A COVID Workout – National Review

People exercise in Central Park in New York City during the COVID-19 outbreak, April 4, 2020. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

You know how it is in gyms. Even when they ask you to wipe down the equipment once you are done with it, there is always the odd person who leaves the job to the next exerciser. Even on a clean bench with a spotless bar, the bench-presser exhales clouds of grunt with every up-push. Sitting in a row of puffing stationary bicyclists is as healthy as breathing the car exhaust of a rush-hour traffic jam. The shower stalls, even when the handles work and the soap dispenser has been filled some time this year, collect swirls of hair in the drain grids that are best not inquired into. Probably the only activities affording more unwanted contact with your fellow man are Greco-Roman wrestling and prostitution. No wonder gyms rank way down on the list of businesses allowed to reopen when/if our antivirus locks loosen.

Friends ask if I don’t do a lot of hiking up in the country. I don’t. Hiking is a vacation activity, and I am upstate under compulsion. When would I do it? There is nothing so time-consuming as idleness. Where would I go, even for an ordinary walk? The country is the land of the automobile. Henry Ford made the Model T for farmers. It’s three miles from my house for gas or a newspaper, 20 miles for a decent cup of coffee. My friend up here of longest standing lives on top of a mountain. Since spring we have been doing a lot of gardening, but that is the work that yields almost no workout dividend. You kneel, dig, pick, and go back and forth to the house to fetch the clipper you forgot. Gardening calms and refreshes, and the results can be magical, but it does not build muscle.

I have some weights upstate, and there are edges on which I can do push-ups and dips. But all my real workouts have been done in the city, which now forbids working out. My trainer, a resourceful man, has devised an alternative.

I met him on our last trip to town on the far West Side. The riverfront is unrecognizable from what it was when I first moved here. Then it was a wilderness of maritime decay and desperate sun-worshipers contending with rubble. Now it has been manicured with promenades and mini-parks. My trainer has clients scattered across two boroughs. How he sets up elsewhere I do not know. Here he staked out a tree, for shade in case the sun was shining (happily it wasn’t). He looped stretch bands around the legs of park benches, and over a lower branch. So we went to work.

The river at this point (more properly a fjord, a riverbed drowned by the sea) is vast and sullen. A man glided by on a stand-up paddle board. My trainer says he sees him often. I wouldn’t do that on a bet, there is current out there. Landlubbers biked and jogged past, almost all of them masked. We were hammered so hard so early we have learned our lesson. Both my trainer and I were masked as well; our salutation was an elbow bump.

My trainer is my last tenuous link to popular culture. I know about Amy Winehouse because he liked her. His soundtrack today was Jamaican reggae. So that is still going on. There was a period some years ago when it went electronic and became as interesting as a knocking car engine. Now it seems to have moved back towards human beings.

My trainer is also one of my links to humanity. Pre-COVID I saw him three times a week. I stopped living at home in 1973, attending classes in 1977, going to the office Monday through Friday in 1987. The only person I saw more often than my trainer in the last two decades was my wife. Time is the indispensable basis of friendship, as well as of workouts. I have learned more about his home islands than I ever imagined I would know. Blue holes (limestone sinkholes with underwater connections to the ocean). The baton of honor (what police cadets, such as he, contended for). Gaulins (in Jamaica they are white egrets; where he comes from they are large raucous crows). Conchy Joes (the dialect term for indigenous white people). Junkanoo (the local version of carnival, when everyone dresses up and parades with his or her neighborhood crew; my trainer’s was the Saxons, which might surprise George Plimpton or Harold II, but history has many cunning passages).

I learned more about professional bodybuilding than I ever imagined I would know. The expense (for drugs) was crushing, the rewards, except for a handful of the most successful, were meager or nonexistent, the judging was subjective and therefore capricious. I watched through his eyes the gallant comeback effort of one of his favorites, a gym mate, who, what with aging and loss of time via occasional legal troubles, never quite came back, but never lost his good spirits (“humble” and “old-school” are my friend’s two warmest words of praise). I watched the rise and collapse of another gym mate, not humble, who thought to go all the way on a quick start and natural physique, taking no advice, perhaps because he dismissed it as old-school, and who stalled out in the second rank.

I am pro-cop; so, having been one, is my trainer. But I know from him how black men can get hustled. He left a double-parked car in the street once to duck into a store, fell afoul of a martinet sergeant, and spent a night in jail. The morning after was the most strenuous workout I ever had.

Now he paints. His theme is African diaspora. He copies 19th-century photographs of the American South, modern romantic Maasai, Afro-Cuban cigar ladies, Colombian fruit-sellers, junkanoo comrades. He is showing four of his canvases in an outer-borough gallery.

We will work out again my next trip to town.

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Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.