I am a person who frequents the local gym. In fact it is part of my daily routine and it is a social environment I have come to know very well. After hunting for a good parking space I make my way through the set of automatic sliding glass doors. The temperature is always a consistent 70 degrees Fahrenheit – cozy and comfortable in the winter, and a refreshing break from the blistering heat of summer. When I approach the front desk to swipe my membership card, one of three people will greet me. Usually it’s a middle aged African American man called “Mr. Fred,” and you can bet that he’ll be wearing a smile.
No doubt, he knows almost every member’s name despite the fact that there are hundreds. On the rare occasion that Mr. Fred isn’t at the front desk, either a beautiful young girl with brown hair and brown eyes, or an older polite woman will greet me. As I make my way up the tall, carpeted staircase I scroll through my Ipod to find something fresh. Upon arriving at the top of the staircase I scan the area to see who is present. Is it busy? Is the cute girl I noticed last week here? My buddy from school? Anyone else I know? It’s truly amazing how much it depends on the time of day.
We live by the clock and sometimes I don’t think we realize how much it structures our lives. Three PM means it’s slow – there will be a few older retired folks lethargically moving around and trying to keep themselves busy. At Four PM the space slowly starts to fill in with people that got off work early or left early to avoid the rush. At Five PM the facility comes alive. The cardio machines will soon all be occupied, the spinning classes begin, the lanes of the pool are now filled, and the clang of weights being shuffled around echoes throughout the gym. This is a colossal gym.
The ceilings must be 40 feet high in some places. Most of the activity takes place on the second floor where there are over 100 cardio machines of various types. There is also an indoor track that surrounds the machines and the weights. I walk over to the stationary bikes to begin my warm-up and wonder how many people have sat on this seat since I last did. Sometimes the seat is still on position “16” like I left it the day before, other times I find it fully extended and I know a seven foot tall guy must have been there. After about ten minutes on the bike, I make my way over to the weights where I discover a new face.
It’s a girl with blonde hair and she’s probably about 20 years old. She seems a little lost – perhaps a new member without much weight-training experience. It’s funny how many new members there are following every New Years. Indeed they have all just made resolutions to get into better shape. So after a couple minutes of fumbling around with one machine, a guy approaches the girl and offers his expertise on the subject. He asks her which muscle group she wants to focus on, and then demonstrates the correct movements on the machine.
She looks at him wearily as she tries to replicate the motions and he nods in approval. It seems an instant relationship has just formulated between the two. Who knows where it will lead, they may end up together for the rest of their lives. Next I move over to where the free weights are located. I watch myself in the mirror as I lift the weights over my head and then bring them back to my shoulders in a slow, controlled motion. In the mirror I notice two girls behind me on the abdominal machines. And to take a line from Akon – I can’t help but to notice them, noticing me.
I have seen them a couple times before and there is a feeling of familiarity – almost as though we know each other, yet we have never met. In one of my psychology classes, we learned the term “familiar strangers. ” These can be described as people that we see over and over throughout our routines but people that we technically do not know. These girls are an example of familiar strangers because although I have never conversed with them, there is a sense that I do know them on some level. This is true of many people I see at the gym, some of which I see almost every day.
It’s as if I have a certain connection with these people even though we are not acquaintances. It’s a peculiar situation. I see them every day but we don’t really speak to each other, yet if I saw one of them in another setting (a bar, restaurant, or store) I would almost feel compelled to speak. If I didn’t acknowledge them, it would be as though I was choosing to ignore the fact that I recognized them as a familiar person from the gym. Tuesdays at the gym are particularly interesting from a sociological perspective. It’s a very busy day because there are a lot of group classes.
One class called “Zumba” combines dancing with an aerobic routine that has been choreographed to hip-hop music. This is the most popular class at the gym; in fact, it’s so popular that they had to move the class to the basketball court. The basketball court can be overlooked from the second floor; so needless to say, when the hip-hop music starts blaring it draws a lot of attention. But I’m not sure the music draws as much attention as the 75 women bouncing around on the basketball court. The guys upstairs literally flock to the railing to check out the action.
And the funny thing is – they don’t tend to make any effort to be sly about watching the women below. Instead, they just stare at them, grinning from ear to ear and joke around with buddies. I’ll admit, it is very difficult to keep your eyes off of that many girls, but I do my best to avoid gawking. The gym is a place I have come to know well and it is an excellent facility. It sometimes even feels like a second home because everyone there is so welcoming and friendly. And if my Ipod isn’t enough to keep me entertained during my workout, there’s always the option of “people watching. ”