20 Sep

He once joined a gym that required a notary seal on the membership application. Membership wasn’t for the gym itself, but for the body building club that gave you access to the gym. You didn’t pay gym fees, you paid membership dues. This was right after he had moved to New York. In his twenties, after more than two decades of skinny and sedentary life, he had begun to see that his sunken chest was beginning to sag, and his belly was somehow becoming flabby. He didn’t know how or why the idea of lifting weights became appealing, but he did know that it had more to do with vanity than concern for health. He joined a gym, got results, felt pleased with himself, and kept at it. By the time he moved to New York, working out with weights was important to him, something that made him feel better, but he soon found that he couldn’t afford the fees at the big chain gyms and fitness boutiques that ruled in Manhattan. He discovered my gym on a walk one day. An intimidating little storefront on East 6th that announced itself as “The Home of the Gladiators." It had the clannish atmosphere of a local bar in a small town, and it took several days for him to work up the courage to go inside. It was dark in there; light came from a front window that was mostly covered with bodybuilding posters, a grimy skylight, and a couple windows facing an airshaft at the back. The ceiling was low, and the place was crowded with weights and machines that looked somehow larger and more imposing than the chromed gear he was used to seeing. He’d learn that most of the racks and machines were hand made by the owner, welded in his shop, painted gold, the benches and seats upholstered in red vinyl. The walls were covered with more bodybuilding posters and with photos of bodybuilders across several decades since the gym’s founding in the late sixties. Young men, slender to massive, some bulky, some ripped, almost all of them Puerto Rican. The owner sat at a high counter at the front. He was confused when the owner told him that he needed to have the application notarized. “You join a club, not a gym. It’s different,” the owner said. He was brusque to the point of being dismissive. He imagined that potential applicants must come in daily and never return. Either intimidated by the cultural divide or turned off by the dank basement smell. He couldn't claim that he was any less intimidated and uncertain, but the cost of the membership fees was a fraction of any other gym. He’d found a job at a restaurant in Brooklyn and was saving his cash, living close to rent free on a friend’s couch, and saving for his own place. his morale was low and he wasn’t sure he was cut out for New York. He needed a place to work out, to sweat, to appease his vanity and feel like he was doing something productive. He found a notary at a bank down the street and returned to the gym a day later with the notarized application and his initiation fee. He’d read the application and saw that he wasn’t signing a financial agreement or liability waver, he was signing a series of pledges. He was pledging to support the club. To support his fellow members. He was pledging to a standard of behavior in and out of the gym. He was pledging to be a part of something larger than himself. The owner watched him sign the application, shook his hand, and he was a member. In truth, there was very little club activity anymore. That heyday had wound down in the eighties. You could see that by tracing the visual history on the walls. By the time he was a member, there were no more big contests held on the beach or in local recreation halls, no more fund raisers. It was just the gym where the long time members worked out or came by to visit. There were showers and a small locker room downstairs, and sometimes one of the members, hard on their luck, would take up temporary residence there. It took weeks for him to become less than invisible to the regulars, weeks more before anyone asked his name and offered him theirs. In that time, no one was ever rude to him, and there was no suggestion of hazing. It was just that he hadn’t proven himself. After months of seeing him six mornings a week, working out hard, focused and serious, it seemed like he might be worth acknowledging. He worked out with the Gladiators for the six years he lived downtown. His seriousness fluctuated, but he was never less than a regular presence, coming in a minimum of three mornings a week. He doubted if any of them recognized a pattern. When things were going best for him, they would see him less, when times were troubled he would be there every day, straining to achieve something, if only a blank mind. Decades later, in New York for a few days of work, He had dinner in the old gym. It had closed several years before, and now the space had been renovated into a fancy restaurant with a reputation for very good food. He was meeting friends, brothers who he had met when they all tended bar in the same place just a few blocks away. The younger brother arrived first. He sported a long mustache with waxed ends and wore a pith helmet. There was nothing ironic in his look, this was him, this was how he dressed. He was an Air Force pilot, but didn’t serve beyond the three years required after he’d graduated from the Academy. Rather than become a professional pilot, he’d become a professional bartender. He was a downtown institution at several bars before he took a job in a plush barroom in Grand Central Station where he became a Manhattan institution. A serious man who loved to laugh, he was also a gifted artists who painted nothing but self portraits. Each one was vastly different from the others, and he only did one every few years. They would gestate over long periods of time before he executed them in a day or two. The only things they had in common was the subject matter and the fact that he was always entirely alone on the canvas. His older brother arrived a bit late, and very distracted, scattered; clean shaven, wearing a hamberg hat with a delicate feather tucked in the band. When younger, he had had fits of depression and was subject to obsessive behavior. He painted the walls, ceiling and floors of his room black. He collected all his spare change and rolled it in paper rolls and never exchanged or spent them. He wore only black jeans and black t-shirts, black cowboys boots, and a black leather motorcycle jacket. He was an undergraduate at Yale and had two graduate degrees from NYU. One in film and the other, mystifyingly to those who didn’t know him better, in musical theater. He knew things had gotten challenging for the older brother over the years. He knew there were multiple diagnoses, but wasn’t certain what they were. The older brother was nervous and edgy from the moment he sat down. They began to drink. The brothers were titanic drinkers who became quickly drunk and loudly but good naturedly rowdy and emotional. Both were physically imposing, with shaven heads and broad builds. He’d been an avid gym rat in earlier years, but the younger brother worked out with an acolyte’s fervor. Because of their appearance, they never got into bar fights no matter how loud or boisterous they became. Anyone who might typically be spoiling for an excuse to start a fight assumed the brothers must be fighters themselves, unaware that they were distinctly lovers. They drank and they quickly became drunk and loud. People at adjoining tables threw looks. He threw a couple looks back. Not confrontational, but understanding, he hoped. Yeah, it’s loud, he wanted my looks to say, but it’s all harmless and we’ll be gone soon anyhow. At their wedding, his wife and he had been astonished at how quickly the brothers got shit faced. The ceremony had ended and they’d gone upstairs to sign the license and take a few minutes for themselves. Coming back down to the reception, the brothers were the first people they saw, and they were clearly drunk as hell. How’d they managed to drink that much that fast? The answer, of course, was that they’d ridden in the bar car from New York to Washington DC for the wedding, and had cleared the top shelf of its supply of nippers of single malt scotches. “Five dollar single malts, mother fucker!” they informed him. Later on the night of the wedding night, he’d spend some time comforting the weeping older brother, distraught because he’d been stood up by his date, and the younger brother would pass out sitting up at the edge of the dance floor, looking magnificent in his tuxedo. The night they ate dinner in the former home of the Gladiators, they talked over old times. None of them felt like touring former haunts in the East Village, so the brothers took him to a few bars they frequented now. he sipped at his drinks. He couldn’t hold it like he used to, and didn’t want to get drunk. Also, he had to work in the morning. He was writing for a TV show about a famous caped super hero before he became a caped super hero. It was a silly show, but often fun to write, and he liked the work and the people he worked with and he didn’t want to fuck it up. He didn’t want to be tragically hungover, which he knew would be the result if he tried to pace the brothers. They hit a couple bars. The older brother became more settled, but the combination of booze and his meds had him slurring his words. The younger brother had sprinted ahead with his drinks. His mood was high, but melancholy was seeping in. He told them he needed to get back to his hotel so he could get to sleep and recover for work the next day. The brothers knew a bartender at a hotel across from his and walked with him. Really, whatever his destination, they would have known a bartender somewhere nearby. The drinking life in New York is a intimate thing. As they walked, the brothers encouraged him to come with them for one more drink. He wasn’t tempted. No part of him was eager to go at it like the old days. He didn’t have any desire to say "what the hell" and deal with the consequences later. He wanted to be in his hotel room, to call his wife and say goodnight. He wanted to be crisp in the morning and do a good job helping to produce an episode of TV. The brothers screamed at the tops of their lungs as they walked down Canal. “Five dollar single malts, mother fucker! Remember that?” They all hugged on the sidewalk. He told them he loved them. The older brother told him he loved him. The younger brother, more emotional at heart than either of the others, did not express himself that way. They went into their friend’s hotel and he went up to his room across the street. Before marrying, his wife and he decided to move in together, and through friends got a deal on a place on 55th between 5th and 6th Avenues. A coldly inhospitable neighborhood that catered to office workers, shoppers, and tourists. Affordability, like at the Gladiator Gym, was again the compelling factor. Days before the move, he went to the gym and told the owner that he wouldn’t be coming back. He was moving. The owner took his hand in his. “Where are you going?” the owner asked. He told him the address, and the owner patted his hand and released it, shaking his head. “You belong down here with us,” the owner said.&nbsp; He never had to have anything notarized to join the brothers’ club. They had recognized soon after they met that they were all members. It didn’t require anything but a willingness to bare your heart and show others what was inside of it. It was a club for people who saw that the world was a wounding place, who loved being in it all the same, but who also knew it could require regular numbing of the senses if one was going to last in such a state of vulnerability. When his own brother died, he went to them. They didn’t ask what he needed or for how long. They were there with him and would be there with him until he wanted to be alone. What else could they do?&nbsp; He should have stayed out with the brothers that night. Not because it was the last time he ever saw them. It wasn’t. The night marked no end or beginning that he know of. But they wanted his company for a little while longer, and with our without a notary, he was pledged to support the members of their club.<br>