A couple of months into my struggles doing the Olympic lifts at the YMCA Frankie came up to me during a workout.
“You switchin’ sides?” he said, smiling and patting me good-naturedly on the back with one huge hand.
“I’m just fuckin’ with you,” he laughed. “The other day I ran into a buddy a mine who does this. Was an Olympian and everything.”
I didn’t quite believe this last bit—did Olympians exist in the real world? the world that I inhabited? New Jersey?—but I went along with it. In my view there was no point in arguing with a man who was twice my size and could easily hurl me across the room.
“Said he trains and coaches out in Bayonne these days,” he continued.
“Bayonne?” I asked. He might as well have said the Moon, so far outside my suburban bubble did that seem. Even if Bayonne was less than 30 miles away…
He shrugged, causing his enormous shoulders and traps to swallow even more of his neck. “Pretty sure. You want I can ask him for details. Might be somethin’ to look into if you wanna get serious about this.”
“Okay,” I said, “let me know.”
A week later Frankie handed me a folded piece of paper torn from his training notebook.
“That’s what he told me,” he said.
I opened the paper. In Frankie’s strange cursive—it was hard to imagine the big man holding a pencil—was written the name “Ricky Pugilio,” along with a phone number and the address for Bayonne High School. Below that it just said “basement.”
“I can go anytime?” I asked.
“He said he’s there just about every night, from six to eight or so. But most guys train Monday, Wednesday, Friday during the week. Said come whenever you like.”
I nodded and folded up the paper. “Thanks.”
Another week went by before I worked up the courage to actually drive out to Bayonne. I’d only had my license for little more than a month, and most of my driving was limited to going from my house to the YMCA. I didn’t have my own car, so I had to convince my dad to let me take his Ford Explorer for the journey.
“Bayonne?” he’d said. “What the heck is in Bayonne?”
Eventually he agreed, and then spent a good forty minutes writing and drawing out detailed instructions and small maps for the journey. For my father, giving directions was an art form: part navigational advice, part cartography, and part oral history, as he retold anecdotes from places along the route. He could also never just give one route, although he certainly had one in mind—always there was a discussion of the various routes, the myriad options, the pros and cons of each, before finally settling on the chosen path.
“So you could take 280 to the Parkway, then 78 East, wrap around Newark—I ever tell you about Andros Diner in Newark? Great food… we oughta go sometime. I used to go when I was working out that way, back when me and your mom had just started dating. Excellent pancakes…”
“Right, Bayonne—anyway, so 280 to Parkway to 78, which would bring you basically right into where you wanna be… but no, you don’t wanna deal with the Parkway at this hour. No, let’s think. Okay, forget that. Here’s what you wanna do…”
And on and on, before finally relinquishing the keys.
It was already twilight when I set out, and by the time I was mid-drive the sun had set, thanks to my father’s over-lengthy explanations and the fact that it was late October. In the darkness, heading down the highway in a herd of headlights going in and out of the city, I felt as though I was pushing at the boundaries of the known world. Cars with drivers far more surefooted than I sped past in the darkness. I spent most of the drive balanced on a razor’s edge between terror and excitement—here was my chance at a real Olympic weightlifting gym, assuming I could get there without getting lost…
When I finally arrived at Bayonne High School it was fully dark. The building looked strangely foreboding: pseudo Gothic spires and crenelations on the facade implied some strange amalgam of cathedral architecture that was totally at odds with the bland midcentury design of my own high school. From the outside there was no sign of life within—nearly all the windows were dark, and what lights were on only underscored the emptiness beyond the windows.
The paper from Frankie just said “basement,” and beyond that I had no clue where I was going now that I’d arrived. Basement? As if this were simply somebody’s house and all I had to do was say “hi” to their mom and head downstairs…
The main door was locked so I walked around the building until I found an open door on the side. Once inside and searching through empty hallways my sneakers’ squeaking against the linoleum floor seemed an affront to the pervasive stillness of the school. I took a stairwell down a flight—basement was still all the direction I had—and continued my wandering through eerily silent hallways. As the seconds passed I felt the first stirrings of panic—what if I never found it? What if I just wandered through here aimlessly for hours? What if somehow I was at the wrong high school in Bayonne? The terror of impending failure felt very real…
In one hallway I saw an old janitor leaning into a mop handle as he pushed a yellow bucket down the hall, looking like some comic parody of a medieval pilgrim. He regarded me without interest and nearly drifted past before I stopped him.
“Do you know where, um, weightlifting is? Olympic weightlifting?” I asked.
He looked at me but didn’t change his expression. I guessed his age to be somewhere north of a hundred and wondered if perhaps he was deaf or didn’t speak English.
“Weightlifting?” I asked again, miming the movement of a clean with my hands in an effort to overcome any potential linguistic barriers. I tried to remember anything I’d learned in Spanish that might be useful but all I came up with was “Donde esta la biblioteca?,” which didn’t seem at all relevant here…
“Weightlifting?” I repeated, not wanting to lose hope.
Slowly, he took one gnarled hand from the mop handle and raised it. With a bony finger he pointed down the corridor and then to the left.
“Okay,” I said. “Thank you.”
He nodded once and then went on to pushing his bucket down the hallway, the shaky wheels echoing throughout the still air. Maybe this sort of thing happened all the time… Maybe lifters come from all over the world to train here, and he’s simply tired of directing them to the training center…
As I moved down the hallway I began to hear sounds punctuating the stillness: familiar sounds like metal plates and bars, and less familiar ones, dull rubbery thuds. I picked up my pace, excited now at the prospect of having arrived. I turned left and saw a pool of light spilling out across the otherwise dark hallway. The sounds grew louder. Yes, I thought. Finally…
I’m not sure what I expected when I walked into the gym in that basement. Having no concept of what an Olympic weightlifting gym looked like, I had no means of imagining one. I think perhaps I thought of some combination of what I’d seen over the weeks of watching weightlifting and gymnastics coverage of the Games on NBC: colorful plates, precisely arranged platform and chalk box, the careful order of a gymnastics setup made for TV.
This was none of those things. This was a room that made my gym at the YMCA look like a space station by comparison: cinderblock walls painted an institutional off white that was turning to yellow; an assortment of wooden platforms of varying heights and in varying stages of repair and disrepair; stacks of wood blocks, some covered in rubber sheets, some bare; metal and rubber plates and coated metal plates that—if they’d ever been colorful—were now faded or chipped almost beyond recognition; squat stands that looked to have been made in the high school’s welding shop (assuming it had one); and all of this bathed in the surreal glow of overhead florescent lights. Despite the dry chill outside the gym itself was warm with sweat and the air thick with dust.
If the space was strange the assortment of characters scattered about it seemed just as unlikely. I’d never met any weightlifters before. As far as I knew they all looked like Naim Suleymanoglu or Pyrros Dimas or the others I’d seen on TV. This was a far more diverse lot. There was a tall, skinny blond kid about my age who looked to be trying—and failing—to grow a mustache. He was sharing a platform with another guy about my age, shorter than me and stockier. There was an old man wearing an American flag bandana and a tank top the sickly yellow color of the walls, along with sweatpants that were many, many sizes too small. An olive-skinned guy who looked a little older than me was perhaps the closest to what I imagined as a weightlifter: average height, athletic but not flashily muscled, vaguely Middle Eastern or Eastern European.
In the far corner of the room the man I’d come to know as Ricky threw a barbell filled with plates overhead, stood with the weight, and then dropped it. The heavily loaded bar crashed to the platform and raised a cloud of dust and chalk to accompany the great clamor of metal and rubber. It was through this whirlwind of particles and amid the cacophony of the dropped barbell—the first I’d ever seen in person, forbidden as it was at my gym—that I got my initial impression of him: broad shouldered, big and powerful even if clearly past his prime, with a shaggy mane of hair and a beard that threatened to take over his face. He looked like something wild and feral that’d only found his way into the world by accident, and was now stuck here doing civilized things like wearing pants and eating with utensils.
“You lost or you come to lift some weights?” asked the short, stocky kid.
“Uh, to lift,” I said. “Frankie told me to come see Ricky Pugilio.”
Ricky raised one huge mitt of a hand in greeting. “That’s me. He said someone might be stoppin’ by. You Jonathan?”
I nodded in response.
Ricky smiled. “Frankie said you just been doin’ this over at the Y where you train. You got a coach or anything?”
I shook my head. “I just started a couple months ago.”
“Okay. That’s cool. Welcome then. You got shoes?”
I looked down at the Nike sneakers I was wearing.
He smiled again. “There’re a couple extra pairs of lifting shoes on the wall behind you,” said Ricky, pointing. “Try ’em on and see if any of ’em fit. Once you get yourself situated hop on a platform and let’s see what you can do.”