In Personal Best
there's a moment at the start of the 100-meter hurdles when Patrice Donnelly
settles into the blocks and bows her head before the starter. Her hair, in slow
motion at 120 frames, falls away from her neck as though she were clearing it
for an executioner's ax. It is the moment. You have defied the laws of nature
and of God—"I will run faster than anyone, jump higher and leap farther
than God or gravity allows." This you say to yourself as you prepare.
Training is an act of defiance, of rebellion—"I'll show God and the rest of
the world!" At the moment you settle into your man-made blocks and man-made
race, however, you accept the height of the hurdles, the length of the race,
the allowable tail winds. And you accept, therefore, your own limitations and
bow your head dutifully before the starter's gun. Having defied God, you now
commend yourself to him. I think of Jesse Owens at Berlin in 1936, taut and
beautiful, focused on the finish of the 100 as though the finish line he raced
to were the only future he would ever have. It is the supreme moment for the
athlete and the perfect balance of humility and arrogance to which the human
spirit can aspire.
Five years after
I first saw "Wally Wolf, swimming unattached," I met and worked out
with someone who, I have come to realize, had a certain similarity to
If he spun flax
into gold and insisted you guess his name, you'd probably have a hard time. He
wasn't secretive about it, but Harvey Easton never looked like a Harvey, not to
me anyway. He was never called much of anything else. I half suspect his wife
didn't know that Harvey wasn't his first name. He died more than 21 years ago,
and I heard his first name just today. It was Gordon.
saddens me somehow. Maybe it reminds me how much of him there was and how
little I hear of him anymore. Some people take more of life with them when they
leave it than they decently should and, for me, Harvey's departure was
indecency of the highest order.
There was about
him an impalpable thing, peculiar to Los Angeles as the air that was here once,
as refreshing and as difficult to describe. I don't know what's worse, being
unable to describe Harvey or being unable to describe something to Harvey.
There are people whose mere presence allows you to understand something
practically before you open your mouth to tell it to them. Harvey did that to
me. He was a touchstone, a compass, something to navigate by; no small thing in
a city whose air has been foul for so long I can't remember the last night I
looked up and saw the Milky Way or the North Star.
It wasn't that
Harvey was a genius. He wasn't. It wasn't that he was blessed with unique
insight or talent, though he had both and in a variety of directions. It was
that he was so maddeningly, immaculately healthy. More than with almost anybody
I ever met, it was hard to imagine a sick or unclean cell anywhere in Harvey's
body or brain. If ever anyone embodied the classic epithet, "Only in
L.A.," it would be Harvey and what happened to him, as far as I'm
occupied the top floor of a two-story building located at 8053 Beverly
Boulevard about three blocks west of Fairfax, on the north side of the street.
It was up 30 wooden steps that took you to the second floor like a shaft, and
to one large room that was never hot, despite the fact that it had no air
conditioning. The building itself was modest but solid, the architecture early
California Bank, out of the '20s or early '30s. Gray and almost of an adobe
consistency, with a flat roof of green sprinkled tar paper on which you could
sun yourself, its perimeter was fringed by a thin three-foot-high coping that
suggested something vaguely Aztec.
The room was a
long rectangle and had a polished oak floor and large rectangular
floor-to-ceiling windows, one every two or three feet on the two outside walls.
The windows were of steel sash, the casings cream-colored and opening outward,
looking as strong as Harvey and in color, construction and purpose suggesting
Harvey himself. Sunlight seemed to be pulled into the room (drawn is too
passive a word) in one column after another. The two interior walls were
covered with gleaming mirrors, and all the walls were ringed with nickel-plated
dumbbells, shining in their racks at waist level. The flat and incline benches
were covered with slick red oilcloth that had the look of a sou'wester and
semigloss paint, sturdy and clean. By the front desk there were a couple of
smart-ass signs and a card file, steel, shaped like a long safety deposit box,
and the color of fresh horse dung. From it you pulled a five-by-seven card with
your weight training program and to it returned the card after your workout. On
the card were the exercises Harvey had put down for you, after going over your
body, muscle group by muscle group, making comments in a professional tone that
was more of a thin foggy tilt, a playful necktie tenor about to break into a
"Ah, I see,
we'll look for a smaller thigh by the Fourth of July." A wickedly playful
stare as he'd crunch on a long-stemmed pipe between rows of perfectly even,
almost dainty, teeth.... "And a bigger latissimus by...Christimus." His
eyes were like brown little buttons that would seem to wiggle and rattle across
the whites, bumping up against the sides like the buttons in a Raggedy Andy's
eyes—that wide when he wanted them to be, that wicked, that perfect. He had a
knack for kidding himself without apologizing for himself, and for teasing you
while taking you seriously. And as you turned and he'd run his
corner-of-the-eye expertise up and down your backside, "A smaller keyster
by...Easter." That would pretty much do for a start.
usually anywhere from 13 to 18, were delineated on the cross-lined card
something like this: DB INCL BN 3X 60LB 8 9 6. That meant you were using
dumbbells on the incline bench, repeating the exercise three different times
with a minute's rest between, and doing eight, nine or six repetitions each
time you performed the exercise.