It sure isn't the same anymore at the old gym. It used to reek of liniment and sweat, and the stairs echoed with grunts all the way down to the street. You kept your gear rolled up in a damp towel tucked under your arm, and you went with an oldtimer until the guy at the front door got to know your face. From then on, you were greeted with a silent nod when you came in. You worked out in a dimly lit room beneath a ceiling of peeling paint, and if you were lucky, there was a place to shower. But it just isn't the same anymore.
I thought the gym would put up more of a fight, but even the term itself has passed into disuse. Today it's known as a health club or a fitness center. Or worse, a spa. You need a laminated card to get in, and if you bring a friend, he has to sign a waiver and leave a deposit before he can pass the desk. The gym doesn't smell the same because of the air conditioning. And it doesn't sound the same because of the carpeting, which dulls everything. The mirrored walls look funny, too, like something out of a fun house.
Even the signs at the old gym were different. They told you to put the weights back where you found them and not to spit on the floor. Your reasons for coming were your own. The spas have too many rules, and the employees ask too many questions. At the old gym, people hardly said a word. There weren't as many distractions, either. You found a quiet corner somewhere and did what you came to do. Nobody bothered you. There wasn't any music. There weren't any girlie posters. If sweat got in your eyes, you wiped your face with the ripped T shirt you had on. If it was hot, you soaked your handkerchief in ice water and wrapped it around your neck.
The old gym didn't have locker room attendants with fancy offices and towels for rent. The guy at the front door looked up from his scratch sheet once in a while to make sure everything was all right. Whatever you forgot, you did without. You had a beer or soda before you left the house. There were no such things as juice bars, and nobody kept a program chart. The routine was all in your head. You saw things were starting to pay off because your body looked it and the collars on your shirts felt tighter.
There were characters in the old gym, too, not just members. Guys who could snap off bottle caps with their teeth. They might have been overweight, but they were never short on guts. They were truck drivers and common laborers, and they broke their backs at jobs that provided enough exercise for anybody. The gym was where they came to let off steam, not to tone their muscles or flatten their stomachs. Sometimes you took a break and watched some old pros go a few rounds in the back room, just for fun. Or a name weightlifter dropped by and gave you a few pointers. It was the best place in the world to be. Not like today, with aerobics and yoga going on in the back room. The machines have gotten so complicated, you're afraid to touch anything with more than one moving part.
In the old days, you could always tell when someone had just finished a workout. His cheeks were red, and his hair was combed back wet. If there was someplace to go afterward and he could borrow a razor, then he shaved. But today, men spend more time in the locker room than they do in the gym. After they go for a swim or soak in the whirlpool, they take a sauna, sit in the steam bath and maybe stick around for a massage.
Women, of course, have sealed the old gym's fate for good. No one is questioning their right or their ability to exercise. But why must they do so under the same roof as we men? The only women we used to allow in the old gym were those in photographs, safely hidden away in our wallets. The problem is, women bring too much class to the place. They look good at the wrong time. How can a man relax when he constantly has to think about what he's going to say? The whole idea of both sexes sharing the same exercise room at the same time is too progressive, too civilized.
Isn't it enough what's happened to the old gym already? Was it necessary to uproot it from the old neighborhood? It belongs where it used to be, within earshot of the El train or down the block from the school yard, not in some fancy shopping mall. It was never meant to become so popular. Traditions shouldn't be tampered with, and the gym served as a link to what we were and where we came from. It sure isn't the same.