The Y had changed. That was clear when I returned after a 12-year absence. The chlorine smell was the same, but everything else had been altered. The weight room is now the women's fitness center, where women work out and body sculpt. Commuters, wearing bathing trunks beneath their three-piece suits, line up at six in the morning and rush inside to get their lanes. Coed aerobic exercisers, wearing designer sweat-suits, dance to rock music.
It's difficult to square the modern YMCA with the Y of my past. One of my most vivid memories of growing up is of the local Y in Westfield, N.J. Westfield is a wealthy town, a bedroom community, and the Y was different from other places there. It was, well, dirty. And there was, in the Y, an "element," as my mother used to put it. What the element might be was never made clear. When I talked to her I always imagined electric hot pots and pinochle games, men in fedoras snapping down their cards in such a way that their outsized rings gave off a dull cadence on the fold-up card tables.
Hearing my mother speak as she did was, of course, all the inducement I needed to make the Y my hangout. I started going at the age of seven, when I joined the Pollywog swim class. The Pollywog program consisted of what seemed like 70 naked boys kicking up and down the wide lanes while holding on to kickboards. I was bad at it and didn't metamorphose into a Minnow as I was supposed to, but by virtue of going to swim class on winter evenings, my education in life, if not in swimming, took on an accelerated pace.
The journey down to the pool always began in the game room, which was filled with small-time hustle—the clack of pool balls and the skid of dense metal pucks whisking across shuffleboard tables. Over in one corner was a reading section, where old men sat with National Geographies. Some of the men were caddies at the local golf course; others were drifters, cigar smokers who smelled like damp concrete walls in train stations. They were kibitzers, men who believed that talking was as much a part of the game as playing. They had their own language for things. "Shooting a quail" was lagging quarters against the wall, "sending one home" was sinking the 8 ball, and a "van Winkle" was anyone good at bowling.
The rougher elements of town cruised the game room. For most of my youth Jimmy C was king of pool, Ping-Pong and knock hockey. He was a thin kid with greased-back hair. The crest of his pompadour, slicked as it was, bobbed over his eyebrows like a single antenna. He wore black leather coats and sharp pointy shoes—fence climbers, we called them—and wide-collared shirts that never failed to remind me of the neck fan of a cobra. At school Jimmy C took lunch and shop; he knew carburetors and forklifts, and where you went to get a job in construction for double the minimum wage.
Playing pool with complete concentration, Jimmy was a prairie dog, moving here and there, popping up to check angles, then scurrying on. Flashing around the table, his body slouched, his antenna bobbing, he was deadly at eight ball or straight pool. He knew how to use English and bank shots before the rest of us had learned how to properly grip the cue. Snapping the bridge onto the table, he said around his cigarette, "Six, side," never using any sort of articles to soften his calls.
Yet even Jimmy's power did not extend through the entire building. Jimmy didn't believe in sweat, and so it was possible to descend into the building to escape him. For a time this meant hanging around the weight room, which was located deep in the cellar, among wide pipes that hissed and rattled with backed-up pressure. There was, of course, no Nautilus equipment, no fitness instructor, no music or air-conditioning. This was the land of free weights and medicine balls.
In my thinking then, muscles did not grow in light. Like mushrooms, they flourished in dark, dank corners, fertilized by sweat, made sweet by tortured groans of impending collapse. To do repetitions, to work for definition, was considered prissy, Weightlifting at the Y was a life-and-death struggle, an exercise program as likely to do injury as benefit. More than once, near-fatal accidents occurred, and it was not uncommon to find someone staggering around the room with an Olympic bar over his head, shouting, too late, "Somebody spot me!" Men occasionally lay on a bench, the weight slowly choking them, their voices cut off, until someone happened to notice. Weights routinely slipped off one end of the bar and shot round metal disks in one direction, while the sudden imbalance sent the lifter flying off in another, trying to keep the remaining weights from launching him into an involuntary cartwheel.
The man I remember here was a gentleman named Schultz. Schultz had light blond hair and watery blue eyes. He wore a wide lifter's belt and was given to emitting screams as he lifted, shouting things like "Ahhhhyyyaaaa" as he hoisted a bobbing barbell above his head. He trained as I imagined the strongman at the circus trained. He would lift any object, on the theory that lifting "real" was an excellent means of conditioning. He would tear phonebooks, rip belts in two, make a couple of kids dangle from the ends of a barbell while he did toe raises. He had no visible muscle except the sharp cords that worked in his scalp when he chewed or talked, but he gave off the relentless vitality of a dense root working through concrete.
Occasionally I escaped Schultz and snuck into the gym to shoot some baskets before my swimming lesson began. The gym was given over to an after-school shoot-around that ended at something like 4:30. Afterward, the men's shoot-around began, and this was the kingdom of the Sprinkler. The Sprinkler was a man of about 43, who must have worked locally because he was in every game that was ever played at the Y. He had black curly hair, a huge gut and a windmill style of defense. He was known as the Sprinkler because he wore a rubber workout shirt that sucked off as much as five pounds of water weight during an afternoon.
The Sprinkler argued continually, never committed a foul and shot the ball as soon as it touched his hands. He shot as a bull might toss up a ball with its horns, pounding into anyone near, walking, slapping, butting. He wanted to be taller, but he satisfied himself by being a terrier in a game for Great Danes, believing, as he hacked his way to high blood pressure, that he was simply being a feisty little guard.
The pool was my last stop. Stripped and waiting in the shower room, I watched the men come from their adult swim time. Swimming was not as popular as it is today, so the swimmers had a certain collective identity in my memory—a school. Only one, Gus, stands out. He was a man of about 70 who liked to tell us, while we shivered, that he had breaststroked around the world three times. His chest was still hard, but as he spoke, his goggles on top of his forehead, he looked like an old tortoise crawling out of the sea for a night of laying eggs in soft, white sand.
At last we were allowed into the pool, countless Pollywogs flicking through the blue water. Sounds echoed, and the water threw lines of liquid static on the walls. Our instructor, a man I knew only as Fred, taught us to dive, to kick properly and to hold our breath below the surface. He tossed pennies into the water, and we Pollywogs dived after them, using our frog kicks and newly acquired breaststrokes to retrieve them and lay them at his feet. A large part of our training consisted of this, and even today I prefer to swim underwater, quietly pulling myself from one silent place to the next.
I don't know if the Pollywogs still meet. If they do, I'm sure the instruction is better supervised, the classes more organized. The Pollywogs have surely changed, just as the Y has changed. Fitness has become big business, and the Y is staying in step. Once and for all, the game room is cleaned up and no longer smells of waiting rooms and coffee and newsprint streaked with mud from the tread of a boot sole.
And I'm 33, which is perhaps the biggest change of all. It's impossible that the Y should appear the same to me now as it did long ago. It's silly to wish for things to stay the same. Still, I hope the new Pollywogs dive for pennies now and then. I hope they still wait on the front steps of the Y on December evenings, the water in their hair turning slowly to ice.
Joseph Monninger's third novel, "New Jersey," was published by Atheneum in August.