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Inside the Tribal Gym
I enter the pleather jungle. The cloying scent of twenty years of perspiration mixes with newly washed hand towels and Germ-Ex. Grunts and sighs of desperation and clinks and clanks of metal machines swirl together assaulting my brain. This is the gym. My gym. The hunt is on; no one will escape unchanged. I walk in unashamed and, so far, unadorned in tribal gear, yet ready to begin my routine workout. The simple fact is I just want to work out; however, everyone else seems to be working something out.
I sign in: scrawled proof that I have entered into this mad house by my own free will. I walk down the carpeted path of judgment. Eyes bulge, noses flair, “Are you with us or are you against us?” seems to be the question on everyone’s sweaty lips. I try to persuade them with glances here and there, I come as a friend to join you in these rituals. Please don’t eat me, okay? I am accepted, the hulking skinheads are now giant teddy bears. This is where they create themselves, this is where they build their muscles and their persona, this is their second home and I have been welcomed.
I head to the girls’ locker room. This is the real toss-up. I make a bet with myself every time before I open the door that there will be a naked woman inside. Nine times out of ten times I win the bet. Some women just flaunt it whether they’ve got it or not. More power to ya. That’s all I can say. #309, that’s my locker number, my turf, my territory. I adorn myself in the classic tribal gear: hair tie, running shorts, and Nikes. Now only one hurdle is left before I am released into the wilderness: I must pass by the showers. The crinkled limp curtains barely conceal the form within, they might as well be made of see-through plastic.
I have escaped and I survey my surroundings. I squint my eyes and everything becomes a sea of brown with spots of hot pink, yellow, and baby blue. There is brown fake leather everything. The owners claim to have recently re-upholstered all of the equipment but I seriously question that. The carpet is brown and black, which fits in nicely with the decor. I always thought that it could easily hide any stains of blood, battle wounds. The spots of bright colors are actually yoga balls in various sizes that are haphazardly splayed across the floor. These giant balls remind me of an oversized replica of the ball pit at McDonalds. There is a sign over the entrance to this rusty red brick walled cave that reads, “PLEASE don’t drop weights on the floor.” The clanging and primal grunting continues.
The gym has everything. They've got classic hand weights which range in size from five pounds to twenty five pounds. Ok fine, I admit, yes, I do use the five pound ones. They've got that obscure machine in the far right-hand corner which can only be described as a torture tool. They always have music that pumps me down more than it pumps me up. And what gym could exist without posters of yoga poses, exercise plans, and veggies. There’s even an inspirational one near the exit that reads, “You’re never too old to work out!” Really? I refuse to believe these peppy words. There is most definitely an age where it is unsafe to be plugging along on a treadmill. Trust me, I have seen the type.
I head to the ellipticals. Score! My favorite machine is free. I gleefully hop on, plug in, and tune out. I’m in my own little bubble with music. I can jam out and no one will know what I’m listening to. It’s freeing; a break from the jungle unless, cough cough, your volume is so loud that, yes, people really can hear “My Humps” by the Black Eyed Pees through your iPod head phones! I continue the hunt for who I will become as my humps bounce to the beat.
I assess the competition. To my left is a man dressed head to toe in jean material. I don’t know how he breathes, but he’s jogging away on the elliptical. “Yep...I’ll send those... packages.... over to you tomorrow,” he manages to say between gasps. Ah, now I remember, he’s the one who is always on his cell phone while running. He has made a life out of work by boxing items for other people, but can’t unglue himself from the life he has sandwiched himself into like corrugated cardboard. What does it take to avoid that fate? To my right there is guy who I swear I’ve seen before. He’s drenched in sweat and his formally gray beater is now moist and black in patches. He smells like steamed frustration and he has the fan on. Yes, I’m downwind of him. Here, you come to expect these types of things. Wait, could it be my art teacher Mr. Heller? No, he would never come around these wild parts.
The stretching room is a whole other issue. There are separate women’s and men’s weight rooms and the stretching room divides them. First of all, bad design. Second of all, stretching seems, to me anyway, like the most intimate part of the whole gym experience. Do I really want old guys in there with me, grunting as they try to touch their toes? No, simply no. The infamous bad a** Barbie doll strides in. She’s in her forties and ties her platinum blond hair in uneven pigtails. Her rainbow striped knee highs cover up a shark tattoo and hide a scar. I pretend to stretch as I watch her complete thirty pull ups. Damn, I was so happy that I could do one! She works out with purpose like she needs her muscles to protect herself from something or someone. She is like a tag sale doll. Even though there is the imprint of permanent marker on her, there is still hope that a little girl will scoop her up and invent a new story.
I am not the only one in the stretching room gawking at the Barbie. There are also two freshmen boys with chicken arms, who I usually see in the weight room. No matter how hard they try, they can’t seem to bulk up. At least I am not alone in my wild pursuits. One of these boys I call Sid, because he is the spitting image of the buck-toothed sloth from Ice Age. I’m not trying to be mean. He seems nice but we never talk. I am always running. If I can’t “bulk up” and talk to Sid, what will I do about the one I actually like. For now, I’ll stick to sideways glances and tentative smiles.
I return to my territory of #309 in the locker room, no naked women this time. RATS, I lost the bet! In their place are two high school girls I only know by sight. They are regulars at the gym, but only familiar with the stretching room. I catch one of them saying, “So you want to get ice cream after this?”
The second one responds with, “Well I don't know....”
“We could get the good kind, like from Friendly’s.”
“Well, ok!” the hesitant one responds. How eager we are to please.
They escape through the front door. Soon I must try and do the same. But first I take one more deep inhale of sweat and Germ-Ex to remember, savoring for a moment the pure, almost animalistic nature of this place. In the shadows of the cave we work out our problems or, like me, simply run away from them. But now it’s time to emerge from this pleather landscape, wave goodbye to the giant teddy bears, and once again become people like everyone else instead of sweaty animals.