Ah, the Good Ole Days
I remember when weights were 17 cents a pound, I grew like a weed and muscle aches were some sort of mystery my parents grumbled about. Recollection is an inevitable, involuntary and necessary process. It can be profitable, instructive, entertaining, insightful and painfully dull. Recollections and memories can also be ominous—guilt, fear and doubt are not infrequently lurking in their shadows.
My past resembles an edge-of-town junkyard littered with crumpled chassis, dismantled engines, threadbare tires and rusting fenders. Battered witnesses stand clutching the far side of the fence and stare inward. Imagined voices from the deteriorating images call out as a mob, Whatta bum, getta job, grow up, what’s it all mean, lift and shut up.
My blissful journey of innocent wonder started when I was 10 years old with a heap of battered weights totaling 100 pounds. At 10, 100 pounds sounds serious, grown-up, impressive, huge and worldly.
You’ve heard it all before, but what the heck: There they lay in my designated space on the bedroom floor, dumb, heavy and inert. While my brothers stepped over the dense and confined mess, I crawled under it, into it. I proceeded to haul the clattering and merciless load everywhere I went, treating it like treasure, food and shelter, a matter of life and death, the Holy Grail. Perhaps companionship—he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.
Soon enough I was 18 and the Newark YMCA was my introduction to working out in a gym. Ha! It was an afterthought crammed into a space adjacent to the boiler room and clogged with Olympic bars and benches from a defunct detention center. Order was nonexistent, and neither form nor focus was encouraged; grab ’n’ hoist was the preferred M.O. Move the iron, heft and toss it. I learned something right in learning everything wrong.
When I benched 400 for the first time, I was 19 and training at the far end of a snazzy Vic Tanny’s in Jersey City. The place looked more like a tawdry madam’s house than a gym, with red carpeting and chrome weights and mirror-covered walls and ceilings and strange electrical devices that wriggled and vibrated various puffy bodyparts. A few of the occupants—trendy rascals—wore leotards and tights.
And me, fresh from the Elizabeth Y—and plumbers, carpenters and cops, sweaty T-shirts, B.O. and expletives, splinters, leaky pipes and cold steel.
Anyhow, I pressed the chrome bar adorned with 18 shiny 20-pound plates (biggest in the house and gathered from all corners), two 10s and a pair of cutesy chrome collars. The contrivance was silly and unwieldy, and the racks upon which it balanced were spindly and chrome and attached tentatively to a bench upholstered in gold-flecked plastic. I could hear the tinkle of weights amid the Muzak in the background.
I considered asking for a spot, but the consequences of the request, should it be accepted, were unimaginable. Better alone than assisted by a dapper dude with trembling hands clasped over his tightly shut eyes. I warmed up, paced, peered out the second-story windows at the sparkling nightlife of Journal Square, pawed and sucked in air like a rhino and knocked out one good rep. Nobody cared. Better that way.
It’s all history now, in a nutshell, where it belongs.
Nevertheless, next stop, new job, another phase: the warehouse of Weider Barbell Company, alongside Leroy Colbert—you remember Leroy—for seated dumbbell alternate curls and overhead triceps extensions. A brief stint in Hackensack at American Health Studios, then a flight destined for L.A. and the doorstep of Muscle Beach Gym, a.k.a. the Dungeon, the home I’d been looking for.
Good day, sunshine. Hello, Southern California, 1963.
My second outstanding recollection of bench-pressing four plates and change—440, if my shaggy, braggy memory serves me well—was shortly before dawn in the dim yellow light of the silent, empty, grim and wonderful Muscle Beach Dungeon. I stared at the bent bar long after the clang of the last plate had ceased. What a stark contrast to the perky atmosphere 3,000 miles east and six months earlier. Freedom in captivity.