Critical Conditioning: Booze and Body-Shaping at David Barton

An occasional series exploring New York’s health and fitness culture.

I went to one of those colleges out East where the girls were overachievers and competed in everything from semiotics to style. But what we cared about most was staying skinny. After long study sessions at the library, we ran to the treadmills at midnight in matching Salvation Army sweat suits, toasting our fitness afterwards with handfuls of gummi bears on the way to the Grad Center Bar. While our male classmates proudly guzzled pitchers of obesity-inducing dark beer, we sat in the corner, hunched and furtive, gulping vodka-sodas. Vodka, low on the carbohydrate-and-calorie food chain, was virtuous-each glass a seeming mitzvah.

“Vodka?” laughs Dr. Elena Klimenko, MD, Integrative Medicine Specialist. She is responding to a newspaper article I’ve read recently about David Barton Gym, a top workout chain that had announced plans to serve vodka after boot camp class (renamed Bot Camp, in honor of sponsor Svedka Vodka’s futuristic ad campaign), which was complimentary in the month of August. “Vodka after exercise can compromise the cardiovascular system. It can increase heart rate. It causes vasodilation. It widens your vessels and increases blood flow to the periphery. If the person is already dehydrated it can cause fainting or very quick alcohol intoxication.”

Sounds like a plan. Within hours I am suited up and standing in front of the gym’s Astor Place entrance, ready to work it.

Walking into David Barton is like entering a pornographic gymnasium. It’s a crazy, crushed-velvet, womb-like boudoir-one part nightclub, one Alice in Wonderland, a pleasure dome of mirrors, low lights and wild erotic booty bass. The lobby is all hip kitsch: fake red roses in a fake white gun vase, large glass specimen jars filled with rice and red seeds and bones, a chandelier of tassels, Chinese umbrellas and what appears to be a string of Ben Wah Balls. A bald man in black stands in front of makeshift bar, mixing Screwdrivers from Svedka and orange juice. “What if people get plastered and pass out during their workouts?” I ask.

“I think they’re supposed to do it afterwards,” he responds, flashing a glistening grin. A pretty girl in pink shorts kneels on all fours in the distance, rolling her pelvis up and down in an amorous manner. Upstairs, I step into a large room with windows overlooking Eighth Street and experience a dizzying wave of deja vu-this very space, I realize, after steadying myself on a large, larval-looking piece of Nautilus equipment with antennalike arms and legs-was once the beloved Fiction Room of the former Barnes & Noble where I have spent many afternoons curled up in the corner, reading and dreaming. A stencilled image of a woman in tiger pants flashes me gang signs from the wall.

David Barton, an Ivy League-educated bodybuilder and native of Far Rockaway, Queens, is the most muscular man I’ve ever seen up close. When he says hello, his neck and right bicep muscle begin to twitch violently, as if they are growing at an inhumanly bionic rate. There is a cross hanging from his left ear. He is a wild twitching creature from the gym lagoon, part midget pirate, part Oompa Loompa. We pump hands. I can’t lie-his presence excites me in a pure, indelible way. Is it really possible to look like that?

Before I can help myself, the words, “I need to get toned,” drool from my lips. “But you’re already lean,” says a perky, poised trainer, neck ribboned with sinew, who happens to be passing by. I am feeling jazzed, mildly aroused and anorexic; all of the sudden I want to lose ten pounds before I leave! I want, as the David Barton slogan states in their hypercolor, sex-saturated ad campaign, to Look Better Naked.

Back upstairs, two girls are standing outside the exercise room. Their names are Stephanie and Jessica, they’re in their late twenties, and they work in fashion. Stephanie has a big crooked smile and a sleek pelt of blonde hair, and she is drinking a plastic cup of vodka and orange juice. “I read about this class on the internet,” she says. “It’ll be rewarding to have a drink after the workout.”

“But you’re drinking one before,” I say. She gives me a dirty look.

Soon Caleb, our dreadlocked “Bot Camp” instructor appears. He is short, lumpy with muscles and holding a energy drink. Three other girls materialize-in minutes we are all writhing on the floor, squatting on platforms and kicking our legs to the music of The Jackson 5. Normally I am a lazy yogi whose workouts consist of napping in a pajama shirt in a dim-lit shala; now I am flushed… pulse flitting…furiously sweating…. I am feeling Awesome.

Behind me, Stephanie and Jessica are grimacing, grunting, lazily lifting their legs and pulling their arms toward their body in a choppy, half-hearted manner that reminds me of bust-enhancing exercises I did as a teen. Each time Caleb turns from them, they pause, panting. But, me, I high-kick, I crunch, push and sit-up; I am thriving! For the next five days, my leg muscles will spasm in pain each time I descend a subway step.

Afterward, I head back down to the lobby, preparing to enter an outrageous, out-of-control vodka social packed with hot, ripped men and preening, petite ladies-thousands of people who all Look Better Naked and who know it. But it’s only Stephanie and Jessica, and the Bartender in Black and a gregarious trainer named Trevor, who is sitting on a purple Victorian chaise, legs spread, explaining some sort of equation involving body mass index and turkey cutlets. Stephanie is the only one drinking, and it’s only half a glass. A squirrely redhead prances by, and I hear her mention an afterparty at Elmo, but no one even flinches.

I return to David Barton Gym the next evening for a Thursday night soiree called “The Bloc Party.” The lobby has the same empty, lackluster vibe of the night before; it reminds me a little of an awkward high school dance. But instead of bumbling bio-teacher chaperones and a punch bowl, a plastic surgeon in clogs is standing, arms crossed, surveying the scene, while his representative solicits business from people passing by. A bartender is giving away Ty Ku Liquer drinks called Naughty Lemonade, Skinny Rita and Afterglow, and facialist bends over a supine woman on a massage cot, running a laser over her cheeks. In the corner, a tattoo artist in neon nylon inks an actual rose on the leg of a man who already has roses on his neck.

The message I am getting here is mixed. I don’t know whether to ask how much a boob job costs, to pound a few cocktails or to get a facial. I don’t know if I should run upstairs and exercise, or run outside and buy lingerie. I don’t know if I should loathe my un-buff plebeian body or revel in its all-too-human glory. Plenty to think about; I order an Afterglow and ponder some more.

The experience: Great. The price: Free. The verdict: Worth every penny.

Critical Conditioning: Booze and Body-Shaping at David Barton