Always on the lookout for another fitness opportunity, I wandered into a weightlifting club about two blocks from my apartment. I’d heard of the place from a co-worker that had just joined the firm. We rode the train in together some days. He insisted that I come by and check out the place.
Stepping inside the door, I was greeted by a wall of free weights and a line of large gentlemen shifting around like a herd of dinosaurs as they pumped iron. There wasn’t a guy under 200 lbs. in the room. At the time, I weighed 140 soaking wet. “Hey bud,” the large dude at the counter greeted me. “What can I help you with?”
I snapped out of my stare and replied, “Probably nothing,” and walked back out the door. There was no way I was going to join that gym.
I should have known what that gym was about from the guy that recommended it. He was a recent graduate of a big-time football school in Maryland or somewhere. That was obvious from his size, especially his neck, approximately twice the size of mine in circumference. His shoulders and chest were also huge. That added up to an embarrassing inconvenience for my meaty new friend.
The first day we rode the train together, we made small talk for a few stops when he finally turned to me and said, “Hey, can you help me with my collar? I can’t reach it.” I stared at him for a moment, realizing he was serious. His arms and shoulders were so big, and his neck so thick, that he could not reach his collar with his hands. I reached over and flipped his collar down, careful at the same time not to touch his skin. That felt awkward.
He waited a few minutes and shifted around in his seat. “How about the tie?” he asked. Even I was astounded at that moment, thinking, “How does this guy survive daily life?”
I tied the tie around my neck to get it right. Then I lifted it over my head and pulled it over his prodigious noggin. I pushed the knot into position, gave it a shove and he was all set. “Thanks, dude,” he muttered. Then it was time to get off the train. We gathered up our stuff and walked into the office together.
A few days later on the train we repeated the routine. Then again a few days after that. I didn’t mind, but it made me want to ask some questions. “Did you mean to get this big?” I inquired.
“Oh yeah, dude. I want to get even bigger.”
When asked how he planned to do that, my musclebound friend told me, “Well, steroids help.”
He went to to describe how that worked. The guys at the gym that I’d visited took turns injecting steroids into each other’s buttocks. He said the needles were pretty big, so they had to help each other out.
I glanced at my train companion and saw the familiar sheen of sweat on his face. His complexion was dotted with red skin irruptions. He reminded me of a co-worker back in Chicago who adopted an all-meat diet. Her goal was to lose weight, but her hair and skin got so oily she seemed to have been spattered by a greasy pan. It was not attractive, and she smelled too.
Their respective obsessions with muscle and weight loss made me wonder at my own form of madness; this habit of running miles on end, year after year. To prove what? Something to myself, but also to others? My running only intensified when other challenges in life weighed me down. Every time I experienced some hit to my self-esteem in one part of life, I’d dig into the running all over again. “I’ll show them…” my brain would say. That need to prove myself all the time was my kryptonite.
Was it healthy or unhealthy? All my battles with colds and illnesses suggested the latter was the case. Yet there were definitely benefits on the mental and spiritual side as well. Running helped me cope with a native anxiety and anger management as well. The same could be said about my drive to compete, and sometimes win. I liked that part of running, and the running boom at the time was fueling that interest.
As the weeks wore on, my steroid buddy grew more insistent about his morning collar routine and tying his tie. Rather than a request, it became a command. “Hey, fix my collar,” he blurted one morning.
When it got to that point, I decided to start taking an earlier train. It seemed impossible that he could get up any earlier. He looked flustered and haggard enough at that early hour. But for me, it was always easy to get up early in the morning. It was a simple thing to pull on whatever layers of clothes I needed to cover my body. I was no fashion maven, yet I was as skinny as a supermodel. On some nights, bathed in the light of the dance clubs near my house, I imagined myself a clone of David Bowie. I’d become the Thin White Duke of my own existence.
One of those nights, I wooed a tiny girl home to my apartment. We’d danced together and won the Twist contest that night. She was excited to find someone that could keep up with her. Though she was my age, she weighed under 100 lbs for sure. She was built like a bird, with tiny bones and a butt and pelvis to match. We messed around a little and the thought went through my head, “I don’t know how this girl could ever bear a child.” Plus she was a Catholic girl, and her defenses were strong.
During that stage of existence, my whole life seemed like an experiment in extremes. I was being strong in so many respects, yet like my childhood hero Superman, I knew my kryptonite. It was not just the need to prove myself, it was also the fear of being alone. While I was in love with a woman back home, I was living a secret life far away from her. I’ll grant that any woman reading this might deem me nothing more than a typical 20-something male musclehead. Or better yet, a knucklehead. But sometimes the only way to learn what’s inside your brain is to bang your head against a wall until it hurts enough to make you stop.
I wasn’t done banging away quite yet. Far from it. The mentality of an endurance athlete would not let me quit that easily, or compromise my selfish pride. As cyclists and runners sometimes say, “It never gets easier, you just go harder.”