Why I canceled my YMCA membership

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by Cooper Pfeene
Contributor

As Terry Lee Derrick, another “Out & About Newspaper” and “InsideOut Nashville” OpEd columnist remarked, when at the Downtown YMCA you shouldn’t act as if you were at a bathhouse. You should know better.

Honestly.

But so many men don’t that it’s beyond sad – it’s a cliché, or rather, the truth behind the cliché.

The meat of Derrick’s column was about the social responsibility of gay men and how the lack of it, as misperceived by YMCA staff, might result in the closing of the Downtown Y’s outdoor pool on Sundays next summer.

And, yes, while most of the men who participated in inappropriate sexual behavior in the locker room on Sundays weren’t self-identified gay men, more than a small percentage of them probably were. In other words, and in the interest of equity, we can’t blame everything on closeted married men when, in fact, there are more gay men than we’d care to admit who participate in this same behavior; or, more plainly, don’t discredit one cliché with another.

However, clichés, like stereotypes, stem from truths and wouldn’t have become clichés otherwise, so when an incident occurs and a cliché, I mean, closeted married man, whose name I know can be blamed, well, rest assured that he will be.

But before that, and before I explain what made me cancel my membership, I would like to second that what Terry Lee Derrick said about the YMCA applies to any gym. From what I’ve seen, too many so-called straight men consider any Gold’s or Lord’s Gym, to name two chains, fair game. This disconnect reminds of when I lived in the red-headed step-son to our fair city and occasionally frequented a club nicknamed Crackstreet. Too many times I’d walked into this club’s bathroom intent on using the facilities only to interrupt a dealer and his customer in the middle of a non-taxable transaction, their glares the equivalent of a chastisement: What do you think you’re doing in here? But that’s me, always stumbling upon the crux of the in- and the appropriate, forgetting where I’m at, and forgetting that a saying like Eat at the Y never would have arisen if, at some point, it hadn’t carried currency.

The only other point I’d add to Derrick’s commentary is this: regarding inappropriate sexual behavior, at least in Nashville proper, it’s not the Downtown YMCA that should concern you (not that I haven’t more than twice opened up a locker there and found an empty rubber wrapper on the top shelf – Magnum, Lambskin and Trojan Ribbed, if my memory serves me – and not that it isn’t as obvious as a circumcision who’s in the wet area for things other than hygiene, for its exact opposite in fact).The impression I’ve gathered is that most staff at the Downtown branch know – and by know I mean understand with the clarity of a Buddha, seeing the situation as it truly is and without any illusions whatsoever – everything that’s going on.

And even if I’m mistaken in this impression, let’s remember that it wasn’t all too long ago when the Maryland Farms YMCA in conjunction with the police conducted a sting of its wet areas, resulting in the arrest of numerous men – most of whom self-identified as straight, and many of whom were married – for indecent and/or lewd behavior. Even before this, though, the YMCAs of Middle Tennessee had signs posted in their locker rooms both forbidding and detailing the consequences of inappropriate physical behavior. But what exactly is the YMCA of Middle Tennessee doing to curtail behavior made popular by the Village People? If my experience is normal, then, in Southern parlance, it ain’t doing much of nothing. The better question, however, is why wouldn’t it, a nominally Christian organization, bear down on sexually inappropriate behavior between those for whom such a thing is “an abomination” (Lev. 18:23NAB)? Maybe the YMCA’s management expects it, having never been able to live down the taint of disco, and so looks the other way. Or maybe, instead of that eponymous song, management looks the other way because of financial concerns, i.e., losing a sizable percentage of its membership dues. Or maybe, and quite probably in certain instances – say, the instance this column will detail – the reason is something else entirely.

Whatever the case, and to return to my point, it’s the Green Hills branch – or, rather, its crack staff – that should concern you. And, believe you me, should you file an incident report, you’d better hope that the person against whom you’re filing the report doesn’t share the surname of a local church-affiliated college. If he does, you can expect days of phone tag, and then, when you manage to get to the branch before its administrative staff leave for the day, being told that the woman handling your complaint is in a meeting and to come back in 15 minutes, so you go to the floor and start and finish a muscle group, and when you make it back to the front desk, well, she’s still in a meeting, so you come back in another 15 and she’s still in a meeting, and then you come back in another 10 only to received this curt dismissal:

Yes? the well-dressed woman asked, as if the front desk staff hadn’t told her I’d been asking for her for 40 minutes running.

I’m Cooper Pfeene … (her face remained blank) I filed a complaint nearly two weeks ago now… there was an incident in the locker room …

Oh, yes, she replied, her face retaining the blankness of someone who was going lie to me about something which she knows nothing. That. It’s been a long day. I’m sorry. Mr. Pfeene, we just don’t have enough evidence. But we have spoken with Mr. L _ _ _ _ _ _ _ and informed him that if this sort of thing happens again his membership will be revoked.

Is that so? I asked, disbelievingly.
I’m afraid so. Thank you, she said stepping behind the counter.

Because her answer wasn’t really an answer at all, I decided to cancel my membership

* * *

I filed my complaint on a Saturday afternoon in November. It was about twenty minutes to four, and I’d just finished a two-hour workout, one of those workouts that energizes and wears you out at the same time. I had somewhere to be afterwards, so I’d brought a change of clothes and toiletries.

Being a member of the Y for over two years, I’d discovered that it was best to choose a corner shower spigot in its ever-so-public showers, for often the men for whom I was inadvertently providing a show were not ones anyone would care to see enjoying themselves.

On this Saturday, as usual, the shower area was packed. The man next to me finished his shower just as I was starting mine. As quickly as I could, I washed myself. Before I was done, though, a man took the shower next to mine. He dialed the water to full-blast, and, to make a faulty shower spigot worse, stood with his broad back to it, causing water to splash everywhere.

I grabbed my towel and began to dry off, but because of the steam trapped in the small space and the spray from my neighbor it was near pointless. What follows happened in the space of twenty seconds or so. I took my shower supplies to the counter by the sinks, setting them there so I could dry myself. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an older man approaching. He was fully dressed and carrying a black comb in his right hand. Though I was by no means in his way, I stepped farther to the right and turned my back to him, thinking I was being polite, which, in a way, I suppose I was. This, like a much milder version of dropping the soap in a federal pen shower, was a mistake. While drying my hair and face, Grandpa L. grabbed my left ass cheek and squeezed like he was testing the ripeness of produce.

I dropped my towel in front of me and began yelling things the exact wording of which I can’t quite remember now. All I truly remember is the tenor of my voice; for the purposes of this – insert expletives liberally, mind you – I’m sure I was demanding just what Grandpa L. thought he was doing, and just who and where he thought he was.

Either nobody else he’s done this to had ever reacted like I did, and I couldn’t have been the first what with his brazenness, or all five-foot-six of me seemed intimidating, or, as is most likely, he was worried my yelling might attract witnesses because Grandpa L. blanched as white as the church that’s affiliated with his college and darted out of the locker room. I trailed him to the door, still clutching my towel in front of me and almost forgetting that I was otherwise naked. I stopped, covered myself, and then looked for the locker room attendant. I was finally able to summon a man from a storage room in the rear of the locker room, a man who, by his bloodshot eyes, looked to be higher than Leary. Needless to say, this janitor, even after I told him that Grandpa L. had already fled, felt it necessary to search the locker room.

I quickly dressed and reported the incident to the front desk. A woman and man were working there, lazily scanning in those coming to workout. When I explained what had just happened, the man almost caught himself from chuckling.

You wanna laugh? I asked rhetorically, trying to control my anger.

No, no, no, this is serious, he replied, failing to hide his smirk.

The woman, to her credit, seemed genuinely concerned. (I’ve since learned that the YMCA’s women’s locker rooms have private showers, with curtains and everything.)

Despite saying that they couldn’t, that it was against policy, I made the counter attendants scroll through all the check-ins for that day. While patiently wading through nearly ten minutes of handsome and homely headshots, I couldn’t help but think of two things: first, that Grandpa L. had checked in quite early that Saturday, and that I’m sure he hadn’t spent those several hours on the floor lifting weights or doing cardio, which could only mean that he’d been somewhere in the upstairs locker room, which meant that no janitorial staff noticed him lingering much longer than he should have, which goes back to the Y’s lax enforcement of its own policy; and, second, that none of this would have happened were it not for Pfizer’s tiny blue diamond.

Finally, Grandpa L.’s mugshot appeared on the computer monitor. Even though I said, That’s him, the instant his sulking membership photo flashed on screen, the woman attendant still felt compelled to ask if I were sure.

I repeated myself, nodding my head for emphasis, and then filled out the incident form, using both sides. During this time, another staff member, apparently someone higher up the cross than the counter attendants, had been apprised of the situation. She assured me that something would be done, but, Oh, no, not by me, she explained. No, Jody, she handles all these things. She’s not in today, but I’ll make sure she sees this first thing Monday and gets back to you.

* * *

So I go to another gym now, one that’s much smaller but has 24/7 access, which allows me the luxury of avoiding almost everyone else. It’s funny, how no one seems to want to work out after a certain hour. And not only that, but the showers have curtains. Yes, curtains. Plural. Not to sound like a misanthrope, but this isolation is heaven, just heaven.

Recently, on a Wednesday night at the newly renovated Tribe, I related this story to two acquaintances after one asked why he hadn’t seen me at the gym for a few weeks. I nutshelled the story, and then the first, both earnestly and not, asked if I wouldn’t have been so upset if the man had been, say, forty years younger, built and hung.

Despite myself, I thought, Possibly not, thinking of my many bathhouse fantasies, none of which have ever come anywhere near realization, but with me there is the germ factor: regardless of age the reactionary part of my mind would still ascribe skeez status to the groper.

What I mean is, I don’t even like to shake hands or open doorknobs or pick stuff up from the floor. How then, you may be asking yourself, did I ever shower at the Y? It’s simple. Whenever I showered at either the Downtown or Green Hills branch, I kept my soap and shampoo in a plastic sack to shield them from the tiles upon which so much worse than Athlete’s foot has been spilt and spread. My feet, meanwhile I protected by wearing Adidas slip-ons, the bottoms of which I always rinsed off afterwards (it’s amazing, just amazing, the number of short and curly hairs that will stick to the soles of your flip-flops), and I always brought my own towels, and used a wadded up paper towel once damp to wipe off the neck of the shower spigot and the wall behind it before I hung my towel over the silver crane, and then I also used another folded up paper towel (this one dry) to flip the shower on and then off. Also, I’d always double bag my dirty gym clothes in the free plastic sacks the gym provides before stuffing them in my gym bag, using another sack for my wet towel, and then yet another for my shower supplies because I couldn’t place in my gym bag the same plastic sack that I’d sat on the shower’s floor (believe me, I know I’m obsessive; more on this later, maybe).

But I digress, on that Wednesday at Tribe, the second of my acquaintances, as if to find the positive, remarked, Hey, it’s better to be looked over than overlooked.

I paused to consider his logic, if you want to call it that, a logic at once familiar and disturbing, a logic that predisposes so much of our community’s self-destructive behavior, a logic that reduces you to an object.

But to be honest, yeah, as an adult, sometimes it’s nice, more than nice, to be objectified, to be reduced to a set of physical characteristics, of measurements, because, in a certain frame of mine, receiving such fetishistic attention can equate worth, however shallow and fleeting. And who has never, at least for a night, wanted to be wanted because of what his body looks like? Too many men, both gay and straight, function blissfully on this level: if that’s where you’re at, fine; if that’s not where you’re at, fine. Having said all of that, however, this objectification always requires two things, the absence of either of which makes it fundamentally wrong: first, the context must be appropriate, legal and safe; and, second, the one being objectified must voluntarily agree to it. Obviously, Grandpa L.’s copping a feel failed both requirements.

I would have said all of this if I hadn’t chosen to keep the conversation light. In keeping with that choice, though, I told the second acquaintance, Despite being raised mostly in Tennessee, I was never one for grandpa lovin’.

Much like the Green Hills YMCA’s slapping of Grandpa L.’s wrist, I can guarantee you that, should the Downtown YMCA choose to close its outdoor pool on Sundays next summer in an attempt to reduce the level of inappropriate sexual behavior in the men’s locker room, this will do nothing. For, like Mr. Derrick rightly asserted, it’s not the men frequenting the rooftop pool who were the problem. No, it’s men like Grandpa L., who check into the gym in the morning and stay there all day without working up an honest sweat or seeing a dumbbell.

I could go on and on, but, because it’s his cause now, I’ll leave the rest of that to Mr. Derrick. Me, I’m done with the YMCA because of an inescapable fact, a fact that should bother everyone except the exhibitionist: regardless of your build, you should accept that you will be an unpaid shower model – even if, possibly especially if, you face the corner while washing – that you will be the fuel powering the masturbatory fantasies of men with children and grandchildren, of men who are absentmindedly drying off in the locker room when you arrive and are still drying off when you leave, of men who expect from you precisely what the YMCA expects from you: namely, nothing save a sudsy silence.