Saturday Nights at the Prison GymPosted: July 30, 2012
This summer, I traded in my membership at the Chinatown Y in favor of the outdoor gym down by the East River. Some people have been known to call it, with fondness, the “Prison Gym.”
This gym has no membership fees. Girls appear to get free trial passes. The only dues for everyone else seem to be the ability to bench press another entire man. Maybe it’s like that outdoor gym on Venice Beach in L.A., except that this one is down by the river, across the freeway from the projects.
I have learned a lot of new moves at the prison gym. I’m not positive, but I think my biceps might be getting bigger.
I like going to this gym so much, I sometimes even go on Saturday nights. Like last night. Around 8 o’clock, I edged past the girls teetering in their heels up First Avenue, and sashayed past the boys stopping to light cigarettes. I found my friend waiting for me at the usual bus bench, beside a tired-looking old man I had seen around. I smiled at both of them, and walked over.
My friend and I headed east, and after passing the projects on Avenue D we were greeted by the only air moving, the wind from the cars whipping up the FDR. We walked up the switchback ramp over the pedestrian bridge. The light was fading, and we raised our voices to talk over the din of the cars. The trees against the East River made navy blue silhouettes.
On the river side, we crossed the paved pathway over to the jungle gym. Two muscular men were there; it wasn’t too crowded yet. One stood watching the other rise up and down, vigorously doing pushups on a bar. As his body went up and down, his skin reflected light from a street light maybe, or the moon, and the rigid muscles on his shoulders and back gleamed like the hard shell of a turtle.
I walked over to the parallel bars, grabbed them with both hands and jumped, trying to get enough height to do some dips. My friend sauntered to the chin-up bars. I couldn’t get high enough, so I gave up and spun on the bars for a little while, Grade 3-style. I glanced over at my friend. He was struggling to do his eighth chin-up. They’re harder than they look.
A couple more men trickled into the gym, and an older kid with two younger boys in tow. He was teaching the boys how to cross-train (he explained to them intently). They were jumping up and down onto a bench. I admired their intensity as I did a few leisurely dips off the edge of a park bench. The sweat ran down them. I felt some trickle down my back, too.
Between sets, most of the men alternated between sneaking sidelong glances at me – the only woman there – and looking admiringly at the unchallenged master of the pushup: the alpha male of this gym, the benevolent chairman, king, semi-personal trainer with a body like an exoskeleton, Ridwan. Ridwan was still doing pushups, one-armed now.
My friend let go of the chin-up bar, winded. Ridwan rose from his pushup position and breezed passed him for a set. His red bandana was wrapped tightly around his smallish head, he clasped one hand around the bar and smoothly lifted his body. Sweat dripped off of him and the sour smell of raw male hit my nose as I walked over the soft black tarmac toward the sit-up planks. Up, down. Up, down. He continued, without let up, doing his one-handed chin-ups. They are harder than they look.
“Hey man, that’s pretty amazing. How many can you do?” my friend asked Ridwan, envious.
“My body is my weight,” Ridwan answered, without looking over. “I’m at 208 pounds. That’s my normal weight. Couple weeks ago I went up to 219, and awwww man. I gotta work a lot harder. I get here to this gym, lift this body, and maaaaaan. Pfffft. Eatin’ bad, not exercizin’, Now, I’m back to 208. My body keeps me in check.”
“That makes sense,” my friend offered to Ridwan’s back as he swung his legs up on the bar and began doing crunches, upside down.
“Like I’m sayin’,” Ridwan puffed. “My body is my weight.”
I walked over to the bench the kids had vacated and tried to jump up like they had been doing. I was struck with a terror of tripping and instead sat down on it. My friend began doing a few pushups on the bar Ridwan had been using on the ground beside the chin-up bar. Ridwan hopped down from his apparatus, paused, then walked over to my friend doing pushups.
“What… are you doin’?”
Ridwan loomed over him. My friend stopped mid-pushup and looked up from his prone position, not taking his hands from the bar. He cleared his throat, “Pushups?”
“No. You’re not.” There was a pause. Then Ridwan said, with concern in his voice, ” You know what you doin’? You are exercizin’ your skeleton. Do you wanna be exercizin’ your skeleton?”
“Uh, I guess maybe not?” My friend craned his head to the side.
My friend released his grip and put his knees on the ground. Breathing hard, he leaned back on his heels and rose, slowly. In a smooth flash of skin, Ridwan was over the bar, hands gripped wide. His muscles undulated as he rose up and down, up and down. ”You see? All tight. You see?”
“Thanks, man,” my friend said. Sweat dripped on the black rubbery ground.
“You gotta master your own body weight.” Ridwan turned away and coolly returned to his crunches.
My friend tried a few pushups, tentatively.
“That’s the best I’ve seen you do all night,” Ridwan called over.
I was doing lunges around the outer edge of the gym. It was making me lose my balance, looking at them instead of ahead of me. It was so hot my head was starting to ache. I walked and stood over my friend, whose sweat was making little puddles on the rubber. “Wanna go?”
“See you, Ridwan.”
He didn’t seem to hear us. Up, down. Up, down. We hit the old chipped marble water fountain on the way out, the lukewarm geyser a testament to the heat of the night. We drank for a minute straight, each of us, then headed back over the pedestrian bridge. Two kids ran past, peeling the paper off of popsicles they had bought from the deli below.
We turned down Avenue C, past the community garden at the corner of 5th Street, and made a right on 3rd. Mist hit us as soon as we rounded the corner. Someone had cracked the fire hydrant cover open, and the water shot out in an arc, spanning the street like a wet rainbow. This made me think of what, at one time, I had thought New York was, a fantasy fueled by Spike Lee movies and far removed from the Manhattan of 2012.
I ran in first, and the water hit me hard like a punch. I put my head in the torrent. My hair flung straight out with its force. The cold water ran into my eyes, stinging, and it tasted like salt. I flipped my hair out, and the water from it sprayed my friend. My giggles must have echoed up to the apartments above. My friend thrust his head in, and I danced like a little girl in the spray.