Why you should care
Discretion is almost always the better part of valor.
It was my friend Ciccio who got me to go there, and the fact that I was even there was crazy.
“There’s a great gym in my neighborhood. You wanna go?”
I had been lifting weights in the playroom of my Brooklyn home since I was 9 years old; by age 16, after multiple viewings of the recently released springboard for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pumping Iron, it had occurred to me that if I was ever going to make my bodybuilding dreams come true, I’d have to make them come true in a place built for it. To wit: a real gym.
I was game, even though the place was 50 minutes by subway from both the high school where Ciccio and I met up and my house. Location was much less of a catch than the neighborhood the gym was in. Ciccio tried to warn me about something I had pretty much been oblivious to so far.
“There are not a lot of Black people in my neighborhood,” Ciccio said, almost apologetically. While it was New York in the 1970s and I understood the balkanization of neighborhoods, this was at least two years before I found myself street brawling in one I “shouldn’t” have been in. Which is to say that warnings about possible “racism” didn’t yet register with me. What did register was that I was going to a place much less about race and much more about the received secrets of steel and the power to lift it.
This knowledge laid the groundwork for what I would later call “getting way too comfortable.”
If you’re familiar with the luxury, fern-fueled gyms of today, this gym wouldn’t have made sense to you. It was all cinder blocks and seriously rough trade: Sonny Liston’s former sparring partner, ex-cops, former circus strongmen who could bend railroad spikes, and steroid-steeped barbell boys with a jones for juice who had dropped out of high school just so they could do this. Guys who would spit on the floors and walls before squatting four plates, or 405 pounds, for reps. Guys who mixed their orange juice and protein powders with vodka. And me.
I lifted, eventually getting into the rhythm of the gym. Ciccio was long gone by then, abandoned in the wake of my mania for metal and five-days-a-week lifting schedule. When I walked the six blocks from the subway station to the gym, people recognized me. I had a training partner — two, actually — and when I walked into the gym, the guys were happy to see me.
“Hey, kid! How’s it hanging?”
It was a working-class heaven, but beyond that, something else.
“You wanna buy a suit?” A sky-blue Buick had pulled up in front of the gym. A guy I lifted with opened the trunk; when it raised up, the suits hanging from a jury-rigged rack raised up too. The suits were cheap but still too rich for my blood.
At that moment, everything suddenly made sense: the fancy cars, the jewelry, snatches of overheard conversations. This was the modern mob. It’s how I got my first shotgun, and a pretty cushy summer job too.
I came to figure out who belonged to which family, knowledge that laid the groundwork for what I would later call “getting way too comfortable.” I was a teenager and no matter how much of a badass I thought I was, I was by no means a professional badass.
“You stupid piece of shit! What the fuck is the matter with you?”
The entire room glanced over at the raised platform in the corner. Les C., 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, was letting loose on Freddy, his training partner. Apparently a moment of inattention on Freddy’s part had caused the 455 pounds Les was bench-pressing to slip.
Freddy was terrified. My training partner and I, not so much. We were not connected guys. We were just … guys.
“Ladies, ladies, please … could you keep it down?” I said, which was the wrong thing to say at exactly the wrong time. But then again, when faced with a steroid-soaked enforcer mid-rant no time was the right time. Les moved way faster than a man that big had any right to move. He grabbed a 100-pound plate and waved it at me like he was waving a paper plate.
“You shut the fuck up, nigger!” The room froze, because this moment was going to be fraught no matter what, and Les wasn’t about to be stopped, let alone by political correctness. “One more peep out of you … even one more peep” — every vein in his neck pulsed — “and I will crack your skull with this.”
The room turned back to me. I was doing everything in my power to not embrace the contrarian I was down to the bone. I was doing the math, and in my calculations I envisioned myself saying one thing, and one thing only.
Now, I didn’t say it. I just thought it and then factored in what would happen next.
I definitely knew what would not happen next: The made guys in the room wouldn’t stop Les from coming down on me. Not because I was a civilian, a teenager or Black, but because I wasn’t a pragmatist. Which is to say only a jackass or someone with some serious weight behind him would have said anything right then. They would have stopped Les from killing me, but I’d never be the same again.
I considered saying “peep” and then running, but I knew I’d never clear the steps.
So I backed the smart play: I said nothing. Eventually, Les’ rage subsided and the room’s rhythm was reestablished.
My training partner turned to me. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
I laughed. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“He wasn’t talking to me.”
Les and I later became friends. Or at least more friendly than on that Thursday night in 1978. We talk, on occasion, but never about that night.
Sicilian-style, I’m sure he has not forgotten it, but only because he knows I haven’t. And it always pays to remember all the reasons someone might want to murder you. Even when he’s a friend.