I love living in Manhattan, but I’m missing a few fundamental New Yorker traits. I don’t have the gene that enables a woman to wear three-inch heels as effortlessly as pink bunny slippers. Nor the one that activates a person’s snarl reflex when he sees a baby in a restaurant. I love country music. I hate sushi. And above all else: I don’t belong to a gym. In fact, excluding the few times I went to the Health and Racquet Club as a kid—to eat grilled cheese sandwiches while my mom ran on the treadmill—I have never even set foot in a gym.
Frankly, this is one of those urban passions that I just don’t understand. What is it about working out in a room full of sweaty strangers that so captivates New Yorkers? Here, the gym is not just a way of staying fit. It’s a hobby, a social event, a self-esteem booster. It’s a downright love affair, and I am that befuddled friend who just keeps wondering: What the hell does she see in him?
Everywhere I look, people are talking about the gym. In the elevator at work the other day, one svelte blonde turned to another and confessed: “I haven’t been to the gym in days.” I wondered what might happen if I said, “I’ve never been at all.” At a recent party, a group of twentysomethings discussed their each-one-more-fabulous-than-the-next gyms the way they’ll compare preschools or country clubs a decade from now. One guy confessed that he’d lost his job, declared bankruptcy and moved in with his mom, yet he refuses to give up his membership in the L.A. Sports Club: “The elliptical machine is the only thing left to live for,” he said with a shrug. The others nodded and nibbled at their California rolls. Well, of course. That makes perfect sense.
My gay boyfriends in Chelsea work the gym as though it were drag night at Hiro. Before I’ve even had my morning tea, each of them has met a hot doctor in step class and performed moves in the steam room that might make a person think twice about sitting in there while wearing anything less than a hazmat suit. And my straight friends are even more perverted—they actually go on “gym dates.” Instead of meeting a new guy for cocktails, they get to know him in the weight room. By choice! “If we’re both going to be working out for two hours anyway, why not have a date at the same time?” a co-worker asked me. “I want to fall in love with someone, but I’m not going to sacrifice my abs for him.” And they say romance is dead.
I stopped in to visit a sick friend after work, and she wasn’t home. Later that night, on the phone, she told me that she’d been working out at Crunch when I came by.
“With the flu and a temperature of 102?” I asked her. “Can that be healthy?”
“It’s restful,” she assured me. “And invigorating at the same time. I think it’s actually helping me feel better.”
I told her I have always found that the sofa, ramen noodles and Saved by the Bell reruns serve the same purpose. She laughed, as if I were joking.
I know myself well enough to realize that if one of those conversional Bally’s commercials—the ones with the fast-splicing, hard-body-shaking, music-thumping combo that could just as likely be an ad for the military, a 900 number or the latest Shakira album—ever actually got through to me, I’d never be like my sick (double-entendre intended) friend. I would never desire to go to the gym. Instead, I’d be one of those people who would take any old excuse to skip a workout. Forget the flu; I can just picture the get-out-of-gym-free cards I’d allow myself: It’s cold. It’s raining. I sniffled last Tuesday. I sprained my ankle in sixth grade.
Not that I’d be alone. It seems to me that there are plenty of New Yorkers whose gym joy derives not from actually going, but simply from belonging. Is this some residual I-had-no-friends-in-high-school thing? If that’s the case, why not just get a blog? It’s free, after all. My best friend estimates that she has spent upwards of $4,000 on various memberships over the last few years, even though she has worked out only twice. For some, it seems, possessing the membership card—that little laminated totem of wellness—is all it takes to know that there’s still hope. Each time they return home from the diner on the corner, the mini-membership cards affixed to their key chains remind them that they are going to work out—maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and so on and so forth.
The only gym-goers I even remotely understand are the ones who say, “I hate the damn place, but I want to look good.” O.K., I get that. And thank you for admitting that the Stairmaster at Equinox is not the adult equivalent of moving to Disney World and getting to cut the line for Space Mountain three to five times a week. But even so, I just can’t bring myself to care.
For all you know, I could be an obese, soon-to-be-airlifted-by Richard-Simmons-and-Dr.-Phil sob story. Or one of those annoying, waifish creatures with perfect bangs who eats nine cheeseburgers at dinner yet never tips the scale above 103. In reality, I’m an in-the-middle person. I wear a size six most of the time, an eight on days when I plan to do a lot of exhaling and a 10 for the entire week after Thanksgiving or any major breakup. Although I know several Manhattan women who would probably check themselves into Canyon Ranch if they ever got this big, I’m pretty much fine with it. Oh, sure, there are those moments when I see a photo of my sister (a teenage gym rat) and me, in which we look identical but for my two extra chins. Or that shocked What the—?! You again?! feeling at the start of every bathing-suit season. But it’s never enough to make me want to spend two hours a day watching soap operas with the volume switched off while I run in place and ponder how the strangers around me will react when my heart pops right through my chest.
I guess my gym aversion might seem lazy and unbecoming of a real New Yorker, but I like to believe that I get a fair amount of exercise by wriggling in and out of cashmere-blend sweaters and crocodile heels at Banana Republic almost every Sunday. Personally, I’d rather waste my money on shoes I’m never going to wear than on crunches I’m never going to do.