Pure Gold

Pure Gold

A front desk job. You greet people. You check them in. You answer the phones when they ring. Answer questions. Show people around. General stuff. Easy stuff. Should be fine.

It was the first job I was able to find. I’d been wandering the streets of Seattle with a handfull of resumes and a fresh shave on my chin. The year was 2002, and though the job wasn’t what I’d dreamed of I needed the work, couldn’t pass it up. I said Yes, please, I’ll take the job.

The desk in question belonged in the entryway of a Gold’s Gym, the national fitness chain best known for its Venice Beach location, which, in the early 70’s was home to a burgeoning bodybuilding scene. That gym is featured prominently in Pumping Iron, the 1977 documentary on professional weightlifting that helped propel a young Austrian bodybuilder from the cloistered world of weightlifting to Hollywood acting, and ultimately to governing the state of California.

The movie came out the same year I was born. I remember grainy clips of it watched on a VCR at my neighbor’s house when I was eight or nine, memories that swirl and intermingle with scenes from Conan the Barbarian and episodes of The Incredible Hulk.

Besides offering a window into the eerie world of professional bodybuilding the movie focuses on the buildup to the competition between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno for the title of “Mr. Universe,” which, as far as titulars go, has to be simultaneously one of the most exalted and undeniably whoop-dee-who-gives-a-shit?! a human could ever hold.

(I’m compelled to wonder what benefits a title like “Mr. Universe” pulls. I imagine it draws a certain type of woman, probably earns you a couple sponsorship deals and a small cache of begrudgingly given respect from your peers. You might even get a free drink at some sticky thumpy club or a back-alley bump up the nose. It seems to me that it should also qualify you for some free frozen yogurt and a snazzily painted foot-scooter. Having never achieved such a title anywhere outside of my own imaginings I can’t say, but if I ever do win such are my expectations.)

25-years after Pumping Iron put Gold’s Gym on the map, there I was standing behind the front desk of one in Seattle. Lots had changed: fitness had made long strides even in the few years since I’d lifted weights in college, and there were all sorts of new machines and methods for exercising. Still, there was plenty that held over from the early 70’s, specifically the meat-heads doing innumerable reps of bench press and dieting on cigarettes, coffee, cocaine and steroids.

The folks running the gym were a sitcom-perfect cast of characters. Two of the managers had the serrated dumbness of the pec-and-bicep guidos that you now see featured on Jersey Shores; the third manager was a former NFL cheerleader, bleached blond and painted tan, still holding hopefully to the thought that despite being in her late 30’s she could outshine girls in their early 20’s.

There was an overly earnest young black guy who behaved as if he were personally responsible for every detail of the gym’s ongoing functioning; he impressed me as being an ex-Marine but turned out, on closer inspection, simply to have played high-school football and been raised by a father who worked as a prison guard.

Lastly there were the trainers, most of them in their early 20’s, working piecemeal and contracted. Though they were on the whole undereducated on the finer points of physiology they were undeterred by this, and they zealously encouraged innumerable reps of bench press and a diet of cigarettes, coffee, cocaine and steroids.

I worked at the front desk for no more than six months. There were some interesting moments: a garrulous former Oakland Raider lineman who trained three professional strippers; the first time I ever laid inside a tanning booth (it was warm, and in the middle of a long and shitty Seattle winter that was perfect); repeatedly weighing myself on the gym’s digital scale to see how much my weight fluctuated over the course of an eight hour shift (7lbs was my biggest swing). But there was little significance beyond getting me on my feet financially, and I never really looked back.

I didn’t think much about it afterwards and I didn’t enter a Gold’s Gym for over a decade, a date that arrived a couple months ago when, in an effort to offset the inevitable winter doldrums, I joined the local branch and began exercising again.

As occurs any time a group of humans gathers, there are all sorts of screwballs exercising at this gym who are worthy of note. After a couple months of observation my favorite from the clutch of characters is a tall thin man in his early 50’s who I refer to as The Unabomber.

First thing: The Unabomber does not walk and The Unabomber does not run. Instead The Unabomber glides above the ground like an air-hockey puck. He suffers no earth-born frictions. He is a rail engineer’s dream. If a term of perambulation was required to describe The Unabomber’s movements it would be peacock. He struts with the easy grease of a prime-time Curtis Mayfield popping it for an enthusiastic crowd.

Second thing: The Unabomber, unlike a black 70’s pop star, eschews leisure suits and instead disposes himself for his gymly duties in one outfit and one outfit only: blue track pants, white sneakers and a gray hooded sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. (The cut-off sleeves are the cause of much study by local anthropologists, for The Unabomber has no muscles to display; he’s neither skinny nor muscular, only softened by age to a gummy gelatinousness.)

Third thing: The Unabomber stinks. A raw and pungent stench of cigarette butts emits from a five foot radius of his body in the same way that dirt particles encircled Charlie Brown’s classmate Pigpen. Perhaps in an attempt to offset the eau de ashtray The Unabomber chews gum perpetually, gnawing it as viciously as a cheetah jawing a kill.

Last thing: The name. Under the hood of his sweatshirt he wears headphones and yellow-lensed wrap-around sunglasses, and it is because of this getup that I call him so. He looks strikingly similar to preliminary police sketches of The Unabomber, drawings which, when you place them next to Ted Kaczynski, the actual Unabomber, prove to be surprisingly inaccurate.

(You get the sense that the authorities, having so little else to go on, needed some physical representation to rally around, and in order to emphasize the ominousness of this character they gave him dark sunglasses and placed him in a hooded sweatshirt, a piece of clothing which, if recent events in Florida are any indication, now has the potential to become a potent symbol.)

After several months of observation I’m yet to see The Unabomber lift a weight. I’ve also never seen him without a shining set of silver 10-lb dumbbells in his hands. For some reason that all makes sense to me.

I don’t suspect this man of mail bombings or other such malfeasance. If anything he strikes me as at worst a furtive park-bench lecher, the type who would shamelessly ogle a woman’s breasts when her shirt fell open as she bent down to pick something up, but I don’t think of him as capable of the criminal. Still, in a gym populated almost exclusively by handsome, well-groomed and magnificently buff gay guys, The Unabomber stands out: clearly one of these things is not like the other.

I’ve never spoken to him: the ever-present headphones squash socializing. In truth, given the chance I probably wouldn’t talk to him: it seems best simply to take him as he is, shining and differentiated. The imagined is quite often more delicious than the real, and with The Unabomber I have the feeling that additional information could only disappoint.

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