Adventures in unemployment… trial membership at the fancy gym

Bully! (courtesy of

Bully! (courtesy of

I was walking down Broadway last Friday evening, south of Madison Square Park but north of Union Square. This is a ritzy part of town, where nannies pay other nannies to push strollers and restaurants offer $25 lunch specials one week a year, by reservation only. Design Within Reach – whose name assumes the customer makes seven figures – has a store selling furniture too expensive to actually touch. Canvassers plied their trade on the sidewalk up ahead of me. I tried to swing wide, not needing a piece of garbage at that moment. But one of them made eye contact and held out a flyer. For some reason, I took it.

It was a three-day pass to a high-end New York City health club. I needed to shake up my routine, and I could resist the sales person’s hard sell. Monday morning, bright and early (for an unemployed slacker), I arrived with my gear, ready to work out. I even wore a nice gym shirt – one without stains and holes that still retained some semblance of its original shape. Upon first glance, one might mistake me for respectable.

I’ve tried many different local gyms, as a change of scenery rather than a first step toward switching. Sometimes it’s more convenient to feign interest and take a tour to get a free workout than trek halfway across the city. This isn’t really lying. I am interested in other gyms… in the general, long-term, information-gathering sense. I might even make a switch someday, if a big pile of money magically appears in my living room. Switching at this moment just isn’t going to happen. The average gym membership in NYC runs about $75/month. My gym membership – a college graduation present many years ago – costs me less than a third of that. And lest we all forget, I’m unemployed.

The sales associate – a former pharmaceutical rep in Jackson Heights I would soon learn – asked me the usual questions. How often do you work out? What are your fitness goals? Have you ever had personal training? Each question began with an implied, “given that you’re so incredibly buff…” Or maybe that’s what I inferred. Who can remember these piddling details? She then gave me the grand tour of what might be the nicest gym I’ve seen, definitely the nicest in NYC. My perception might be different if I’d attended a division one university or my alma mater had renovated its athletic facilities the year before my graduation rather than the year after. The place is four floors and 4000 square feet of new, clean and in working equipment. (I’m used to old, dirty equipment that stays broken for weeks.) Trainers wander the floors putting away weights and offering advice or a quick spot. Classes with names I can’t pronounce and punctuated with exclamation points are available throughout the day, as are massages and physical therapy. There’s a boutique and a cafe. I could go on and on, because that’s what I do. But let me sum it up in three words… cool eucalyptus towels. They’re available on every floor to wipe my sweaty brow.

Back in her office, the sales associate showed me the membership plans and asked if I was ready to join. I was, if she was ready to wave the membership fees (Initiation: $645; Monthly Dues: $173). I love me some cool eucalyptus towels. To get out of the conversation, I said I would need to discuss the matter with my wife. She might also be interested. And I couldn’t make a final decision without working out, of course. This being a high-class joint, she didn’t push the matter. There was no pressure, no hard sell.

The first trial workout was the best, probably because I felt the most gung-ho and the least self-conscious. The facility is light and open and not especially crowded. Many people there had personal trainers putting them through their paces. The rest, I can only assume, were surrogates – paid to work out on another’s behalf. And then there was me, wandering around wide-eyed, trying out all the equipment. Everyone was beautiful. Everything was shiny and new, from the filtered water fountains to the fancy Macs for class registration and music downloading. The house speakers played model runway and swanky club music. I worked out near a huge window overlooking Broadway (the road, not the theater district), thinking “look at me, mom, I’m a fancy person now.”

The weird feeling didn’t hit me until the next day. I was on a cross-trainer machine that mimics a running gazelle. I looked stupid, but everyone does on that machine. The middle-age woman next to me discussed kitchen remodeling with her friend. The issue was where to live while the work happened. She leaned toward Florida, because she likes it there in the fall, but hadn’t made a final decision. Her friend agreed. I didn’t have an opinion, having never remodeled a kitchen or been to Florida. Money didn’t seem to be a concern at all. Renovating a kitchen to them was a little like buying a cup of coffee is to the rest of us. I felt a little out of my element.

I switched to a recumbent bike with a video screen, and tried to run down riders on the redwood forest course. The pedaling avatars just disappeared as I approached. The machine wouldn’t even let me off the path. Where’s the fun in that? So I tried the college campus course, where I could pick off a few Abercrombie & Fitch-wearing coeds, or at least a mascot with a giant head. Again, no luck. I worked up a good sweat, but still felt a little off, a little on edge, like I was someplace unfamiliar. I needed a cool eucalyptus towel and a massage to bring me down. The massages cost extra, so I settled for the towel.

I was self-conscious, which led to the anxiety. It wasn’t because I had no intention of joining the club, but because I had no choice. I couldn’t join. Places that I walk past all the time – places like this gym – are off limits. I can look around, take it all in, but then I have to leave. Unemployment gives me free time, but then takes away most of my options. I felt like an impostor, like the people there knew I wasn’t a member and couldn’t afford to be. I don’t have a job or the money for fancy things, or really anything. If gainfully employed, I wouldn’t spend my money on a high-end gym membership. But I could, theoretically. The choice would be mine. Everyone around me had chosen to be there. They are rich and can work out mid-morning on a weekday. I am poor (or at least feel poor) and would really rather be at work. But I can’t, so I work out instead.

I didn’t put all this together until after my last workout. I was in the shower, where I do my best thinking, using up the gym’s fancy conditioner. Hot water streamed from the deluxe shower head. Wooden slats the kept my feet from touching the floor. And that’s when it occurred to me. I dressed, packed up my stuff and went to Quiznos for lunch, which I bought with a coupon.

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  1. Underemployed wrote:

    Brilliant. I love this blog. VERY well written. I got a full time job and start on Monday. That means Ive now got you beat…. three jobs in one year.

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 11:35 pm | Permalink
  2. Norm wrote:

    Congrats on the job! I hope it lasts this time. Being able to find 3 jobs during a recession is actually very impressive, not that you wanted it to work out that way. Most people can’t find one.

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 11:57 pm | Permalink
  3. Underemployed wrote:

    Well I got cut Ii November, then I went to work part time (read FULL TIME) but this gave the employer grounds for abusing labor laws, working me 40 plus hours, lots of travel, blantant discrimination and no benefits. I start on Monday with the new job. Its still not comparable to what I was making but its better than less than half my salary. And while the boss was a Hitler incarnation – it opened me up to new skills, contacts, etc. Right now employess are on SALE – its the way to go Norm. Everyone around me is getting jobs after being unemployd for OVER 1 year and those with jobs are getting better jobs… Slowly but surely. You are next my friend. What will become of your site then? I love the way you updated your resume… genius.


    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  4. Mal Milligan wrote:

    Your writing style reminds me of P. J. O’Rourke, this was a very good read. Thanks. I wanted to get fired at my last job to cash in on the unemployment benefits but I landed up actually giving 2 weeks notice and leaving. It was so weird, I’ve never actually done that before – give notice. Being unemployed myself, I’ve had opportunities pop up that I would never have had a chance to check out if I had been actually working. Cheers –

    Thursday, October 15, 2009 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

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