CAVEAT: I do not ordinarily use profanity in my writing, even as I am a former soldier who well-understands that in certain coarse segments of society, the “F” word is considered the most versatile tool in the English language, capably performing the functions of almost every part of speech. Nor do I intentionally offend any group. Having said that, far below I recount parts of an actual conversation that, without its inherent offensiveness, would lose much of its meaning and impact. You are fair-warned.
Cursed to follow the inestimable galactic efforts of Richard Steinberg, I am left fumbling for words in the rough.
You know the rough.
The place where it’s unlikely to find a diamond, much less a serviceable essay.
And here I am, afflicted with acute self-awareness such that I write about that very self-awareness and its sometime creative vacuum. It’s not that I am at a loss for words . . . it’s just that I am uncertain which words might do justice this odd notion that came to me on a subject that has fascinated me for years. Would I want to waste precious words on it.
This subject is a sub-culture in many countries.
And it is uni-dimensional, at least in my opinion. It is limiting, and in its most extreme forms it is anti-intellectual and can be physically harmful. And yet it holds fascination for me because of the extreme discipline that it requires to live such a “lifestyle.”
I do not refer to the life of an ascetic monk. Is that really so debilitating? Or is that an easy way out, to isolate oneself from the tribulations most humans face in an increasingly complex and baffling modern society?
No. This sub-culture is euphemistically called “Physical Culture” by its aficionados. Years ago, I was peripherally involved in this sub-culture.
What is physical culture?
Bodybuilding and the accompanying “lifestyle.”
Sculpting the body, straining with lead weights for hours on end each day, crafting one’s diet to weird and untried specifications (tuna, supplements, apple juice), and of course the inevitable injections of various illegal growth hormones and steroids.
And that’s about it.
That’s the entire lifestyle, as far as I can make out.
Now in this day and age of egg-walking, one criticizes at one’s risk. And this bodybuilding community, after all, is a clearly identifiable minority in our society. But having been a peripheral member of that minority, oh-so-briefly (I actually won a contest in 1983—Mr. Physique in the city of what was then West Berlin), it may give me cover to offer up a few stray opinions that someone may find interesting.
Bodybuilding and writing.
Actually, I am a person who believes in the nexus between body and mind, and I run 1-3 miles each day for the beneficial health effects, but also for the endorphin release it provides. It helps my writing.
I think it does. I mean, it strikes me that it could be entirely unnecessary to suffer physically, drink oneself into stupefaction, or to claim a damaged past to write well.
But what about this extreme Physical Culture thing? Are there any novel ideas lurking in the gym, hidden ’twixt the weight plates or behind the Pilates stability ball?
Think of the wealth of possibilities for an entire series of novels on this bodybuilding lifestyle.
When you come up with any, please let me know.
But let’s pause a moment and go through the exercise. Of what might a novel about bodybuilders consist? What sort of dialog might we be compelled to craft? What possible plot could one contrive?
Love in the gym?
Conflict between the “good” bodybuilders and the “bad.”
This last one is staple of film, particularly vintage martial arts films in which the conflict is between one school and another rival school (“I fight white-stomping-horse!”), one of which is invariably “bad.”
But this contrivance isn’t limited to foreign films. I am reminded of the movie Twister in which there were “good” stormchasers and “bad” stormchasers. Remember that somersault?
In Twister, it wasn’t sufficient to have man and woman aligned against a powerful force of nature, so a scriptwriter came up with the subplot of “competing Stormchasers.”
The bad stormchasers were well-funded by nameless corporations, and they drove black, nazi-like vehicles in a tight little convoy. They were motivated by money, fame, and greed. The good stormchasers were an underfunded rag-tag outfit in a little van with makeshift equipment and the usual motley collection of good souls (at least one beard) doing it for the betterment of mankind.
Never mind that both Twister groups were engaged in studying the behavior of tornadoes so to better understand them. The film required the conflict, and it gave it to us in the form of a contrived good and bad dichotomy.
But back to the gym and our bodybuilding novel:
“You look pumped, today, Jim.”
“You, too, Apollo.”
“Where you going later?”
“Home to pop a can of tuna and rest up for my next workout.”
“Cool. What’s on tap?”
“Quads and hams. Maybe some glutes.”
“I’m working on bis and tris.”
Apollo flexes his arms, admiring the vascularity and bulk in his forearms achieved through weeks of contest preparation, during which he restricted his diet to protein served in five meals per day along with handfuls of supplements and various illegal substances.
“I’m heading across the border to Tijuana, Jim. Wanna come with?”
“Yeah, heard about a new cocktail of Human Growth Hormone and Dianabol.”
“Man, I don’t know about those injectibles,” Jim said with a shake of his head sitting atop his overdeveloped trap muscles like an orange atop Pharaoh’s pyramid. “Oral’s good enough for me.”
“Poor results, man. No cut, no bulk, no vascularity. Just piss-poor all around.”
“But no acne or ball shrinkage.”
Writer’s block kicks in, and I’m grateful for that.
That’s all I can come up with at the moment, and given my languor on the subject, not much else is forthcoming.
I could always introduce the oppressed minority angle, since we are talking about a distinct minority of the population. Let’s think about that. Let me go to my gym for some primary research on a Saturday late afternoon.
So I do.
I go to my gym in mid-town Philadelphia for a Saturday evening workout and maybe a story idea or two.
Not much drama taking place along the row of treadmills—just a lone walker in spandex, arms pumping, sweat flying, her eyes riveted on the monitor overhead broadcasting CNN.
Nor is there much conflict on the hard rubber mats in front of regimented racks of various sizes and weights of dumbbells. One tattooed African-American giant is squatting with what looks like a railroad axle on his shoulders. Whoa, now.
He does not look conversational.
The music throbs loudly, and even as this pulsing techno beat fills the gym with false energy, I find no true spirit of the steel, no bonafide discipline of the iron.
I’m out of literary luck in this venue.
I leave. Pumped, blood flooding the muscles, endorphins raging . . . but still out of literary luck.
But then a mere 30 minutes later . . .
I stop off at Ruby Tuesday’s on the way back to my studio apartment. Just for a single libation in the early evening, mind you. Replenishing those carbs.
Am I stalling?
Why on this globally warming earth would I introduce this heino
usly boring subject now, of all times, if it seems so bereft of possibilities, so barren of point and counterpoint? And why in Vishnu’s name would I continue talking about it interminably?
Because . . .
Because, as I write this, not one hour ago I sat across a bar table from a man named “Brad” who was just released from the Federal Penitentiary in Lewisburg. It’s not that I wanted to be sitting there, trapped in a social situation not of my choosing. Believe me.
The bar area was crowded with transients, located as it is near the airport hotels. I had sat down alone, wearing my underarmor compression tee and carrying a book on Fundamentals of Strategic Management that I planned to skim for its section on ‘case analysis.’
A buzz-cut fellow at the bar kept eyeing me. He invited himself over. He sat down and offered his hand.
Our encounter began evenly enough, even as I tried to conduct a delicate self-intervention to prevent it.
You see, Brad wore a checkered short sleeve shirt, unbuttoned to reveal an undershirt. And tattoos. Lots of tattoos.
Ugly ominous black tattoos. No hearts or cupids or flowers in sight.
Tattoos send a message, and in my experience it is rarely a good one.
After Brad pulled off his shirt in the bar, I saw that he had tattoos around his neck as well. Chains, skulls, knives, claws . . . dark things, dead things.
Brad’s message was definitely not one of sweetness and light.
He was chewing tobacco. The wad of Copenhagen dip tobacco caused Brad’s lower lip to bulge, and it left flecks of black about his lips.
“Where’s your spit cup, Brad?”
“I swallow it.”
“You swallow tobacco juice? Isn’t that somewhat unhealthy for you? I mean, aside from the cancer risk.”
“Yeah, it might give me stomach cancer but what the hell.”
Brad waved at the bartender.
“Drink up! Beers for my man here! On me!”
He put my Yeungling on his tab.
“Um, thanks Brad. Why the tattoos?”
He sipped his vodka tonic, obviously the latest in a long sequence of vodka tonics stretching back into the afternoon.
“I was in a gang,” Brad said. “The AB.”
“In prison, you mean?”
“Where the fuck else? I been in for 20 years. I just got out eight hours ago, mother fucker.”
“Well, I thought it might be some street gang or fraternal group.”
Brad’s eyes narrowed and he tilted his head at a funny angle.
“Whaddaya mean by that?” Brad said. “What the fuck’s a ‘fraternal group’? That a fag outfit?”
“It’s just a club,” I said, with an involuntary throat clearing.
“No . . . AB ain’t no club.”
Stan, how in God’s name do you get yourself into this kind of fix? It reminds me of a confrontation in Ollie and Buck’s Old West Saloon 25 years ago when you, in your patent leather shoes and tight black pants and fancy schmancy silk shirt were escorted forcibly out of the Bar by Jesse and Billy, burly bearded bouncers in flannel shirts. That was your own fault, disco man.
Yes, Brad’s an ex-con.
“I just got out,” Brad said. “Did I tell you that? Eight hours ago. And I’m trying to get to the West coast but got stuck here ’til Monday. Stayin’ in that ratty motel right over there.”
Brad’s got a job lined up.
He’s going to be a rep for some kind of bodybuilding supplement company, the name of which I won’t divulge. He claims that I, too, can be a rep and receive $3,000 of free stuff each year.
Brad keeps looking at my arms and chest. Am I nervous?
“Hey, I ain’t no fag or nothin’, man, but I see you walk in and you know what’s what. It’s obvious you know what’s what, right? Dontcha?”
“You know what’s what! You ain’t dumb!”
“Yeah,” I said. “You better believe I know what’s what.”
“I thought you did! I knew it!”
I grin stupidly and raise my beer, and I drink that beer as fast as I can.
“Brad, what can I say? You know what’s what, too.”
“Damn right, I do!” he said, and he smacked the table.
“What you got? Nineteen?” He nodded at my arms.
“Come on, man, you know what’s what! Nineteen inches?”
“Almost seventeen.” I said.
Brad nodded approvingly. He held up a hand.
“Hey, I ain’t no fag or nothin’, but I’m just sayin’ you got what’s what. Just admirin’ the truth, y’know.”
Brad keeps claiming that I’m “on the juice.” That’s bodybuilder talk for steroids. Deca, Dianabol, Equipose. That kind of thing.
“You tellin’ me the truth, Stan? You’re natural? What the fuck, man! You know what’s what!”
“All natural! I know what’s what!”
“I thought so!”
Another long sip on the vodka tonic.
“Can’t drink too much of this with this Hepatitis C. Bad for the liver.” He grabbed his side. “Tomorrow I’m gonna feel like a fuckin’ brick right there. Hey, you know I just got out of the pen.”
Long pause during which I know I better say something or this fellow might get nervous. What do they say in the movies?
“I guess that’s why you know what’s what.”
“So, what were you in for?”
Brad leaned in close.
“I was in their highest level of custody,” he said, leaning closer and showing me his bureau of prisons inmate card. A red and white plastic card with Bureau of Prisons on it, I think. That’s what it said on the card: “Inmate.” With a number.
“I used to have one of my brothers guard me when I went to the john,” he said. “A man outside the stall. A man guardin’ me when I took a shower. It’s hard in there, man. You got to be hard. Got to watch your back all the time.”
He nodded over his shoulder.
“See that guy there? If he puts his hand on my shoulder, I’ll break the fucker. I’ll snap that fucker’s arm. I’ll put this in his fucking neck.” He held up a pen he was using to write down the name of his supplement company for me. “I’ll put this in his neck right into his brain stem.”
“You just bought that guy a drink, Brad. I don’t think he wants to start something with you.”
“I don’t care man, you gotta take care of yourself.” He looked around. “See these people in here, I mean I could kill anyone in this place.”
“I believe you could, Brad.”
I raise my glass and give a tight little grin. What else can I do while listening to a man just out of the pen, locked up for bank robbery and boasting of three murders while in lock-up? Challenge him? Set him straight?
“Well, what were you in for?”
Brad sat back.
“I was in for bank robbery. Twenty years.”
“Were you framed?” Isn’t that what you always ask these folks?
“Nah, man, I did it! I just got caught. Twenty years on the inside. Man I’m forty-four now.”
He wiped his mouth and lowered his voice.
“I did three murders, too, but that was on the inside, so they don’t count. They were inside jobs and they don’t care nothing ’bout that. Don’t give a shit ’bout that. Those murders don’t count.”
I drained my beer.
“Uh, I have to go now, Brad . . . lots of work to catch up on. Thank you for the beers.”
l don’t let me hold you up.”
“Is that a joke? ‘Hold me up?’”
Brad points at me.
“Ha, ha—you’re a funny man.”
I offer my hand, and he takes it, his little finger jutting at an odd angle from a break doubtless suffered in a long-ago fight over stakes that didn’t matter. Save survival.
“I wish you luck, Brad. You might want to stay mellow tonight. I don’t think anyone here will jump you, so please don’t break any arms or stick that pen into anyone.”
Brad looked at me.
“You know what’s what, man! They arrest you for fighting, not loving. I’m gonna be a lover from now on.”
I pointed at him and nodded.
And, blessedly, I left.
And I do not feel good having dipped my toe into that morass that grips much of humanity and turns it inhuman. Three murders that don’t count? Aryan Brotherhood? In my apartment, I felt like I wanted to take a hot psychic shower to rid myself of certain images.
But there is dramatic grist here.
That man has a story. Brad is out of the pen, he’s hawking bodybuilding supplements between vodka and tonics and is living a lifestyle now that I cannot begin to fathom. Lord only knows how this man will spend his day tomorrow . . . and the next . . . and the one after that.
He has a story, but I just don’t know if I could stand to hear it.
I mean . . . do you know what’s what? Because I surely do not.