Sure, I’d think. Whatever.
“Are you on my side, or the other side?” Bashar asked me one day while I struggled to do a push-up.
I asked him what he meant. “Most people in this gym, you know, they for the other side,” he replied. Oh. The other side. I’d seen, though not intercepted, the long gazes in the locker room. I knew what he meant, and told him which side I was on. Had I ever even tried to be straight? he wondered. No, never, I said. “So how do you know, then?” He seemed to think maybe he could help me.
This was the point when the contrived intimacies of the trainer-client relationship went from useful to annoying. I realized why I chose to share my personal life with people I liked and trusted, and kept everyone else at arm’s length. Bashar had more control over my body than anyone with whom I’d never discussed what a good baby name “Eliot” is. So this is what he thought of me? Every time I started to rattle off my gay-rights talking points, he’d laugh and say, “Gimme another set!” When I pressed him further, he offered a revelation of his own: he couldn’t be prejudiced, he said, after what he’d seen in prison.
This was unexpected. I held on to just enough anger to make it through 12 reps. This, he told me, was why he’d needed me to write an article about him—to keep him from being sent back to jail. I couldn’t do that, I knew, but now he had my attention.
Later, I decided to meet Bashar outside the gym and hear more about his past. At a midtown Starbucks, he told me that, as a child, he was “the only Arab in Washington Heights. … Everybody looked at my family as aliens. And me as well.” To fit in with his neighbors, he said, he started hanging out in a drug dealer’s apartment at 13, and ended up running errands and eventually selling drugs for him. “I think it’s called being a product of your environment,” he said. He sold cocaine, but ever used only marijuana and ecstasy, he said.
He set out on his own at 16, running the corner of 154th and Broadway. As an outsider, he had an intuitive sense of how to pit gangs of different races against one another. Eventually, though, he sold drugs to an undercover cop. He did eight months at Rikers, where he allied with black gangs though he speaks Spanish. “The Middle East is actually located in Africa,” he told me, triumphantly.
His parents didn’t approve of his exploits, though they accepted the money he earned from dealing. They didn’t speak English, he told me, and had come to America only because his uncle told them there was gold in the streets.
Thanks to their acceptance of money, Bashar’s next arrest led his parents, his brother and his sister to be arrested, too; his mom and dad each did a year for money laundering. He took a deal for nine years at age 21. His lawyer told him, “At the end of the day, whether you go to trial or not, I’ll still be playing golf.” People had told him he needed to “hold it down” in jail, and protect himself from being raped. “But when I went upstate [to Five Points Correctional Facility], you gave respect, you got respect.” He was scrawny when he entered prison, but started working out with the help of fellow inmates. The physique he spent so much time gazing at in the mirror while I struggled was not a cosmetic choice but a form of armor. No wonder he told me I needed to become a “monster”; he’d had to do the same.