The Locker Room
The Locker Room
Along the avenue in Valley Stream one day a congregant, only occasionally in church, started to walk past me without recognition, until I smiled her a "Hello!" Ever so slightly embarrassed by her failure to recognize her pastor, she blurted out, "Why it's Pastor Howard; I didn't recognize you with your clothes on." I assumed she meant my black pulpit robe. I couldn't imagine her peeping through our bathroom window. Anyway, it was on the second floor.
But, for sure and despite the sober adage, you do need a cover to tell a book. Clothes do help to make the man... and the woman. Nowhere in my travels is that observation more relevant than in the locker room of the Cornerstone Aquatic Center, where Barbara and I go thrice weekly to huff and puff our way into good senior condition.
Congenial sort that I am I rarely miss the opportunity to overhear conversations or to introduce myself to fellow exercisers. Since our preferred hour for exertion is noon, the clientele tends to be retired, self-employed, or professional with discretionary work hours. What an accomplished crew they are: Tom Condon, an editor with The Hartford Courant; Sam Palazzol, history teacher and sculptor of ceramic birds; Ted Simon, 84 year old winner of five gold medals in swimming in the Senior Games in Sao Paulo, Brazil, this past fall; Jim Scherer, former dentist now a Jungian psychotherapist; Denning Palmer, super-exerciser (at least 1000 calories per day), co-author (with his daughter) of a science fiction novel, Monkey Trap, with another novel on the way; Paul Saal, a professor of hermeneutics and the rabbi of a local Messianic Jewish congregation; the local Baptist preacher, Tom Carr; and the local Presbyterian preacher, Graham Robinson. There are a number of other gentlemen of my vintage, with whom I have yet to converse; some sport Van Dykes, usually a telltale sign of someone who is important or thinks he is.
I thought to favor you with cameo shots of each of these notables; but when I considered the logistics of the photo shoots, I decided that discretion was the better part of audacity. Can you imagine what the management would have done with me and my camera if I had taken it into the locker room and began to click away? Right! The men in blue would have been summoned, the camera confiscated, and paparazzi Howard hauled before a judge for salacious intent.
So I shall have to limit my observations to text. Such as: in the locker room we stand before each other the way we stand before God, naked. It's impossible to distinguish a Jungian psychotherapist from a preacher when all one has to go on are a few moles, a couple of scars, and a widow's peak.
In this most egalitarian of atmospheres I go by my given name, Bob. Only the author shouts his hello with a "Pastor Bob," and he does it with a sly grin suggesting a little tweaking of my ecclesiastical ego. The rabbi and I talk shop. Likewise with the preachers. The birdman and I swap stories about our immigrant parents. The next time I see the Jungian I'm going to question him about his interest in Escher and Nietzsche... or the Mets. All of this conducted for the most part au naturel. How strange we must appear to anyone listening in without a clue as to our life work and experiences, men engaged in impassioned conversation about esoteric matters, without a stitch of clothing to hide behind or to hide their behinds.
One of the younger men complained about the elevated conversation. He thought that locker room talk should be... well... raunchy, only he used less delicate language. Come to think of it, I've heard little coarse language there, except perhaps an occasional "Damn" or "Hell." Maybe its the age level or the professional status, but guys greet one another with the politeness of mixed-gender company. I suppose if you can reach seventy and still be alive and still able to swim a few laps or treadmill a couple of miles you achieve an equanimity about your life, a gratitude that colors your exchanges with others on their way from one eternity to the next.
Just one other note from the locker room: that I pass the third carrel and remark to myself the absence of a fellow who preferred that corner preparing for his thrice weekly swim. Carl Russo, slightly hearing-impaired, and I exchanged loud "Hi's" every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I knew he was there before I saw him. The smell of the liniment he liberally applied to his arthritic knees wafted through the room. Carl underwent bilateral knee replacement surgery in January. I visited him in the rehab center and brought him three oranges and a box of prunes. He was delighted. Two days later Carl went to that eternity referred to in the last paragraph. The surgery put too much strain on his heart, his son suggested.
In my preaching days I would insist that faith to be true must inform our days in the places where we live and work. And play... even the locker room? Yes, the locker room with its reduction of us all, however high we rise or low we fall, to our bare necessities, and the clear evidence of our shared mortality.