Monday, October 01, 2007

Stairway to Nowhere

It's amazing how certain images can get into head and makes themselves at home.

The other night I was walking along Third Avenue when I happened to look up at the health club on 71st Street and saw a man on the Stairmaster.

There was something about this guy that just stuck in my mind. He was alone, framed in the window, little more than a silhouette.

The gym, of which I am a member, seemed to be empty, except for this man, who methodically pumped his legs up and down like a wind-up toy.

It was pretty late, close to 11 p.m., and it was Wednesday, Hump Day, so people were out celebrating the work week's downward slide. I was one of them, having just left the Salty Dog after a night with my Bay Ridge Meet-Up group.

But the Stairmaster man was above it all, looking down on the avenue while strenuously going nowhere. It seemed like such a lonely forlorn image that it made me think of an Edward Hopper painting.

I'm sure if I knew the guy's story all the drama I saw in that window would vanish in an instant. Maybe he works odd hours and this is the only time he can make it to the gym. He's probably happily married with 10 kids and boatloads of friends and no need of my sympathy.

Or perhaps he's a swinger on his way to an orgy just as soon as he got down with his workout--though, if that were the case, he should have saved his energy--and invited me along.

Since I don't know his story, I'm free to treat him like a blank canvaas and paint him any way that suits me.

The gym is housed in a building that has had more lives that a battalion of cats.

It used to be a bingo hall when I was growing up and I think prior to that it was one of the neighborhood's several movie theaters, a group that has slowly been picked off like victims in a murder mystery until only the Alpine on Fifth Avenue remains.

The upstairs was once the home of a karate school, the Paja Dojo, and I used to go there--oh, thank God I'm sitting down--something like 27 years ago.

That was back in my tough guy wannabe phase, when everybody was watching Bruce Lee movies and Kung Fu on TV.

I was picked on at school, so I thought I'd take karate and transform myself into a lethal weapon, a fearless fighter who took on a dozen opponents at a time and ruthlessly pounded the living crap out of every one of them.

What I got was a lot of bruises as I learned how to fall and block punches and kicks. Martial arts instructors like to say that size doesn't matter in a fight, but I have to disagree.

The techniques are very nice, but if you're duking it out with someone larger than you, get ready for some serious pain. A lot of the "instruction" involved hitting our opponent in the groin, which is hardly a secret that needs to be passed down from the masters.

Ju-jitsu, or at least the way it was taught in this school, seemed to be based on the idea of reacting to whatever your opponent does. The attacker throws some half-assed punch and you step in do some routine that involves hurling the guy to the ground.

Unfortunately, nasty people aren't so obliging in the real world. And, Jesus Christ, I learned more ways to defend myself against a lapel grab that I would ever need.

Tell me something: has anyone ever died or been seriously injured because someone grabbed the lapel of his jacket? Granted, it's not very nice, but it's not the kind of attack that warrants a whole playbook of defenses.

But I didn't know any better back then, so every Monday and Thursday, I'd pulled back the heavy metal door with the rusty hinges and walk up the stairs to the second floor.

Unlike the Shaolin Temple, this place was run by Bensonhurt types, who would urge you to "trow" a punch so they could "trow" you on the ground. Several of them were New York Sanitation men, and they were some of the strongest people I've ever met.

There were some pretty wild guys in the class. One in particular, a brown belt I'll call Sammy, was scarier than most muggers and he was constantly yelling at us for not paying attention.

"Youse know it," he'd say, "but youse are getting lazy!"

I was present one night when Sammy beat the crap out of another of student thinking the guy had slighted him.

We all sat there in our little uniforms while this big psycho knocked the kid down and started throwing punches on the guy's head until the two instructors broke it up.

"Who you talkin' to?" Sammy snarled. "I'm not ya sista, you punk."

Funny, I don't recall Master Po doing anything like this to David Carradine.

Time For You To Leave

I think I made it to the green belt level, but the school's membership dropped off and I stopped going, much to the disappointment of my sensei.

He had invited an instructor from another school, a dojo in a rough, poor section of Brooklyn, and all his students were mean and tough. They didn't screw around with lapel grabs and I quickly learned I wasn't the killer I thought I was.

Eventually, the tough guys left and some of our students went with them, while others, like me, dropped out all together.

My sensei was a guard a bank where my mother worked, though at a different branch when he saw her said how disappointed he was not to have heard from me.

"It only takes one phone call," he told my mother. And he was right.

The bingo hall is long gone, replaced by a McDonald's and a Rite Aid store. And the Paja Dojo is gone and that floor now houses one of the New York Sports Club gyms.

I don't go to that gym often. The Bay Ridge branch doesn't have the boxing classes I enjoy--see, I'm still an aspiring badass--so I just go there in a pinch to use the Stairmaster.

I thought of the Stairmaster man over the weekend, when I wound up doing absolutely nothing.

On Friday I had schedule a movie night with a Meet-up group and three people had clicked off "Maybe."

So I waited into the lobby of the Brooklyn Academy of Music until 10 minutes before showtime and went in to watch the movie by myself. On Saturday, well, I was going to go into Manhattan to a club, but I got lazy.

Instead of getting off my rear end, I watched some mixed martial arts events on TV; it's much safer to watch other people stomp each other than actually fight yourself.

After a Netflix break, I finally decided I was going to go out in the neighborhood. This is one my favorite lies that I tell myself.

I go out the door, wander up and down the streets like Kwai Chang Caine and pretend I'm actually going to go into one of the many bars in the area and hang out, maybe meet somebody.

But I always find an excuse to not actually go into the bars: it's too noisy, it's too crowded, I don't know anybody, etc.

Then I walk back home and resume my place in front of the TV. Maybe I should invest in a Stairmaster and save myself the trouble of going out.

There seemed to be an unusual amount of idiots out on this night. As I reached 73rd Street, I saw some fat loser with a huge 80's rapper-style chain around his neck trying to pick a fight with the clerk at a Korean fruit store across the street.

"C'mon, let's go," the fat slob said, sounding like Sammy from my old dojo.

He had a friend with him and the clerk didn't respond to his invitation. On the way out of the store, I saw the slob pick up a tomato and toss it at a passing bus.

Apparently it missed because a parked car near me lit up as the alarm started yelping. I was wondering if the guy was trying to disrepect me. Maybe I should go over there and grab his lapel...

No, of course, I didn't. I went home to watch Saturday Cinema 13, which was showing The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire. He sings a song early in the movie about being alone in the city and I could add a few lyrics to that tune myself.

I always love reading about the studio executive who gave a brutal assessment of Astaire's talent when the dancing legend was just starting out: "Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little." Now there was a man with vision.

Stories like these give hope to people who believe they have talent in spite of an entire planet that seems to feel otherwise. I can't act, or sing, I'm beyond balding and I can't dance worth a damn. But I'm still hopeful.

The next day I broke away from the TV and sat down to eat with some real human beings. This was the monthly meeting of Brookyn Blogade, a group of bloggers from all over the borough.

This month's event was held in Bed-Stuy, at Le Toukouleur, a French-African restaurant on Quincy Street.

I confess I was a little nervous about venturing into this neighborhood, but I realized I was giving into my comfort zone and promptly forced myself out the door.

I must tell you something here and now: that G train really sucks.

Petra, our hostess, said she wanted us to experience riding on this anemic rail line and I got the full treatment, including the incredibly lousy service and the annoying business where the train stops in the middle of the station, forcing you to run like hell in order to get on board.

It's like every day is April Fool's Day on this train.

But it was worth it. I saw another part of my city, I walked by a store front church, where I could hear fabulous gospel singers, and I had a delicious meal with great company. Even the G train couldn't put a damper on that.

On the way back to the train station, I realized that, outside of three block walk to the subway, I had absolutely no idea where I was.

It made me think of my father, who knew every inch of Brooklyn: you could tell him a street and he'd tell you the fastest way to get there. I obviously didn't inherit this ability.

My father also gave me great advice that he had picked up in the military. The three rules for surviving in the army, he said, were keep your mouth shut, your bowels open and don't volunteer.

Well, I missed last part, as I--ugh!--volunteered to host the next Blogade meeting in Bay Ridge. I was constantly complaining that this group never came out my way, so it was put up or shut up time.

I made the mistake of looking for a place to host the event as soon as I got home on Sunday. I had forgotten that the Third Avenue Fair was in full swing and nobody had the time to talk business.

But that's okay: I'll find a place and make my fellow bloggers feel at home in Bay Ridge. My dad may not be happy that I volunteered, but I know somewhere Master Po is smiling.


Brenda from Flatbush said...

Sorry I couldn't make it to Blogade in Bed-Stuy...maybe I can do the house tour and finally get a better look around that neighborhood...hopefully will see youse in Bay Ridge (how about Hinsch's for ice cream gluttony and oldtime ambience?) your reminiscences of yore, they would make a great indie film with a Turturro or two!

Rob K said...

Hey, Brenda, thanks so much for the nice things you said.

I'm actually looking at a place called Omonia on Third Avenue. Hopefully they'll do the right thing for me.

Take care.

Anonymous said...

Cool. I'm looking forward to coming to Bay Ridge for the next Blogade. I practically grew up in Carroll's Bar - it was my Dad's favorite watering hole.

Rob K said...

And we can't wait to have you. Ah, Carroll's...