gym

Posted by Ellen

When last we spent our Saturdays at high school wrestling tournaments, back in the decade of the twenty-oughts, we were parents of wrestlers, which meant that we were working the concession stand or down on our knees with a camcorder or scanning the scene from the bleachers, looking for indications of wrestling drama.

We can report with confidence that in the winter of 2015, all the drama is still much in evidence. Even before you enter the gym, you can't help but notice the kid standing all by himself out in the cold parking lot, hiding his face, struggling not to cry.

The only big difference nowadays is that somehow, magically, our wrestlers from way back then have returned to this scene as what might be called wrestling facilitators. One of them is now a referee with striped shirt and whistle, and another is an assistant assistant coach, a guy who sits in the corner of the mat during each bout and yells, "Circle! Circle! Good–keep that elbow. That's all right, don't worry, now up and out!"

High school wrestling matches last six minutes, except when they're over in a few seconds. That can happen when a newbie, with panic in his eyes, is up against an experienced wrestler who knows a few moves. Of course it can also happen when an experienced wrestler underestimates an opponent, or when he forgets for an instant to do or not do something critical that he knew perfectly well he was supposed to do or not do.

The drama actually begins before the wrestling even starts. Kids wearing hoodies pace back and forth in front of the bleachers, headphones clamped on their ears, eyes focused in some alternate universe. They're trying to psych themselves up, or calm themselves down, or both.
 
By the time they strip off the hoodie and walk out to the center of the mat, some of them already look destined to lose. They've heard something about their opponent that scares them, or they just know from lessons learned the hard way that their performance will likely be disappointing. They may surprise themselves, they really may win, but their posture and eye movements are already broadcasting what they figure are the dismal odds against them.
 
Other kids work hard before the match at presenting body language that says something different: "I'm the man," or "You're dirt," or "I will break you." They're swaggering out there, playing the part in the script that they want for themselves; maybe it will work, maybe it will backfire, maybe it won't matter at all. But there's no wrestling without broad drama.
 
From the stands, kids cheer on their teammates and yell at them to shoot. They talk smack with each other and steal each other's drinks and snacks and pretend not to give them back. Some of them are smartasses. Some are trying to nap. They're high school kids, and it's a Saturday.
 
And on display in the gym are adolescent bodies of every imaginable size and shape, all looking at least a little bit goofy in those singlets. There are little guys with twigs for limbs, and thick-necked muscle-bound jocks, and mountainous heavyweights with serious guts and no necks at all. No other high school forum welcomes all these physical specimens, offers them all a chance, however slight a chance, to be a hero.
 
Among the hundreds of boys are a few girls. During our years as wrestling parents in Maine, there were girls on some of the teams, and they wrestled boys, occasionally with some success. This year in western Washington, girls appear to be a bit more numerous on the mats, and they wrestle one another.
 
We attended the Marysville Premier tournament, in the company of the Blazers from Timberline High School in Lacey, Washington. Four girls wrestle for the Blazers, alongside a couple of dozen boys. They all wear black singlets unless they make it to the tournament finals, when they dress in special gold singlets decorated with a double-bladed axe, their school logo. 
 
Three Blazers wore gold in Marysville, and one of the three won his final match to claim the tournament championship at his weight class. The next week, at the Jaguar Invitational tournament in Puyallup, four Blazers took championships, and in the 126-pound weight class, the two wrestlers in the finals were both Blazers.
 
The regular season is winding down now, leading up to regionals and then states. Go Blazers! Shoot! Shoot!
Posted by Ellen

Taekwon-Do tournament in Havana, Cuba.

Posted by Ellen

One of about a dozen murals painted in 1938 by Joseph Hirsch to decorate the basement walls of a long-since-abandoned building on South Street in Philadelphia, this one is titled "A Mechanical Engineering Problem." I can't say I know for certain what the joke is here, though the fact that the art had been commissioned by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), who owned the building and used it for an office and social center, would have to be a major clue. My guess is that the mustachioed tailors portrayed here were not union workers and were not particularly skilled suitmakers, either; perhaps the point is that only a chump would order a custom-tailored suit from guys like these instead of buying a ready-made, union-made coat and trousers.

Here is another take on the same theme:

In this image, the chump is getting an ill-fitting suit not because it's off-the-shelf and union-made but because the slimeball salesmen can't or won't be bothered to fit him properly. The superiority of union needlework–which the establishment advertises prominently–is or ought to be a selling point among highfalutin haberdashers.

Whatever the punch line, the ACWA was happy with the murals and rehired Hirsch a couple of years later to do a much larger and more formal work for the wall of their auditorium upstairs: a mural 11 feet high and 65 feet long–the largest the entire city at the time–which traced the early history of labor unions in the United States. It was later removed from the building and installed in the lobby of the Sidney Hillman Apartments a few blocks away.

Sidney Hillman, who founded the ACWA, had no personal association with Philadelphia; he was born in Lithuania, and after being imprisoned for labor agitation in Poland in the early years of the twentieth century, he settled in Chicago, where he organized several powerful unions and steered the American labor movement toward the Democratic Party in general and Franklin Roosevelt in particular. But his ACWA represented about 25,000 Philadelphians in the 1930s, when locals from around the city got together to buy the building at 2101 South Street, which became known as the Amalgamated Center. There were offices upstairs, an auditorium and meeting rooms on the main floor, and a swimming pool, gym, and social hall in the basement.

The building was already set up for pretty much these same functions and had been since before 1900, when wealthy merchant John Wanamaker financed its construction for the Bethany Brotherhood, a men's fellowship and social lodge from nearby Bethany Presbyterian Church. During World War I, the Brotherhood turned over the building for housing and recrational use by soldiers and sailors on leave; more than 8,000 servicemen swam, played, and partied there in 1917 and 1918, with Wanamaker picking up the tab for operating costs.

The Amalgamated unions bought it in 1934 and remodeled and expanded it, eventually cladding many walls in marble; the ACWA and a series of affiliated and successor unions occupied the building until 1984, when declining membership led to its sale as office space for Graduate Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

In recent years, it has sat empty. But this week, the basement and much of the first floor of the old Amalgamated Center reopened to something like its original function: once again, the place is a gym, this time operated by a private company, City Fitness. Old Sidney Hillman would not have approved of how the renovation work was undertaken; a couple of weeks before the reopening, there were pickets in front of the building, in response to a subcontractor's use of non-union labor.

Hirsch's murals in the basement will also meet an inglorious fate (as if the graffiti wasn't enough). They are theoretically protected by the building's inclusion on the National Registry of Historic Places, but what that means in practice is that City Fitness will soon be hiding most of them, covering them over with mirrors for the exercise rooms.

Meanwhile, for a brief moment in a new century, Sidney Hillman, "The Guide and Spirit of Amalgamated C.W.," is once again flying free, even if he does have a heart inked on his bicep with the name Carmine inside:

Posted by Ellen

Hank swings his way up the wall in the climbing gym. Rock climbing has become a passion of his lately, but he says that climbing in a gym is not nearly as pleasant and exciting as climbing cliffs and boulders outdoors in the fresh air.