Monday, July 27, 2009

Sweat, Muscles, and Starbucks: The Bizarre YMCA

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, drinking a Starbucks coffee. He lingered for five minutes, staring, incredulously it seemed to me, at the people on the treadmills. I happened to be one of those people, so I stared back. He ignored me. 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. Then 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, abruptly, 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 an absolute 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 own world, blaring Weezer on my iPod.

The Ambler Y, like most gyms, inspires bizarre behavior. I love it. 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, very thin girl grabbed the pull up bar. She dangled. Then she lifted her legs and started peddling, as if on a bicycle. Atrocious. I watched in wide-eyes anger and wondered: Who does she think she is? 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 they gym in open defiance of the Y’s unspoken commandment: You Shall Not Try to Look Cool. But the exercises these kids perform look so uncool, so senseless, really, 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 own 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 real 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 really necessary 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 accumulated many comfortable strangers at the Y. Last year, a blond girl I noticed from the Y approached me and my wife at a local bar. She was drunk, obviously, and she seemed to move in exactly 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."

"It’s sexy."


"Your wife sweats too."

She was one of the two or three most famous Y members. Apparently, she had also approached our friends Charlie and Trish. "You sweat a lot," she had told them, and then proposed an ménage a trois. She was pretty in a did that girl just propose a threesome? kind of way, but the night we met her she was wearing 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 work-out based on the presence of this one guy—a guy I’ve met and talked too. 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 work-out 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, 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, blare Weezer, and exercise, mutely fascinated, maybe a little scared of all the sweat and muscles.