man.
I go to the Y before dinner. I determine my workout based on the presence of this one guy—a guy I’ve met and talked to. I’ve forgotten his name. He greets me amiably (“Hi, Seth!”), yet the relationship has devolved, on my part, to a nod. I determine my workout based on how best to avoid this guy. If he’s lifting weights, I’ll run on the treadmill and vice versa.
I like to get in and out. Sometimes I’ll see Trish and end up gabbing for twenty minutes. I’ll see Charlie, and we’ll recreate our high-school athletics days on the swim team: throw-downs, squat-thrusts.
Sometimes, the nice man with the mustache talks to me. Sometimes, he follows me around from exercise to exercise. He flirts, and I tell him: I’m married. He doesn’t believe me.
The only way to deal is to strap on my iPod and exercise, mutely fascinated, maybe a little scared of all the sweat and muscles.