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What makes a good gym?

Good
Gyms are from Heaven

A
gym is any place an athlete and his training apparatus meet: chinning
and dipping bars in the basement, the track and field at a local
high school, stairs and hills in the neighborhood, a punching bag
hanging in the garage or a bar and a heap of dinged plates in the
corner of a bedroom.

I
started with the chins and dips at the
very tender age of eight and graduated
without haste to the weights under the
bed by my tenth year. As an authentic musclehead by the end of my
teens, I pursued my master’s
degree through research and study at various
muscle institutes across the globe. There were numerous gymnasiums
of prominence, from New York to Rhodesia, and they served me well.

One
does not pick up a weight in a gym in a
back alley of central Madrid or Reg Park’s smart fifth-floor health club in Johannesburg
without learning something special, very special. Choosing a pair
of dumbbells from a rack in Vince’s Gym with Don Howorth
on your left and Larry Scott to your right does not leave you unchanged.
The lessons learned are often misplaced, but never lost; they are
deeply and privately stored away, but not forgotten; their effects
are present in one’s being always, but not necessarily distinct
and discernable.

However,
some experiences are overpowering and they
reappear frequently, giving indication
of their profound influence in one’s formation
and education. I’ve created a list I call Most Unforgettable
Gyms in an exercise to recall and relive
the occasions that so stimulated me in
the years gone by. I hope we both learn
something new or stir up something old worth remembering. Life
constantly refreshes itself.

YMCA
boiler room gym in Elizabeth, NJ

My
first venture in weight training outside
the confines of the bedroom gym (three
such bar-under-the-bed arrangements from
ages 12 to 19 years) was celebrated at the classic YMCA in Elizabeth,
New Jersey. The building was old in 1960, in an old part of the congested
old town, and the gym was in the oldest part of the building, a room
in the basement… next
to the boiler. Where else? The room was
shaped like an L with each intersecting protrusion the size of a
bedroom. I was doomed, it seemed, to cramped bedroom-size training
and feared I might not grow spacious, living-room-size muscles.

The
area was packed with scattered weights,
boards that served as benches and loud,
robust dock workers, I think. Can you say
the word, ‘zoo’?
I was thrown into the den of madness by Joey Dinetta, the reigning
Mr. New Jersey and my new buddy, who promised to show me the ropes.
I’d never seen nor heard of Olympic bars or plates, nor had
I witnessed more than one pair of dumbbells
at one time in one place. Iron was everywhere,
leaning, lying flat and moving fast up
and down and left and right.

Once
I got used to ducking or hitting my head on various low-slung water
pipes and bumping into walls, bodies and equipment, I found myself
responding to the energized social atmosphere, the big bars and
the diversity of exercises. I learned, I grew and life was good.

Jersey
City Vic Tanny’s Gym

After
a season in the low-ceilinged subterranean
twin cubicles in need of paint, light,
ventilation and space, to say nothing of
some version of adequate equipment, I headed for the city — Jersey
City. Vic Tanny was making his way around the country, gyms here
and there, during the late ‘50s and the early ‘60s.
Right in the heart of Journal Square — Jersey City’s miniature
version of Times Square — on the second floor above Kinney’s
shoes, Orange Julius and a woman’s fine apparel shop, Vic
opened a sprawling 3,000- square-foot chrome-plated
and red-rugged gym for men and women. Three
walls were mirrored and one wall was windowed,
overlooking the bustling Square below.

There’s
the Greyhound bus station (where’s everybody goin’?)
on the far side of the Lowe’s Theater (Psycho is playing
this week) and I can see three shiny banks
on three different corners (money, who
has money?). The world is growing fast.

I
learned I disliked chrome weights; they
are heavier and less friendly. Mirrors
are obnoxious; they are depressing and
distracting. Electronic devices with rolling wooden rollers or vibrating
belts don’t
work; what were they thinking? Certain
crowds are impossible; those liking chrome
weights, mirrors and electronic devices.

I’d
have quit, but they shut down only three
months after I joined. Here today, gone
tomorrow, like many health enthusiasts.

Mid-City
Gym on 42nd in NYC

During
my last year in Jersey, before heading
for California, I would occasionally take
a bus through the Lincoln Tunnel to the
New York Port Authority and walk a block to Tommy Minichello’s
Mid-City Gym on 42nd Street. Another upstairs gym,
Mid-City expressed hard use, displayed
no chrome, offered a few useless dusty
and tarnished mirrors and overlooked the colorful stream of hurrying
New Yorkers seen through, as I recall, the heavy and rusting structure
of a neon sign or a fire escape. My attention was on the weights.

I
was in New York City, on the outer edge of my territory, among
the tough guys. I kept busy, nodded and made friends with Tommy,
mainly cuz he made friends with me. Heroes and the best of people
are found in the strangest places. I always felt taller and stronger
after training at Mid-City. I was among the tough guys — quiet,
mild-mannered me. I survived, I grew.

The
Dungeon in Santa Monica

You’ve
heard enough about this sanctuary in recent
Bomber stories: endless cracks in wide
floors, high ceilings and tall walls; long
narrow wooden staircases condemned by the unseen management, yet
frequently negotiated by brutes; rusting iron and splintered wood
equipment in the dim light of night and day; passion and knowledge
and understanding dripping down the walls and from the ceiling like
the warm beer escaping the taps of the bar overhead; entry doors
hanging askance by their remaining twisted hinges. The place was
perfect in every way.

Paul
Graham’s abandoned warehouse gym in a Sydney beach neighborhood

I
stayed in Bondi Beach and walked five long
blocks each morning for a month to Paul’s gym, Sydney, Australia.
I was there to promote bodybuilding and
Paul was the promoter (among many other
interesting and worthy things — some legendary — too numerous
to mention here and now). The gym reminded me of the Dungeon where
I regularly trained in California, except it was ground level.
Big difference; I found the incoming light and nearness to civilization
a distraction.

It
was being in Australia clinging to the
underside of Earth and working out with
Paul and his buds that made the training
each morning so memorable. Apart from that, nothing changed — the
same black, white and grey colors; the same used, time-darkened,
generations-old steel; the same inventions and improvisations of
crates, construction lumber and pipes; the same bench press, barbell
curl, squat and deadlift and the same recognizable groans of strange
satisfaction. Our mates so far away didn’t do
it any differently than we did — guts
and passion. No wars with this mob.

Billy
Moore’s pigeon coop gym in a Sydney suburb

When
we weren’t training at Paul’s digs, we spent the mornings
in a converted pigeon coop in Mascot, a quaint suburb of Sydney.
How quaint can one get? The pigeons were relegated to the coops
at the back of the property, while the sturdier sheds behind Billy’s
cottage were renovated to suit the humble
needs of the local robust muscleheads.
Another rugged patch of metal and hand-fabricated
apparatus rose to the occasion: a gym built of necessity and desire.

You
haven’t trained till you’ve trained where pigeons once
cooed, mated and pooped.

Serge
Nubret’s short subterranean gym in Paris

Now
here was a place for one workout only.
Again, under an old building on the corner
of an old intersection in an old town,
in this case Paris, where they speak French and do French things.
Drawbacks included a ceiling that was six feet high and lifting areas
that were portioned into small rooms, each accessible by a 5’6″-inch
doorway. Ducking was continual and I never
quite stood erect — this is not easy on
the back or good for the attitude. It was
also dark and airless. Do you want to scream?

None
of this troubled Serge. He was at once a prince and a pauper. He
was also bench pressing 400 for reps on his second set while I
was feeling my way along the walls and holding my forehead like
a wounded soldier crawling off the battlefield in the night. I
worked out, but my movements were abbreviated and tense and eternal.
I longed for the Dungeon, an upscale penthouse in my mind.

Joe
Gold’s original Gold’s Gym in Venice

The
featured gym of the Golden Era was a cinderblock bunker six feet
off Pacific Avenue, a simple rectangle big enough for the sinewy
handful interested in strain, pain and sacrifice in those days.

It
was clean, bright, airy, orderly, sufficiently spacious, reasonably
jerk-free and emitted gym noise only. The dumbbells were plentiful,
where they belonged and the handles were thick. The bars were as
straight as arrows and sat on racks of steel and rubber-matted
platforms designated for heavy lifting. The plates were stored
like precision machinery parts on stout plate racks. The equipment
was built by Joe for rhinos: large pulleys, heavy cables, indestructible
benches and big chinning and dipping bars. Running toilets, showers
and a drinking fountain topped off the amenities. A brute could
be spoiled.

The
place was built for building and build
it did. Eventually a few girls showed up
on the scene and we knew the times they
were a changin’. Evolution and revolution took place within the
four walls of Venice’s Joe Gold’s Gym, circa ’65 through
the early ’70s.

World
Gym, Santa Cruz

I
saved the best for last. Every good thing one could put into a
gym to build strong backs, strong minds and strong spirits was
carefully installed in the World Gym of Santa Cruz and duplicated
in Scotts Valley: just the right floor size filled with Cybex,
Hammer, Bodymaster, York and Ivanco, tall walls and high ceilings,
a large loft to separately house the aerobic equipment, simple
colors in bold contrasts, order in layout and decoration in deference
to busy-ness and trendy-ness in ornamentation, sound government
to live by (no jerks and put your weights away, no cussing and
no cell phones), cool music to boost not bust or burst the focused
action on the floor and air from the ocean through the front door
and out the back door. Oxygen, space, gorilla equipment, cool sounds,
low stress and good vibes pump you up. No girly-men allowed.

I’ve
run out of space and time, but not out of memorable gyms. Besides,
I don’t want to crowd your mind when you have gyms experiences
of your own to recollect. Old memories
can serve as fodder for inspiration, revived
training plans, lost hope and renewed enthusiasm.
Bombers are forever, someone once said. Believe it.

You
can leave the hangar doors unlocked when
you go, no one will steal anything. It’s all free anyway.

Carry
on and greet the eagles where they play.

God’s
speed and strength… DD

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