Sunday, September 18, 2011

Legos, Gladiators, and Epic Fails

The tenth anniversary of 9-11 sparked some deep reminiscing. On reflection, it turns out this last decade was a doozy for me, perhaps the richest yet. It feels like it began officially with my family’s move from NYC's East Village to the Catskill Mountains on January 1st, 2002.  One of my son Jack’s earliest memories is all of us crying in the idling car, waving goodbye to 113 St. Mark’s Place and heading north, leaving behind more than just an apartment. For me it was seventeen years of life, and in rare moments of post-anniversary repose, that chapter spools out like a whooshing, distorted mix tape interspersed with brief sections of crystal clarity. My time at Gladiators Gym is one of those sections.  

Why Gladiators Gym? Perhaps because that relationship ended with me storming out as my buddies enjoyed a snuff film. And even before the anniversary, I sometimes conjured Gladiators, renewing that episode's freshness while railing against the increasing prevalence of modern-day snuff films, AKA “epic fail” videos on YouTube, Huffington Post, AOL, Tosh.O, etc.

“Epic fail” videos piss me off. To anyone who will listen I postulate a connection between the extreme popularity of the “epic fail” brand and what I see as a rise in depraved indifference among otherwise “normal” people, an increase in “humiliation as entertainment.” It’s Candid Camera and America’s Funniest Home Videos taken to the ultimate extreme. (I wonder how one tops a video in which someone perishes. I feel certain it can be done.)

In “epic fail” videos, real folks are at the very least humiliated, but usually hurt, frequently maimed, often killed.  Sometimes these clips are staged, but they’re also accidental, bootlegged from news agencies, or of mysterious provenance. In any case, the “epic fails” are hugely successful entertainment, garnering millions upon millions of views. Whereas snuff films once were watched furtively, now they’re a mouse click away. Even as I write this, the headline on Huffington Post/AOL reads:
Absolute Carnage as Plane Hits Crowd. A plane nosedives into stands at a crowded air show, killing several and leaving a horrific aftermath strewn with body parts.
Extremely graphic video shows crash.

It was a very different world a little over ten years ago when a bodybuilder brought Banned From Television to Gladiators and I got so freaked out I never went back. I'd only just started an email account (with a free disc from AOL) and the Pandora's Box of the Internet hadn't fully opened to where it is today, upping the shock ante on a daily basis. In a way, though, I am glad it played out as it did; the intensity of the experience gives me a sharp memory of a lost era.

For most of the nineties, I went to Gladiators Gym on East 6th Street between Avenues A and B, a stone’s throw from my home. I’d awoken on my twenty-fifth birthday with a gut, a palpable announcement from my body that I no longer could depend on my ectomorph status to keep me looking fit. In order to maintain my appearance (and eventually, my health) I needed to get to the gym. 

I didn’t immediately go to Gladiators. A friend invited me to his gym near SOHO, an expansive affair in a cast iron building, the entire floor of a former warehouse. It hummed with top-flight machines, the air warmed by spandexed specimens rippling with lean muscle, glowing in available light, wiping down Nautilus machines before use and weighing themselves every few minutes. In my raggedy cut-off sweatpants, lame sneakers and 40 Watt Club T-shirt, I felt out of place. This is not my scene.

I moaned about it to my wife, Holly. I considered running. I incorrectly executed sit ups in our tenement apartment, hurting my lower back. As my jeans grew tighter in the wrong places, my mind went to Gladiators, a two-block walk from our home.

113 St. Mark's Place, between Avenues 1st and A, NYC, where I lived for almost 17 years
I’d been in the East Village several years at that point, passing the humble Gladiators storefront many times as I went to and fro to band rehearsals, bartending gigs, and friends’ apartments. I was fascinated but intimidated by the beefy Latinos and pasty, tattooed off-duty bouncers often gathered on the stoop, laughing, playing cards, smoking, drinking coffee and Gatorade, clad in polyester sweats, grubby jeans, Flashdancey T-shirts; big guys wrapped in hard brawn, some with the bodybuilder’s V-shaped torso, but most with protruding bellies, with which they seemed at peace. The clang of metal on metal echoed onto the street, punctuated by guttural shouts. On one of the plate glass windows, a larger-than-life Muscle Man presided over all.
Gladiators Gym, 503 East 6th Street, NYC

I half-jokingly told Holly I should join Gladiators and, perhaps eager to be quit of my grousing, she went in and purchased a membership for her husband. Time to suck it up, literally and figuratively, cross that threshold and actually meet and interact with the Gladiators guys, who I feared would make fun of my spindly bowlegs, gone-ass and flaccid midsection.

I needn’t have worried; within a couple visits, they took a liking to me and started calling me “Papi,” taking on names and personalities: Esteban, Ray, Garcia, Gus. Esteban shepherded me around the machines, all rundown, greasy and rickety, handles worn from palm sweat, seats duct taped. The old iron free weights and barbells frequently slammed to the floor with a BOOM as a bodybuilder shouted in tendon-ripping agony. The briny potpourri of sweat, oil, cologne, fried rice, and supplement-induced flatulence hung heavy in the air, whipped about by huge oscillating fans.

I loved it. And, under the patient guidance of Ray and Esteban, I got fit. I visited about three times a week, did a little cardio on the one stationary bike, navigated the weights and a couple machines as Kiss FM blasted from blown speakers.  Unless I executed poor form, prompting Esteban to stride over, belly first, and correct me with meaty paws, I was left alone, taking occasional refreshment from a rank water fountain. The gut receded, I got better acquainted with the endorphin buzz, and enough muscle mass grew to alleviate my fear of shirtless-ness. I was like Lester Burnham, Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty; when he starts a fitness regimen, the hunky gay neighbor asks, “Do you want to just lose weight, or do you want to have strength and flexibility as well?”After a pause Lester says, “I want to look good naked.” 

A few years into my thrice-weekly routine, I became a father. A distinct rawness textured those first few months of parenthood. I was a bit of a live wire. Lots of tears, lots of joy, a heaping dose of fear, all at intensity levels I’d never experienced, even as a clueless kid.  (Thirteen years on, it has not abated... I recommend it.)

The last time I went to Gladiators, I left my infant son Jack home with Holly, who was on maternity leave. I was well into it when a frisson cut through the steam of my workout, a tremor akin to a public altercation. A fireplug-shaped bodybuilder stood beneath the one TV. He held Banned From Television, a video I’d seen advertised on late night cable. Almost all the men in the room left their work and clustered around him, panting with boyish eagerness as they passed around the tape.

Esteban slipped the tape into the VCR and a grainy, amateur film shimmered on the screen. The bodybuilders craned their heads to watch, some standing on tiptoe. Overcome by curiosity, I joined them in time to see a shaky camera capture a pier, a sun-drenched beach, swimmers, kids running around, and then someone splashing in the waves amid mounting chaos. The voiceover supplied the only audio, explaining in stentorian tones how the victim of a shark attack “screamed again and again for help.” The Gladiators watched rapt, cooing and gasping.

Another clip began. A hot air balloon at a fair, filled with people, catches fire and crashes in a field as spectators screech and yell, one woman frozen with her hand over her mouth. Somehow, the cameraperson stays focused, tracking the descent and sickening thud as the basket slams into the ground, the balloon collapsing in flames. The Gladiators cried out like a circus audience. Voiceover: “There were no survivors.”

 A black-and-white clip flickered. A mustachioed man stands on a parched plain, a small child in his arms. Taking my focus from the screen to the Gladiators, I noticed a couple bodybuilders' eyes darting from the TV, then back again, shoulders tensing, jaws grinding. But they stayed. A kind of ecstasy had taken hold of their fellows, who were in complete thrall, bug-eyed as their bodies expanded to take it all in, wordless exclamations bursting from their throats. Whatever happened to the man and/or child elicited a particularly lusty shout, but I didn’t see it. I was on my way out the door.

My pulse pounded as I made my way back to our apartment, desperate to be with my family. No English word encapsulates the riot of emotions I felt; anger, horror, shame, confusion, a sharp kind of sadness and dread.

Also disappointment. I was really fond of my gym buddies. They’d been so happy for me when I came in and informed them I’d become a “Papi” for real. Yet here they were, taking deep pleasure in a snuff film. To each his own and all that, do not judge lest ye be judged, etc., but Banned From Television and my pals’ reactions produced an actual physiological revulsion. How could I let this go? What a drag. I got all righteous and swore never to set foot back in Gladiators. I let my membership lapse and, when Holly went back to working about sixty hours a week, I became happily encumbered with the care of our son, holding on to just one bartending shift and, while he napped, writing songs for my first solo CD. I let myself go, taking full advantage of the stellar East Village take-out – Mexican, Italian, Japanese, Burmese, Indian, all a phone call away – drank a pot of coffee with sugar and half-and-half every day, gained about fifteen pounds and, for a few years, resigned myself to my increasing pear shape.

Fast forward. Little did I know when I saw Banned From Television at Gladiators Gym in 1998 that three years later Manhattan – and the world – would witness, and re-witness to this day on YouTube, real time mass murder at the World Trade Center. We have never fully uncoiled ourselves from that blow, and the relatively new ritual of repeatedly watching the attacks – and other horrors – provides us not with release, but with a kind of morphing of real life horror into controllable entertainment. Although I am not as righteous as I was when I quit my gym, it does still rankle me..

Compassion can be exhausting, it is true. Especially when one is expected to feel it every time the same horrific event plays out. Could it be that willful intake of video data in which occurs injury and/or death is akin to building up callouses, inuring us to future horror, leeching the reality and meaning from a nightmare through repetition? Part of me hopes it's that and not just blood lust, morbid curiosity, and/or depraved indifference. Perhaps it can be all of the above.  

On September 11th, 2001, Holly and I took turns watching the cataclysm from our rooftop while Jack, then three, played on our tenement floor. Neighbors came and went. A five-year-old from upstairs accompanied his stricken parents to our apartment. As we all shook our heads, cried, made plans and wondered what the future held, the five-year-old sat down with Jack and made two towers of Legos, which he knocked over, to Jack’s delight. He was a smarter-than-average kid, this five-year-old, and he caught me looking at him with disapproval. But I said nothing. What he did was actually normal for a kid his age. At five, he was on the cusp of compassion, an emotional experience virtually unknown to toddlers, one that only begins to develop around preschool. He perceived my upset and didn’t make another Lego tower, but at the same time I could tell he wasn’t exactly sure why his actions bothered me.

When we moved not long thereafter, we fell out of touch with those neighbors. But like my son, that kid will have little or no memory of a world before 9-11, when all of us were reduced to children. Since that day we have been grasping every tool or toy at our disposal, be it videocassette, YouTube, epic fail or Lego, trying desperately to find some way to deal with increased access to the shadows.

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