On Love, Sweat, and Community in the Time of Coronavirus
Chris Rondeau, CEO Planet Fitness Headquarters 4 Liberty Lane West Hampton, New Hampshire 03842
March 2, 2020
Dear Mr. Rondeau,
It is the first Monday of March and I am once again attending free pizza night here at the local Planet Fitness (a.k.a. “No Judgment Zone”), where I have been a member for six years. I was particularly intent on attending tonight, because I do not know how long it will be before I return. Although there are currently no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Nebraska or Iowa, rumors are that it may soon lead to mass closings and alterations in our lifestyles, including limiting contact with places (like this) where human beings freely touch the same surfaces, exchanging sweat, spittle, high-fives and more than a few tears. And pizza.
I am not writing to debate closing your doors—I know the decision will be a hard one, or if the threat continues to rise, no decision at all. I’m writing only to explain what this night, this place, has meant to me and perhaps a few others it has served.
But first let me say something about this pizza, which is smelling really good right now. It looks like the teenaged attendant ordered a good variety tonight—pepperoni, sausage, veggie, even a gluten-free option. My favorite is the supreme, and it’s seriously calling to me. No Hawaiian, as usual, which has always disappointed my wife when she’s attended First Mondays, but you can be forgiven for that. The concept of pineapple as a topping has always been a little controversial. Sort of like serving pizza in a health club.
I confess I had mixed feelings when Planet Fitness first came to town. You replaced the Barnes & Noble, which had occupied this space in the mall for about a decade. When my books came out, I gave readings here to local people, mostly those who knew me personally, mostly elderly, some of whom are now dead, but not from COVID-19. I miss them. They were from a generation that valued books enough to purchase them. They didn’t shop online, but at stores like this Barnes & Noble, which was the only store in town to stock my books, because it was the only bookstore. Funny, I used to think of the big mega-bookstores as the villains, pushing out smaller independent sellers, but then they were pushed out of business by Amazon. I miss all the physical books that used to inhabit this place and the massive magazine stand and, in the café, the scent of espresso and the panorama of famous authors that made you think you were invited to sit among them. I’d give anything right now to join the table with Nabokov and Orwell.
But it’s more than that. When this space was a bookstore, my young sons played at the table with the Thomas the Tank Engine track (talk about germs!) beneath the Winnie-the-Pooh Hundred Acre Woods panorama, which was where the leg press machines are currently located. Later the boys dressed up as Harry Potter and Ron Weasley for the grand release party of the final Harry Potter book. In the general vicinity of the ab-crunchers, they sat and drank butterbeer, flicking their wet straws at one another and laughing at the big bearded man dressed as Hagrid, but not because he was overweight—even then, this was a No Judgment Zone. The place was crowded and overheated, and people were breathing all over one another, but even then I thought: When will we ever see such a spirited, sticky gathering of generations to celebrate the release of a physical book?
Now this entire section of the mall is set to be demolished and replaced by a Menards. Even though you’ve committed to moving only a short distance away, I’m still grieving the loss of the mall. In its prime, it contained not just the bookstore, but other places that meant something to us: the movie theater and the KB Toys and the holiday Santa display and the glow-in-the dark mini-golf course and the ice cream store and the lily pond-themed play area, where the kids climbed barefoot on the backs of frogs and drooled on giant dragonfly wings, while we sat and took pictures. We were totally in love with those children. All of them. The frogs are gone now, but the spongy carpeted area is still there, along with the unimpressive gray tiles. On these same tiles, unchanged in all our years here, our boys toddled at first, holding our hands, then ran to and from our arms. Countless reps.
To watch a child grow up has its joys, but it can also feel like a kind of death. A double death when the physical places those children used to inhabit also disappear. Sometimes, when I am doing another set on the leg press, I think I hear a train whistle and the voices of those little boys. Sometimes I think I see them running at me, and the weight I’m lifting with my legs is their bodies and I’m carrying them. Then I snap out of it, due to the knee pain, and find myself once again alone with my body.
So change can be hard. On the other hand, despite chasing and lifting kids, I was pretty unhealthy during most of those early years as a parent, neglecting regular exercise and good eating. I consumed a lot of pizza. I was also in the early stages of trying to support a growing family, and failing. I was full of self-judgment. Then, at age 39, I suffered what my doctor called a stress-induced “cardiac event.” I decided I needed something more than my ancient dumbbell set and searched for a health facility I could afford. For a while, I worked out with my students at our old campus recreation center, alternating sets with them at the bench press. They were very kind, never sniggering as they removed most of the weights when it was my turn or when I farted while straining to complete that final lift. When our university decided to build a state-of-the-art recreation center, I got my hopes up. But then it was announced that faculty were required to pay way more than the old fee, which meant it was inhabited mostly by university administrators and professors in the Colleges of Business and Engineering. They are, as a result, a remarkably fit-looking group. Those of us in Liberal Arts were left to dig out our nappy sweatsuits from grad school and hit the nearby Elmwood Park play set, waiting in line for three-year-olds to finish their reps on the monkey bars.
I was discouraged.
Then Planet Fitness arrived. Frankly, I hated the purple and gold colors, which resembled the bruises my ego would no doubt develop in such a place. Yes, I heard it was affordable, which is important in our low-income town—all school kids get free lunch here, which often includes pizza—but I still resisted because of the whole workout club culture thing. An allergy that started with Richard Simmons and Olivia Newton-John in the 1980s. But then, while I was eating a sauce-dripping gyro in what was left of the mall food court (now entirely empty), I peered through the glass wall at everyone exercising. I saw quite a few bodies my own age and disposition. Some of them had this kind of deer-in-the-headlights look, mouths slack, not at all fit-looking or in command of their bodily functions. I could relate.
Most persuasive, however, was the familiar woman I spotted on the stepping machine, which as you know is super tall and works kind of like a self-propelled escalator that doesn’t take you anywhere. I recognized her from the public library, where she often brought her five young kids, unleashing them on the shelves of DVDs, which they stripped like locusts. One of them literally grabbed a Thomas the Tank Engine disc out of my hand. This mom did her best to keep them under control, scolding them occasionally, red-faced, avoiding eye contact with other patrons, but inevitably she would retreat to some other, quieter section of the library and let the kids run amok. I was kind of judgmental of her, I admit. But seeing her elevated above the fray, queen-like, on the stepping machine, in her royal blue sweatpants and mis-matched extra-large camo t-shirt, gasping for life while I ate a giant dripping gyro, I was filled with something that might be called admiration.
So, I took advantage of the “New Year’s Resolution Special” ($1 down!) and joined. My first night on the treadmill, I dialed up the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever, and started right in on a heavy sprint, skipping the warm-up because I thought I had to make up for lost time. Halfway through “You Should Be Dancing (Yeah!),” I sprinted for the toilets. Part of it was that I was out of shape, but it was also because I’d read some internet story about chocolate milk being a great pre-workout protein drink, and had guzzled a beer mug full of it just before arriving. So although I did indeed yack during my first night at Planet Fitness, I did not do so entirely because my muscles had atrophied, which gave me hope. Hope is good.
As a new member, I mocked First Monday Pizza Night, along with Second Tuesday Bagel Morning, when I first heard about them. Others did, too, as you know. There was a lot of criticism online, some of it fairly justified—I mean, eating pizza seems to defeat the whole purpose, right? So I actually did a little research and discovered that this whole free food thing started in 1998, at your fourth club location in Concord, New Hampshire. The hot water tank had broken down and as a way to thank customers for staying loyal, you offered them free pizza. It soon became a thing, expanding nationwide, along with the chain.
Pizza as gratitude. I liked that.
My research has since uncovered at least one health professional who trumpets the benefits of Pizza Night. In an interview for Shape.com, Sarah Mattison Berndt, M.S., R.D. stated, “When you train hard, it’s only natural to reward yourself from time to time, even if that means post-workout pizza. Although a savory slice provides extra calories and isn’t the cleanest recovery fuel, noshing on pizza isn’t going to nullify all of your hard work if you aren’t doing it all the time. In fact, it may help you to feel more satisfied and ditch feelings of deprivation that could otherwise build up to a blow-out.” Feelings of deprivation is a phrase we might be using a lot more in the years ahead.
As for our particular Planet Fitness, it has never run out of hot water that I know of, but it does frequently run out of hand sanitizer. Given the recent national shortages, I don’t see that coming back soon, like a lot of things that were meant to protect us. So, I’ve gotten in the habit of using the sink in the men’s room to wash my hands between “resistance training” and “aerobic training.” It seems like the right timing, since my hands have just been all over the bars and pulleys that so many other hands have been all over.
But can the touching, directly or indirectly, ever really be prevented? For instance, there are no paper towels in the men’s bathroom, so we all use the hand blower. On the surface, that seems the environmentally friendly and sanitary thing to do. Recently, though, I read an article about how these blow dryers are so powerful, they suck all the pieces of the human body floating unseen in the air—skin flakes, hair, microscopic particles of urine and feces—and blow it all back onto your hands. This offers further proof that bathroom stalls and similarly well-meaning contraptions, such as clothing, may afford us some personal privacy, but do not ultimately protect us from intimacy. That might be something else we become nostalgic for in the coming weeks or months of quarantine. Who knows?
Speaking of news, this may sound weird, but one of the other indulgences I really cherish about this place, besides the pizza, are the TV sets all lined up like hunting trophies at the top of the north wall. I know that almost every health club has them, but at home I only get digital reception, so coming here feels a little like when I go to academic conferences and watch TV all night instead of proofreading my presentation. Sports especially help me ignore the physical pain, unless it’s golf. I’ve watched teams win unremarkable games, now forgotten, and world championships. Tennis, basketball, football, bowling, cage fighting, and a gazillion other sports. I’ve vicariously triumphed in them all. Such imaginary victories may become all too common as the actual competitions are canceled.
On a related note, I like to switch back and forth between FOX News and CNN, which feels like mental wind sprints and not always inspiring. Even so, through that double prism I’ve observed two presidential election cycles and most major world events of the last six years, including at least three major epidemics. Through my increasingly sore, exhausted musculature, my breathlessness, the suffering of the world became something more than emotional. Not to mention the vicissitudes of the human condition as conveyed in all those game shows and reality shows and cop/doctor/bachelorette shows. And in the fragments of countless movies from every decade of my life. I’m not alone in wanting to watch—the machines closest to the televisions are always the most popular with my age group. We’ve breathed it all in together.
But back to this pizza. It’s Domino’s, as usual, which always makes me happy right off the bat on First Mondays. There’s some history to share about this. In college, I basically lived on lukewarm slices served at the corner Domino’s near my boarding house. In the evening, I would walk home from the library or from a pick-up basketball game with my buddies, or just an aimless walk, body aching pleasantly, and grab a slice of supreme and a liter of Pepsi. The food was cheap, which was good because I was student-poor. I owned virtually nothing—no car, no house, no club membership, just my physical self which was compensation for all that I didn’t own and others did, because they didn’t have what I had: a youthful body that could run and dance and love and stay up all night and bask in the sun for as long as it wanted and eat and drink what it wanted. Like the first dusting of snow in November or the first combustible engines cruising our roads, nothing in this body had yet accumulated to spoil the landscape and cause regret. So I ate a lot at that Domino’s, alone and with friends—so many friends back then—at an inside table under the fluorescent lights after midnight or outside on the curb to watch the setting sun paint the sky. So much pizza. So much youth. Cheap and warm and filling.
Ah, Domino’s. It pretty much smells the same, which is wonderful. As I inhale, I can feel that earlier, younger body stir within me, calling, I am still here. You can find me. If you feed me. A siren’s song, I know, but still it beckons. I watch as someone finally succumbs. It is the older gentleman with the ponytail and grey Santa Claus beard. He regularly wears jeans for his workouts, held up with a broad leather belt. I first met him last year at the chest machine, of which there is unfortunately only one—many of us time our workouts so we are ready to hit that thing as soon as it opens up. Sometimes we don’t even wait for the previous user to wipe it down, but those days may be numbered. Anyway, I was sitting there trying to select some music on my earphones, when he leaned down and asked how many sets I had left. That’s Midwestern for, “Will you please get the fuck off your phone and finish working out your moobs so I can start on my own?”
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m just trying to find the right ELO song. I’ll be done soon.”
“I love ELO.”
Instant bond. We’ve given affectionate yet still manly chin jerks at each other ever since. He gives me one now as he gets ready to shove a slice of supreme into his sweat-dripping face. I give him the thumbs-up, which is Midwestern for “Godspeed, my friend.”
When I look around, I see several other familiar strangers who have been with me from the start. They are my involuntary support posse. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t see at least one of them every time I come in here, which is sometimes every other day and sometimes not at all for weeks. They don’t judge me for that. However long it has been, we always acknowledge each other in some way, a wave or chin jerk or just a prolonged staring which in any other context would be sort of creepy. We know each other not by our names but by our faces, our bodies—some of which have transformed dramatically since we first became aware of one another. I feel a deep affection for them, these bodies. My teenage son, who used to play with toy trains here, once made a snide remark about a “Boomer Body” in yoga pants taking her sweet time on the chest machine he was waiting to use. I think he was surprised by my harsh reply, for which I later apologized. He’s a good kid, but I needed him to know how much I care for these people, my companions. They haven’t come here to get toned for spring break or the downtown bar scene, even if both get cancelled this month. No, they have come here to save their lives. I will not tolerate any mockery of them.
There is, for instance, the woman with the military tattoos on her arms and the massive scar on her upper left shoulder. She’s in her late 30s or so and sings (badly) at the top of her lungs while on the treadmill, punching the air and cheering for herself. She’s cheering for all of us and our private victories, on battlefields real or imagined—at least that’s how it feels when I’m on a treadmill anywhere near her. It gets me going. There’s another woman about the same age, a former high school athlete whose husband cheated on her with her best friend. Now she comes here with her older brother. The siblings laugh and talk loudly (which is how I know about the husband) and high-five, in between beating the shit out of the 20-minute workout machines, all of which are colored coward-yellow, like her ex.
There is the 50ish, interracial gay couple who everyone seems to know and love. The black man is tall and lithe, and prefers the rowing machines and ellipticals. The white man has a very muscular upper body, but thin legs, which is not uncommon for us middle-aged guys whose knees are shot, but whose arms are still working, for now. For us, working out the biceps, unlike the quads or the abs, is like eating pizza—a more immediate gratification. The idea that it might still be possible for me to have biceps like him is truly inspiring. One time, near the pull-up machine, this same guy walked over to someone he knew and asked if he could listen to whatever music she was enjoying. She pulled out one of her wireless earphones, which was undoubtedly covered in sweat, and just gave it to him. He put it in his ear and laughed. Then they did a little dance together.
There is another middle-aged couple who doesn’t seem to have a lot of money—you can kind of tell these things about patrons by the range and brand of workout clothes they wear. I’m sorry to say such comparisons do take place, even in the No Judgment Zone. This couple wears the same loose, gray sweat pants and long-sleeved Ocean Pacific t-shirts from the 80s—his is white with pink lettering, hers is pink with white lettering. Both have images of palm trees on the back. They always show up together and will only use the same kind of machines and only if they are side by side (so no chest workout). And they always exercise in sync, always at the same pace and same number of reps and sets. It never changes. Over the last few years, the length and pacing of their exercising has increased—those once tight palm tree t-shirts becoming, on the treadmills, like triumphant flags flapping loosely in the wind—but their ritual has never wavered. Always together, always to the same invisible beat that has bound them from the beginning.
There is a group of young Latino guys who speak rapid Spanish and move together from one machine to the next, taking turns and helping each other with the weight adjustments. If I get behind them, they can slow down my own workout significantly, but I really like hearing the music of their language, the good humor and comradery in their tones, chock-full of the future.
There’s a pimply boy, maybe 15, who follows around a super buff guy who I infer is the personal trainer his parents have hired for him. The boy is overweight (No Judgment!) and I’ve heard him mention something about diabetes. Sometimes he looks a little embarrassed, sometimes scared, but whenever he lays back to do the bench press, his trainer kind of whispers to him: Ok, buddy, just one more set, you can do it. Maybe he whispers because he’s just a soft-spoken guy, or maybe because the kid he’s trying to help gets yelled at enough in his life. Or maybe because he doesn’t want to set off the Lunk Alarm.
The Lunk Alarm. It’s one of my favorite features here, besides First Monday Pizza Night. As you know, it is literally a siren that goes off whenever a “lunk”—usually a muscle-bound white male—bogarts the free weights and/or squat machines and/or grunts loudly while straining and/or clangs massive amount of weights up and down. This is one of the reasons I have avoided other gyms. They can make us all feel inadequate, these bodies that ripple like sonic waves, veins snaking all over their taut muscles like a map of the Ozarks.
That said, there are times when I’ve felt the Lunk Alarm was set off prematurely, without a full appreciation of the personal context of the body in violation. For instance, Myron, who is a friend of the family. He’s maybe 40 and is a long-time weight lifter, ripped from top to bottom. Every now and then, he clanks a few discs and sets off the siren. But did you know that he also only has one eye and that his mom died recently from cancer? Plus, he’s a really nice guy. Just last week he brought in his mom’s sister for the first time, who is around 70 and a former smoker. Myron was very patient and encouraging while coaching his aunt on the machines, even though she sometimes couldn’t complete one rep. I overheard her engaging in a lot of self-shaming. She actually started talking to me about it, how her body used to look, what it was once capable of doing, as she and Myron waited for me to finish on the chest machine. She started crying. So I gave her a hug, even though we were both pretty sweaty, and she hugged me back and asked God to bless me. Maybe I’ll be telling my grandchildren: This is what it was like before corona times.
Speaking of someone who might need a hug, there is an octogenarian woman who is bent nearly in half from, I assume, osteoporosis or rheumatoid arthritis. She comes here alone and slowly makes the rounds on the weight machines, in addition to the treadmill—an act of incredible endurance. An example to all. And yet, on the way out, I often hear her ask the young attendant, whoever it is, if she might “please” have one of the grape chew candies in the bucket up front, even though there are plenty and they are free. She knows this and yet she makes a point of asking permission of this young person, who can’t possibly know what she’s been through the previous hour or the previous near-century. Nevertheless, they always talk for a few minutes before she goes on her way.
I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but there’s a teenager here tonight who is on his third slice. Some of my fellow Boomer Bodies are giving him scolding looks. Personally, I think he and the other teenagers and college-age kids should be allowed to eat as much pizza as they want. In fact, you should encourage them to do so, if you aren’t already. Our job at this age is to feed them, because that’s always been the job of people our age, or should be. So I want to correct a false impression I might have left earlier, when I called out my son for his momentary frustration with someone from my generation. As COVID-19 has spread, I’ve heard a lot of critical terms thrown around about his generation—reckless, indifferent, narcissistic. “Health privileged” is a new favorite. Privileged is not a term I associate with most of them. For a variety of reasons we can lay right at the feet of people our age, they’re mostly poor, or will mostly be poor. We’ve left them vulnerable to the future in ways we can hardly understand, since we won’t live to see it.
And yet, despite all the ways we’ve let them down, when the occasional homeless person from my generation comes here on First Mondays to eat some pizza and use the shower, these same young people invariably turn a blind eye. They pick up their wet towels. They feed them. This makes me love their generation even more than I already do. I’m afraid that in future centuries, when the hot water and a lot of other things run out, we won’t be able to send them a pizza of gratitude. So let them have as much as they want right now, okay?
But what is the pizza, exactly? What does it mean?
Surely, it is more than its individual toppings or crust style. Is it about self-reward? Self-denial? Whatever it means, it cannot be escaped. Not on First Monday Pizza Night. Wherever you go in the club, you will smell it, even if you don’t eat it. Even if they provide, as they do, veggie and gluten-free options. It smells the same, like whatever it is you think you need—youth, courage, health, compassion. Food. The pizza will not be ignored or forgotten. It sings. If consumed, it will do inside whatever work it was meant to do, according to the age and composure of the body that consumes it. According to what that body has accomplished (or not) over the last hour or decades—whether completing an additional set of 15 reps on the arm curl or passing a kidney stone or a baby.
Each slice of pizza, no matter what, will transmogrify into something entirely different inside each of us. A tightening bicep or a loosening layer of belly fat, a self-gratification or self-flagellation. Hate or love, or the memory of love. How many lifelong relationships—friendships, marriages—as well as impulsive carnal mistakes were facilitated by pizza? Pizza, for some of us, has revealed new worlds. In college I once consumed a slice with sausage and magic mushrooms and it changed my perception of the color green forever. It changed, as well, the possibilities of what I thought a face might become to another face, in perpetual metamorphosis, in waking dream. As beautifully warped and fleeting as spring rain on a candle-lit window. That is the human face, compared to what resides, eternal, behind it. That is pizza.
It is becoming clear coronavirus will change our lives forever. It may, in fact, lead to the permanent termination of First Monday Pizza Night. I hope not. But if so, I would suggest ordering the pizza anyway and keeping it behind the counter. The smell alone might temporarily overcome the stench of hand sanitizer and fear, becoming a reminder of what we used to mean to one another, freely exchanging the sweat of our struggles, wordlessly confessing the otherwise secret longings and courage of our souls. Demonstrating, for all to see, the possibility of individual and collective morphogenesis, like leaves, our bodies becoming the point of abscission, where new growth sprouts from the point of separation from earlier selves, once thought inseparable.
So the pizza smells good and is loaded with essential meaning, but I have decided to deny myself tonight—a small sacrifice ahead of larger ones to come. Maybe it will leave more for the teenagers. I will instead dial up Led Zeppelin on the earphones and then, perhaps for the last time in a while, join my fellow human beings, my loves, on the stepping machines. Perhaps for the last time in a while, we shall savor breathing in close proximity the scent that calls to our common hunger. Our bodies going through the motions of what we should know as an absolute truth, that whether near or far we are like that married couple, always in perfect sync with one another. Always climbing, together, the stairway that never quite leads to heaven. Trying to save ourselves with each breathless step.