As a young adult in my native Toronto, I worked out at a dilapidated gym known as the “Old Jewish Y.” The moniker was due to Toronto’s Jewish community moving miles north and building a suburban state-of-the-art community center. The original facility was left open as a sop to the dwindled Jewish population who remained downtown.
The cramped weight room in the Old Y was sparsely outfitted with barbells and dumbbells donated by Montrealer Joe Weider decades earlier. Fitness in those days wasn’t popular and the gym attracted a ragtag group of men varied in age and socio-economic backgrounds. (Few women lifted weights in those days). Everyone adhered to an unwritten code of conduct.
Rule No. 1 was to recognize people when you entered the room with a nod, a “hi,” or some other gesture that acknowledged the presence of others. Rule No. 2 was the sparse equipment had to be shared; if someone was on the bench press and resting between sets, one would say, “Okay, if I work in?” It was a rhetorical question because answering no wasn’t an option.
Rule No. 3 was that everyone looked out for each other. If someone was struggling with a weight and looked unable to lift it, the closest person would come to the rescue, without being asked. It didn’t matter if the person was a stranger.
The camaraderie, community, and consideration once commonplace in gyms has disappeared. Working out is now a solitary experience where people customize their own audio and visual experience and tune out everyone around them. Nowhere is this more evident than Equinox, the swanky North American temples of self-worship catering primarily to people for whom the selfie was invented.
I’ve grudgingly belonged to Equinox on-and-off for decades since it was founded in 1991 by a New York brother and sister who created the design the chain still rigidly adheres to. Equinox promotes pretension, phoniness, and a faux hipness. The chain’s slogan, “It’s Not Fitness. It’s Life,” is one of the dumbest marketing messages of all time. I’d quit the club in a heartbeat if I had some meaningful options.
Unfortunately, even in Los Angeles, a city you’d expect would have as many gym choices as there are Starbucks locations, Equinox is the best, or more accurately least-worse, club in town. The chain’s saving grace is its fastidious cleanliness; unlike its many filthy competitors, Equinox appreciates that people into fitness don’t want to contract some rare flesh-eating fungus.
One’s senses are assaulted upon entering an Equinox gym. Club policy is to blast canned club music played at a faster speed than originally recorded so as to create more “energy.” As the vast majority of people today listen to their own music, members have to crank up their headphone volumes to dangerously high levels to hear their own tunes. “Equinox Made Me Do It,” the chain’s idiotic tag line, will make a great lawsuit argument if members sue for their hearing loss. (Recent visits to Equinox clubs in L.A. and Detroit indicate the Equinox may have relaxed its deafening music policy or managers are rebelling).
I learned the hard way that sharing equipment at Equinox is a foreign concept, particularly for young women. I once naively asked a millennial female intensely engaged on her iPhone while camping out on a machine if I could work in with her. The woman’s scowl is what I would have expected if I asked her if I could have her first born. She angrily told me that she had another four sets to do and continued her iPhone engagement.
Surrounding this woman was a giant purse, a glass of water, a drink with contents that looked like urine, a smoothie, and a pile of towels. Personal items are forbidden on the gym floor, as is talking on cell phones. The understanding of most Equinox members is that the rules don’t apply to them. Among the conversations I’ve overheard are the planning of a wedding, a business negotiation, a dispute with a customer service rep at some technology company, and a billing issue with a doctor’s office.
Most yoga studios regard their floors as sacred spaces and prohibit personal items. My Equinox has considerable cubby spaces outside its yoga room, but many members apparently don’t know what they’re for. At a yoga class I regularly attend, a millennial male routinely arrives about 15 minutes late with a heavy oversized gym bag that he slams on the floor with considerable force. He spends most of his time texting on his cell phone, as do several other members. The pings of text alerts in class are more pronounced than the chanting of OM.
Then there was the young woman who joined my Iyengar yoga class and began doing her own Ashtanga asanas. The teacher, a world-renowned Iyengar teacher, politely explained to the woman she was a distraction, but she continued doing her own thing. Even yogis have their limits: The teacher, who I had previously only heard speak in a nurturing cadence, lost it and suddenly spoke with an accent I immediately recognized. A Jersey girl is forever a Jersey girl, regardless of how many years she spends at an Ashram.
I’m grudgingly impressed with the homogeneity of Equinox members. Working out at the company’s clubs in Toronto and Vancouver I was struck by how the “too-cool-for-you” members in the Canadian cities looked and behaved as the Equinox members at the Park Avenue and 63rd Street clubs I belonged to in New York for many years. Equinox has successfully induced New York attitude at all of its more than 135 North American locations.
I give Equinox credit for the standardization of its club managers. They are all very polished and well-coiffed and wholeheartedly embrace the club cult BS about Equinox being the leading lifestyle “brand.” They’re also well-trained at humoring members. When I recently complained about my club not enforcing its own rules, the manager told me that “I’m the sort of member Equinox wants,” expecting the flattery would distract me from the fact that he wasn’t going to do a damn thing about my concerns.
Living in L.A. has forced me to learn to roll with lots of punches, and I’m doing my best ignoring the selfishness and entitlement that pervades my club. I actually feel sorry for the younger Equinox members, whom I see texting between sets and often while doing their exercises. It’s alarming that I’m considerably more fit than most of the male millennials at my gym. I imagine when they’re my age they’ll be deaf, feeble, and unable to have face-to-face conversations.
Still, I have my moments. A young woman recently was texting and laughing on her cell phone for more than 20 minutes while sitting on a popular machine. I knew better than to ask to work in, so I tried glaring hoping she’d get the message. She shot me the inimitable “Don’t even think about it” glance women give men when they’re not interested in their overtures.
It took all the restraint I could muster not to say, “Don’t flatter yourself. I was ogling the leg press machine.”