Let me see if I can get this right...
Today, I went to the gym.
I didn't really want to, all that much. In the first place, my right shoulder is still sore, from my stupid mistake during a workout last week. And I'm sure there were better things I could have been doing. But, honestly, I knew that if I didn't go to the gym, I would just waste the day, waiting until it was time to drive to New Brunswick for choir rehearsal, so I packed my bag, and dragged myself out to the car.
Besides, I needed to get some prescriptions filled, and why not drop them off on the way to Summit, and pick them up on the way back? How environmentally responsible of me.
And here's the part I want to try to get right -- which is: what really goes on at the gym, at least for me. Aside from my resentment at having to pay to park anywhere near the building, that is.
I sort of like arriving at the gym -- I've been there often enough that people at the front desk seem to recognize me, which I find pleasant. Then I go downstairs to the men's locker room. Which is not so pleasant.
Not that there's anything wrong with it -- it's been refurbished recently, with new lockers and new shower stalls and I think they took up the problematic indoor-outdoor carpeting, and laid a new tile floor. No, it's just the men's locker room thing in general, for me.
First, I do not look at anyone, even though I yearn to watch each and every man there. And not just because I'm a gay man, either -- most of them aren't really that interesting, physical-specimen-wise. No, what I'm interested in is seeing what these men do. How they approach the simple operation of changing clothes, or arranging their locker, or engaging (or not engaging) with the other men who might be there. If I'm there, and there's another man using a locker in the same row I've chosen, I almost always kind of pretend that I'm all by myself. In my peripheral vision, I can kind of tell what he's doing, or where he is, and whether he's dressed or not. But otherwise, I have no idea whether he takes his clean underwear out of his gym bag, and stows it on the top shelf of the locker, like I do, or if he leaves everything in his gym bag until he's done with his workout.
This may seem unimportant, but in fact I don't really know a lot about how other men do things. I remember, years ago, when I first began working out, in Hoboken, and the t-shirts with the sleeves torn off became the cool look at the gym, and I had no idea how these guys all managed to adopt the same look -- a kind of studied yet careless, casual yet highly inflected choice of costume. How did they figure out what to do, to get their shirts to do that particular drape-y thing? I never did find out.
After I dress, I generally use the bathroom before going up to the workout rooms, and here too I tend to hide myself. I feel very self-conscious in men's rooms, and dread making any sound of any kind. This can often present problems.
When I'm upstairs again, in my workout clothes -- generally the t-shirt I was wearing on the way in, plus a pair of disreputable, paint-stained shorts, of which I have so many. Old Adidas sneakers, only worn for the gym. Those little white socks that don't show about the shoe tops. A pen in one pocket of my shorts, a pair of glasses in another. The Y provides nice workout towels, and I always grab one, on the way into... The Strive® Room.
At this point, I begin to operate in a kind of trance, in a way -- the routine is so set -- the way I pull my workout record sheet from the filing cabinet, and jot down all the day's weight settings, and attach everything to a clip board. But I'm also keeping an eye on the room itself, noting who's where, and what he or she is doing. I'm very territorial in the gym, and almost always feel as though I'm going to get into an argument with someone at any time.
I'm hyper-aware of those folks who come in and don't use the equipment in the proper order, as laid out in the signage on the wall. I'm alert for those who might as well not be exercising at all, their form is so bad on whatever machine I'm using. I feel old and decrepit, if there's a younger guy using this particular room -- which, usually, there isn't. I feel strange and embarrassed, if I'm younger than the other exercisers. I feel slightly defensive, because after I'm done using a piece of equipment, I wipe it down with my towel, instead of with a paper towel and that spray stuff that's all the way at the other end of the room. I rationalize my choice by telling myself that I'm saving paper. When some other patron makes what I think is a big effort at cleaning the machines, with that paper towel and mystery spray, I feel judged and contaminated.
But because I can pick and choose my schedule, I'm often the only one in the room. And I zip through in under half an hour, as a rule.
My least favorite part is the portion of the workout done while facing the wall of mirrors covering half of the room. I don't like looking at myself, but I can't take my eyes away. I can't judge myself harshly enough, and at the same time, I'm desperate to find something appealing and attractive about myself.
There are actually two or three men I kind of talk with, if they're around while I'm exercising, but in most cases, I don't know their names. I suspect that everyone there is a wealthy Republican.
When I'm done with what would be the 'weight lifting' portion of the routine, I go into the cardo room, and if I'm lucky, I'll take one of the treadmills I prefer, and start a twenty-minute walk.
I used to think treadmills were among the most useless and stupid possible pieces of equipment, but somehow I've come to prefer these over the elliptical trainers I used to use -- John and I dubbed these 'bizarr-o-trons' because they seem so... bizarre -- and I like to crank the pace up to about 4.5 mph, or so the dial says. I have to hold onto the side bars at this pace, because I tend to lose my balance a little, but I try to make it plain to everyone who isn't watching me at all, that I'm just touching the rails with the tips of my fingers -- not cheating at all, at all.
And while I walk, I do one of the following things -- or more than one, depending. I watch the Discovery Channel, even though I don't have earbuds, and so can't hear what they're saying. Also, I leave the workout progress screen up on the viewing panel, which means that all I see of the Discovery Channel is the top of someone's head, and maybe their shoulders. Or similar truncated bits of TV viewing. While I'm sort of looking at this meaningless visual stimulation, I count to myself, usually to 100, and then starting over again. I might also watch someone else's TV monitor screen -- if there are three or four exercisers in the row in front of me, I'm often amused to note how many people are tuned to the same football game that's being shown on one of the three giant flat-screen TVs suspended from the second-floor railing.
Today, on one of the big overhead screens, a financial show was being aired, and I was fascinated by what looked like a panel of experts, expounding on what should be happening, and where and how and when. There was a blonde woman and a brunette, both Caucasian. There were three Anglo men, one of whom has male pattern baldness. There was one African American male, dressed nicely like the others, in a conservative suit and tie, and looking dapper, with his silvery hair. While I watched, there wasn't a single close-up of this man, nor did it appear that he said anything during the entire section that I saw. I know he was a real person, because he nodded his head once.
Or, I can watch a cooking show, which can be disconcerting. Today, for instance, a blonde cook breaded and deep-fried some celery sticks, which she then slurped through what must have been a bowl of roquefort dressing, and then rolled her eyes with delight at how it all tasted. Counting to 100 is often the most interesting part of the exercise.
As often happens with me, once I get over the resistance to starting something, I develop a curious reluctance to stop. I use the 'five, or even-number' rule, to decide when I'm finished with my walking routine. Once the twenty minutes are up, I continue walking until the expended calories reach a number ending in five, or zero. This is largely meaningless, as it rarely takes me more than a minute to round the caloric count up just a bit, but I'm helpless in my compulsions.
Oh, and of course, while I'm walking to nowhere, I'm keeping an eye on all the other guys who are in the room, exercising too. Some, because what they're doing seems so stupid, some because they seem like gods on earth. And, as in the locker room and the 'Strive®' room, I talk with no one.
And then it's back to the locker room, to clean up and leave. This is perhaps the most perilous part of my day at the gym, because I will have to be naked (and judged, I'm sure) by the other men who might be there.
I'm usually good at the getting undressed part, and quickly wrap myself in the big towel I bring from home for the purpose -- the workout towels aren't nearly large enough for any serious drying of the human body, in my opinion. I hang my towel and locker key on one of the hooks at the near end of the shower room -- self-conscious, a bit, because my key is looped onto a length of pink chalk line, but again, I doubt if anyone has ever noticed -- and pick one of the plein-air showers for my ablutions. In the remodeling, a row of small stalls was built on one long shower room wall, but they seem too small and cramped for me, so in spite of my trepidations, I shower out in the open. And, again, because I time my exercise period to come after the lunch-time crowd, and before the after-school influx, I'm often alone in the shower room too. Everyone once in a while, some guy comes in from the swimming pool, and there's another ritual I can't really watch. Or men use the steam room, but I've never been inside it. It's stressful enough, not wanting to watch the other men under the hot water, without being in an enclosed space, with all of us sitting and facing each other. Too confusing for me.
Once I've washed myself a couple of times, I dry off and weigh myself, and then go back to the locker to dress and get ready to leave. If anyone is going to show up, it will be about at this point in my visit -- and there seems to be an unwritten, unproven law, dictating that, if there are only two men in a locker room, the lockers they have chosen to use with be right next to each other. I might make a joke about this, and get a tepid response, and then there's no conversation again. Under the guise of brushing my semi-wet hair, I sneak a look at myself in one of the big mirrors, and apply some moisturizer, which I'm sure is somehow not quite the done thing, but again, because I don't feel free to watch what other men do, I can't know for sure.
And this is it. I pack my damp workout clothes in one end of my gym bag, fold my big bath towel and lay it on the outside of the bag, and leave the building. Tossing my used workout towel in the proper bin. Enjoying the way I feel when I walk up the steps to the front door.
I go through this routine, or something close to it, twice a week, if possible. It's supposed to be good for me, and I'm sure that, on some level, it is. But this bi-weekly immersion in a strange world I despair ever of understanding, or of feeling entitled even to enter, does take something of a toll, somehow. Because, no matter how valid my membership is, or how many people say hello when they see me, I still somehow feel like a thief.
© 2013 Walter Zimmerman