Chris Hedges: How economic dislocation and the plague of social isolation ruptured our communities
There is very little to recommend my old gym, other than the low monthly fee, where I worked out nearly every day from 2007 until the pandemic shut it down. The locker rooms were grimy with moldering carpets. There were brown rings around the basins and a thin blackish layer of slime, composed, I suspect, of dead skin, urine, hair, dust, dirt and assorted bacteria on the floor of the shower stalls. To step into the slime without flip flops was to take home athlete’s foot and toenail fungus, at the very least. The sauna in the locker room was reportedly listed on a gay pick-up app and attracted pairs of men looking for anonymous sexual encounters in clouds of steam. The gym management first tried to combat these liaisons by posting a sign on the door that read: “IT IS FORBIDDEN TO HAVE SEX IN THE SAUNA.” When this failed to slow the traffic in and out of the sauna, the door was removed and the sauna shut down. Robberies occurred in the early afternoon when the gym was nearly empty. One man would stand by the entrance of the locker room as a lookout while another quickly pried the hinges off the flimsy lockers and pocketed the wallets. The management was unsympathetic. They had posted signs not to leave valuables in the lockers. Theft was our problem.
The treadmills, stationary bikes and ellipticals would break down and be blocked off for weeks with a chain and sign that read: “Out of Service.” The weight room, located in the windowless basement, is where I spent most of my time. And this is where the only redeeming feature of the gym could be found — the community of regulars who, month after month, year after year, embedded themselves into my life. It’s true that none of us wanted to pay the exorbitant fees to join the fancy gyms, but we also found comfort in the familiarity of each other’s company. We were united not by politics, class, status, education or profession but by working out. I lifted with two men my age: John, who had played in the NFL for the Jets and the Colts, and Marc, who had played college basketball. As former competitive athletes, we accepted that our workouts at this stage were managed decay, but there was something reassuring about this dogged determination not to resign ourselves to decrepitude. Besides, when uttered by John or Marc in the weight room, the most banal advice and information became a revealed truth, frustrating my wife Eunice, who had often said the same thing months — or years — earlier.
Among our small band of regulars was Robert, a hairstylist who kept in shape, he said, because his boyfriend was older, and he was “the trophy wife.” Robert showed off his 30-inch waist and sleek, toned physique. One Halloween, he and his boyfriend went on a gay cruise where his costume was a thong and a feathered Native American war bonnet. “I looked fabulous,” he informed us. There was also a professional wrestler who was on the circuit in smaller cities like Wilmington and whose stage name was “The Mighty Vesuvius”; a deeply traumatized Iraq war vet whom we all kept at a distance and who once threatened a trainer who subsequently walked out of the gym and never returned; a police officer; a former Wall Street commodities trader who supported the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC); Camillo, who had been a professional heavyweight boxer in Italy and who owned the restaurant next door to the gym; and my friend Boris who had once been homeless on the streets of Trenton, read Fyodor Dostoevsky in the original Russian and, while he held down a job, was attending Rutgers University part time to become a social worker. One afternoon, Camillo and I decided we would rekindle the glories of our boxing days by hammering the heavy bag without wearing the cotton wraps boxers coil around their hands before putting on gloves. This impulsive act of machismo left us with sprained wrists — not good for a cook or a writer.
Because you could join the gym for as low as $36 a month, the locker room served as a public bathroom and shower facility for undocumented workers and the unhoused. One portly man, who lived out of his car, came every morning to shave and shower. He cheerily subscribed to every bizarre right-wing conspiracy theory and held forth about them to anyone willing to listen. Where is he now? Has he found another community where he is accepted with all his quirks, where he can shower and shave, or has he been, like so many, cast completely adrift? He was already living on the edge of catastrophe.
The gym was run by a crime syndicate called the New York Sports Club. These business school wizards had perfected every technique for ripping off the lawyerless proletariat. None of their scams would have worked at the high-priced gyms, the ones with spas, swimming pools, immaculate locker rooms, plush towels, masseuses and fresh juice bars, which charged over $100 a month. The members of these high-end gyms could hire attorneys. The syndicate determined, correctly, that most of us were defenseless. They were very creative in dreaming up ways to fleece us. They signed up members promising a low monthly fee and then, once they had the credit card on file, raised the fee without notice. This increase could be reversed if you showed up at the manager’s office with your contract, but most people did not discover the increase for a few months. No one got refunds. When ordered to shut down their chain of gyms at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the syndicate continued to charge monthly dues to members and ignored cancellation requests. This January, the New York Attorney General Letitia James ordered the New York Sports Club to pay $110 to eligible club members who filed a complaint in New York after being ripped off by the chain.
Gyms do not make their money from people who regularly attend. They make their money from personal training sessions and those who purchase memberships, come for a week or two as part of a New Year’s resolution or because they need to lose weight and get exercise, and then disappear. These ghost members retain their membership, probably out of guilt, with the vague notion of going back. Our gym had 2,000 members. Only 50 of us went daily.
There were often frustrated members at the front desk asking to revoke their membership, only to be told it was not within the authority of anyone at the front desk to deal with that issue. This had to be done through a customer service line where it was nearly impossible to speak to a human being. When you finally did get through to cancel, you had to pay for the next two months before termination kicked in. I fell for one of the syndicate’s more ingenious scams. They promised, promised, promised that if an existing member paid $800, the price of the monthly membership would be locked in for life. A year later, they raised rates and told us the locked-in-for-life rate was no longer valid. When you are constantly on the receiving end of predatory corporate abuse, it is easy to understand the hatred for the politically correct, educated, privileged ruling class.
The only time we managed to strike back was when the syndicate decreed that the gym’s towel service would be abolished. This led to wholesale pilfering of the towel stock. I still have a few of these towels, which are incapable of wrapping around even a very thin torso and have the texture of sandpaper. I use them to clean the muddy paws of our dog.
A club manager or sales assistant usually lasted no more than six months in the job. This is because they were given high membership quotas they had to achieve every month. Once they had signed up their family, friends and former co-workers, once they had run out of new prospects, they were sent packing. One manager, who wore stiletto heels to the gym, hung on a bit longer by transferring lists of new members recruited by her sales staff to fulfill her own quota. I saw cashiered sales staff, whose new memberships had been appropriated by the manager, in tears. This manager mounted the only serious campaign to clean the gym, even giving the cleaning staff, who also rarely lasted more than a couple of months, toothbrushes to get the dirt out of the crevices of the exercise equipment. But then she too vanished. The gym fell back into its habitual state of filth and decay.
Today, the gym is gone. We had no advance notice. Trucks came and took away the equipment. Camillo’s restaurant closed and has not reopened. The deli across from the gym, owned by Bill, a former Marine and former professional kickboxer, where I would grab a coffee and chat with the staff in Spanish, before I worked out , is shuttered. Bleakness.
These ecosystems knit the social bonds that ground us to a community. They give us a sense of place, identity and worth. The economic dislocation of the past few decades, aggravated by the pandemic, have weakened or severed these bonds, leaving us disconnected, atomized, trapped in a debilitating anomie that fosters rage, despair, loneliness and fuels the epidemic of substance abuse, depression and suicidal ideation. Estranged from society, we become estranged from ourselves. This social isolation, exacerbated by social media, is a plague, leaving the vulnerable prey to groups and demagogues that promise a sense of belonging and purpose in return for loyalty to a dogmatic political or religious ideology. “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness,” Hannah Arendt writes, “but his isolation and lack of normal social relations.” Social isolation is the lifeblood of totalitarian movements. There are many things I fear about the future, but this unmooring is one of the most ominous.
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