The Democracy of the Gym

When I went to the gym in Beirut, I was usually the only Westerner and by far the oldest person. I didn’t speak Arabic, but I managed to fit in: guys shook my hand when I entered, and the Beiruti beauties waved hello. Then another American started to work out, a guy I liked for his irony and irreverence. But a Lebanese guy pulled me aside and asked, “Is your friend crazy? Does he have a marble loose? Maybe he is spy?”

“He’s not spy,” I volunteered, but the conversation paused as my friend revealed the gym’s collective opinion that I resembled a sinister F.B.I. agent on the television program “24.” This tells you something about the way Lebanese look at Westerners.

It turned out that my countryman addressed everyone in the gym as if he were back home. He’s from Philadelphia. Finishing up a set, he looked over at the person on the next machine and said, “Ya ‘bout done there buddy?” Or “Whatcha got left to do, lady?” He uttered that gym classic: “Mind if I work in?” Even the Lebanese who spoke English don’t know what to make of his verbal familiarity.

I explained to my Lebanese friend that in New York and Chicago, Americans comment on life to people they have never seen before. During the sanitation strike of 1975, for example, I was waiting for the light on Fifth Ave. when a New Yorker beside me said, “Smells like the mayor, don’t it?”

I lived over in Brooklyn back then, where an amputee named Shorty always sat in his wheel-chair at Court and Bergen Streets. This was before the Yuppies moved in. Every day Shorty said to me, “You ain’t got nuthin’ to lose, do you pal?” I never heard him say it to anyone else, and he was not crazy: it was my personal tag-line.

I explained to Lebanese friend that this guy was from Philadelphia, the home of trash talk, mentioning Allen Iverson and the Eagles, but that didn’t create any light in Lebanon.

My fellow American, you see, violated a basic rule of the democracy of the gym: never presume that other people share your discourse. Or your taq hanak, as the Lebanese say. In the gym you have secretaries, pro athletes, passionate amateurs, the injured rehabbing wounds, thugs real and wannabe, people resenting their doctor’s orders, complete beginners, and old farts fleeing Father Time. The discourse of the gym is functional, and concerns repetitions, weights, plates, minutes, and “spots.” You will be misunderstood if you speak the idiom of your profession, your social clique, or your neighborhood. You will be asked to repeat yourself, and verbal reps are not the point.

In the nearly 40 years that I have gone to the gym, I have sampled the institution all over the world, from ritzy La Jolla to bellicose Beirut. My colleague’s faux pas made me realize that the gym is actually a lot like democracy, and not just in regard to discourse.

Gyms have different local cultures, and you must try to fit in. Leave your pre-conceptions in the locker-room. When I was younger I belonged to a gym in Vienna, Austria, by the name of “Dumbo Gesundheit und Kinder Klub.” Its street sign was a large, green, round elephant. To enter you descended an outside stair-well shared with a sex shop called ‘Erotik Pet.’ There were never any ‘kinder’ in our club, but there was a heck of a lot of drinking and smoking. The template for a gym in Vienna at that time was the eastern European shvitz , so there was a steam room, a massage table, and a bar where you could drink schnapps or beer, and get a steak if you were special. In the back was a regular weight room, where a number of exceptional young athletes worked out and a number of henna-haired omas rode stationary bikes. The instructor had been an Olympic wrestler, and he chanted “mehr, besser, ober!” as we bench-pressed. But if you didn’t do “more, better, and over,” he just smiled. The smell of cigarettes often drifted back to the weight area and I, in my Puritanical resentment, asked him if this was healthy. “Of course not,” he said. I frowned at the paunchy bar-tender as I left that day. This went on for weeks, me getting angrier about the smoke because I thought I had an Austrian ally in management. I took it up with him again, but inexplicably he just shrugged, and I stomped off to the lockers. When I came out, he was sitting at the bar and motioned me over. “Here,” he said, sliding a tall glass of beer to me. “This is Fritz,” he gestured to the bar-tender, who was smoking a cigar. There was small talk about soccer and skiing. As it will, the beer dissolved my grip on my issue – this is the way we do it here, they seemed to be saying, “so come into the house.” After this I made a point of buying a beer every couple of weeks, even if I didn’t finish it, and every time I walked into the gym afterwards I got a “Gruss Gott!” from Fritz. My idea of “health” was not necessarily shared.

A decade later I belonged to a gym in Japan that was completely opposite. I was a dirty gaijin and it was my manners that needed mending. Even if you have an abstract awareness of Japanese cleanliness, you will not be ready for the practical manifestations. You think you understand the inside/outside dichotomy, but you do not. Take shoes. You may walk into an American health club wearing your gym shoes and walk into the exercise area — wearing the same gym shoes.

At a Japanese gym you check your street shoes in a locker, before entering the changing room, which you always traverse in socks or special sandals (or barefoot, if you stretch the rules) until you reach the gym door, where you put on your “gym shoes.” If you are a good citizen this requires carrying sandals and gym shoes to the gym. This makes your gym bag bulge, and if you’re one of those Americans whose bag is the size of an SUV, and just as difficult to park, you’re in trouble. You should be studying miniaturization; you should be paying attention when a Japanese woman unfolds layers of micro-towels, shoes, and cosmetics from a pack the size of your wallet. Clothes can be a form of origami.

If you try to wear those outside gym shoes inside, the guardian of the gate will stop you: Kitanai! (filthy!) Like one of those fearsome Nio warriors who guard temple gates, a club employee stands by the locker-room exit, especially at times when foreigners work out, to make sure everyone is pure of foot.
The shoe change is only partially about dirt: it is just as much a ritual, which happens to be about consideration for others. In the Japanese gym, you have always had to wipe down every piece of equipment after you finish. While this is now common in American gyms, in Japan you purify the equipment, like a sumo wrestler tossing salt to sanctify the terrain of combat. The sight of Japanese women, with the heft and perspiration of butterflies, scrubbing down the bench press after they finished was mystifying to me. You see, there was also a smelly “salary man” who worked out, and he wiped down too: I would detour to other equipment, but the butterflies worked in with him. They pretended not to notice his violation of the air space. It was a ritual of equality, and he was the proof of its necessity. Even if you don’t smell bad, you clean up as if you did, because maybe you do. And even if you don’t think your shoes are dirty, someone else might. A citizen of the gym follows the rituals out of consideration for others, just as one doesn’t play loud music late at night or throw trash on the ground.

Yet the gym is not a complete democracy. It has stars. Usually they grew up in the gym, so they understand the system. One day at my gym in Cleveland I went to an obscure corner to stretch and warm up. There was Robert Smith, the star running back at Ohio State who had just been drafted by the Minnesota Vikings, skipping rope with the grace and economy of a boxer. He looked up to see if I was going to bother him – he was a very recognizable guy – and then shifted his skipping slightly so that I could stretch on the barre. Smith snuck in and out of the gym all summer, unassuming, focused on his workout, careful not to get in our way and hopeful that we would not get in his.

Charles Oakley, the former pro basketball player, also worked out at my gym sometimes, but he did not have the “unassuming” gene. Known as the “enforcer” of the New York Knicks, Oakley in his prime was 6’ 8” and 225 pounds – not particularly big for a power forward. But when he was on the lat pull-down machine you saw why he had been one of the top ten rebounders every year between 1987 and 1994. He moved the entire weight stack effortlessly, and when doing so he seemed to take up a lot more space than he actually occupied. Everyone gave him the respect he deserved, and he didn’t abuse it. He joked with but respected the authority of the trainers. He didn’t hog the equipment – even when most of us just wanted to watch his lattismus dorsi. One young woman, the story goes, didn’t recognize him and asked if he “was finally finished’ with the pec deck. “Yes I am,” he said, jumping up to re-set the seat and weight stack for her. He sometimes brought his teammates, whom he took to East Cleveland to eat his mother’s home cooking. “If it ain’t broke, don’t break it,” Oakley said, and that’s just the way he approached the gym.

By the same token, you may not recognize the truly talented. CEOs and presidents look just like everyone else in their shorts, and that’s good. Robert Gries, the financier and co-owner of the Cleveland Browns, was just another guy at my gym. Even after he broke his pelvis in a cycling accident at age 74, he insisted on being just another guy. But the best athlete I ever saw in the gym was a triathlete named Missy Morlock. When winter foreclosed on running outside, she appeared on the treadmill, running sub-six minute miles effortlessly. Aerodynamic, lightweight, sipping her water bottle occasionally, she only deigned to sweat after the fourth mile. The treadmillers around her didn’t understand — she was running 5:40 miles — but they intuitively gave her the space and time that she required. When she finished, Missy walked over to the swimming pool and swam a couple thousand yards. It was the same there: you could share her lane, but you’d rather just watch.

Anyone who tries to stand out by clothing is suspect at the gym. I used to work out at the same time as a tiny female bodybuilder, and you would suspect neither her muscles nor her beauty under the baggy sweats that she wore. “Oh my achy, breaky heart,” she would sing when a lycra-wrapped secretary walked in. One of the trainers was a champion bodybuilder, a woman whose biceps rivaled my thighs. But she never used her physique or her attire (black terrycloth sweat suits) to tell anyone who she was. In fact when my ectomorphic son began to lift weights to build up for soccer, she took him on pro bono, putting him through her regimen for a month. The democracy of the gym recognizes effort and talent, not appearances.

Since gyms have become popular, there are now assimilation problems. Newcomers think they need “personal trainers,” who should make charming small-talk and shield them from the hoi polloi. As beginners they are permitted to sit on equipment while learning, and when they move into the general gym population they act as if they held franchises. I was once waiting quietly about ten feet away from a newcomer who was resting on the abdominal machine. I had finished the rest of my workout. I fidgeted, I coughed, I looked at her. She avoided my gaze, reading Glamour magazine. Finally she said, “If you don’t leave me alone, I’m going to tell the management to remove you.” I went and got the management for her; they informed her that she was squatting — “hogging the machine.” The word “hogging” made a deep impression. In truth the gym had failed to communicate “the rules” to this newcomer, and we were not doing her any good by allowing her to disregard them.

This was a problem in Lebanon too: people were allowed to camp out on equipment. It was a reflection of what the Lebanese did in daily life, stopping to converse in doorways and on staircases, double-parking, ignoring stop signs and lights, as if congestion were the point of life. On one hand, because of the social and religious divisions, no one wanted to say anything and risk offending someone from another sect (a 15-year-long civil war ended in 1990). Preserving face was everything. All relationships were “personal,” and you could not invoke a shared understanding of “the rules” to make anything more efficient. The culture did not insist on leveling and purity, as in Japan, and no one was forced to adapt to everyone else, as I was in Vienna. But there were signs of change. The gym had an all-city bench-press competition, with divisions for women and for the handicapped. And a new sign appeared: “Towel required to use gym.” There was an election coming up, and I think the changes were not coincidental. The gym is a good sign of the political climate, and I expected someone to ask to “work in” with me. That would be a good day.

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