The Curtain Falls on Cardio Theater

Climbing the StairMaster to nowhere, running on the treadmill–they’re deeply boring. The New York Sports Club chain used to have something called Cardio Theater to get you through the tedium of these indoor workouts.

New York Sports acted like Cardio Theater was some kind of big draw, but it wasn’t, really. You brought the headphones from your broken Walkman, plugged in and chose from a few staticky radio stations and TV channels. The TVs were mounted high on the wall in front of the exercise machines.

For all its apparent simplicity, the system frequently failed. New York Sports members could be spotted cursing and beating the little consoles with their fists. Sometimes they fought about what TV station to watch. It could be infuriating to hear someone snort with laughter at, say, Everybody Loves Raymond when you were trying to get a groove going to Jammin’ 105.

But there were the good times, too: pumping your fist with the person on the treadmill next to you when Serena Williams won the U.S. Open … tearing up together with a line of elliptically bouncing women back when Ally McBeal made sense … all those Seinfeld s!

No more. Cardio Theater has been absorbed by a Calgary-based company called E-Zone, which is rapidly outfitting every New York Sports treadmill, stairclimber and stationary bicycle with individual monitors. The takeover will be complete by the end of summer, said Karl Derleth, the chain’s vice president of operations.

The new consoles, which have a sickly, digitized glow, feature many, many channels; asinine workout programs such as “StairMaster Spunk” and “Beginning Walking”; and two minutes of mandatory commercials every time you hook up. The ads are sexistly customized (men get sports, women get fashion) according to data you feed the E-Zone monster to commence your entertainment session. Special E-Zone headphones provided by the club contain a microchip monitoring your workout habits (the horror!). Should you happen to yank out your headphones by mistake during a particularly spastic jog, you’ll be punished with a fresh round of ads.

These Big Brotherish qualities provide reason enough to loathe E-Zone, but may be circumvented for the most part with a little creative inputting and a quick toss of the towel. No, what’s really sad is that that one small bit of communal experience in gym-going, that collective burn at the electronic hearth, the small glow that was Cardio Theater, has been completely eradicated. It’s pathetic, but it was all we had.

– Alexandra Jacobs

Three Haikus

I’m doing O.K.

I want to leave with a ring

The shots wouldn’t drop.

I felt something pull

They didn’t go in tonight

This is killing me.

I could barely walk

I am still a great player

I just want my ring.

– Patrick Ewing

Umbrella Man, in Exile

Gilbert Center is Manhattan’s only surviving umbrella doctor. He used to repair umbrellas in the back of Uncle Sam’s Umbrellas and Canes on West 57th Street, and before that on 32nd Street and before that on the Lower East Side, where his father was also in the umbrella business. But on April 4 Uncle Sam’s–the city’s last umbrella store–shut its doors to make way for a new hotel.

“I really had nowhere to go,” Mr. Center, 76, said.

But far away, in a Long Island industrial park, Steven Asman had other ideas. Mr. Asman, president of the umbrella company GustBuster, wanted Mr. Center to help him make GustBusters the best. So he carted Mr. Center and three vanloads full of his umbrella paraphernalia out to the GustBuster headquarters in Farmingdale, and put the old man to work.

On a recent morning, Mr. Center and Mr. Asman were in the GustBuster warehouse standing over Mr. Center’s stuff–a hummock of garbage bags and cardboard boxes the size of two canoes. Mr. Center, wiry and hunched, had a squeaky, soft voice. He was wearing a paisley shirt and tan cords. Mr. Asman, who described himself as a “semi-celebrity in the golf industry,” had curly black hair, a ruddy complexion and a great gut.

Mr. Center was asked whether he missed his old shop and regular customers like Bill Cosby and Joan Rivers, whom he remembered as “the lady with the dog.”

Mr. Asman answered the question for him.

“We’re building him a repair room here. You can see–we’re putting up racks, shelves, setting him up because it’s helping me,” he said. “We’re also building Gilbert a Web site, where he’s going to sell not only GustBusters because they are the best on the market as of right now, and that’s not me saying it, that’s 150 television interviews saying it, and you guys don’t lie. Because let’s face it, the media’s job is to prove that I’m lying, and when you can’t prove that I’m not lying, you guys are my best infomercial ever.”

Mr. Center was asked: What’s the oldest umbrella in your collection?

“Gilbert just had an umbrella last week,” said Mr. Asman, before Mr. Center could speak. “It was that Victorian thing with the thing you flip, you know, so you smack the horse’s ass with it. That’s some umbrella. I was impressed. The Victorians.”

Then Mr. Asman explained how he got into the umbrella business. He was a real estate developer until 1995 when his late father–an accountant–was asked to help out a guy who was trying to sell a patent for a new umbrella. Mr. Asman and his father bought the patent.

“I didn’t know anything about umbrellas. I didn’t know a tip cup from a ferrule,” he said. “One day I picked up The New York Times and what’s looking at me is Gilbert. So I get in my car. I drive into Manhattan and say, ‘Gilbert, I just read about you, what do you think of this umbrella?’ He looked at it and said this and this and this and proceeded to tell me the terms of the umbrella.”

What are the terms of the umbrella?

“Well you have a fiberglass shaft, you have ribs and spreaders, you have a cup,” said Mr. Asman.

“It’s actually called the stretchers,” said Mr. Center.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Mr. Asman. “But Chinese call it a spreader. I just got off the phone with China. What you heard me screaming on the phone was China. So I just got off the phone talking about this, so if I start talking broken English you’ll have to excuse me. Then there’s the tip and elastic, the butterfly clip, grips and handles.”

It was time for the wind tunnel. Mr. Center and Mr. Asman spend a lot of time standing in their makeshift wind tunnel. Basically, it consists of a giant fan bolted to the floor in the back of an ambulance, which Mr. Asman uses for GustBuster demonstrations. Along with a spray bottle, a wind tunnel is what you need to test an umbrella.

Mr. Asman ripped the cellophane wrapper off a new umbrella and handed the wrapper to a warehouse worker.

“Here you go, trash boy,” said Mr. Asman. “Now back up the ambulance.”

The ambulance was backed up, the doors flung open. Mr. Asman and Mr. Center were standing next to one another, the umbrella between them. The wind tunnel’s digital readout showed its acceleration: 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 miles per hour. With his left hand, Mr. Asman held the umbrella. It fluttered only slightly in the wind. With his right hand, he held down his toupee and shouted over the roar of the fan: “I didn’t have time to glue it down this morning!”

Mr. Center leaned into the wind, looking bewildered and small.

– J.K. Dineen The Curtain Falls on Cardio Theater