The high school gym was filled with jocks and weight lifters and I didn’t fit in with any of them. People like Irving Ackerman, the strongest Jewish kid in the school.
Irving didn’t know me. I lifted the lowest level of weights, but I resolved to change this. I was going to work out to grow big and strong.
I found a body building program in the back of a comic book.
“Universal Body Building” had the logo of a muscle man hugging a sexy woman and promised to send me weekly lessons which would transform me into a hunk of muscle.
In order to start the program, I needed squat stands.
“Dad, can you buy me squat stands?” I asked the next morning at breakfast.
“Squat stands are expensive,” he said, biting into his English muffin. He drank dark liquid that wasn’t coffee. He didn’t understand the importance of body building, but by the time he finished eating, he realized I was disappointed.
“Maybe you can have squat stands for Hanukah,” he said when he got home later that night. “I’ll see if Dan Lurie has them.”
Dan Lurie was a bodybuilder with a retail store in Canarsie.
“Can we get the stands tonight?” I asked, as if squats were a life-saving intervention.
It was the last night of Hanukah, 6:15 PM on a weeknight and the store closed at seven.
For some reason, perhaps guilt, my father agreed and we sped on the Belt Parkway to Dan Lurie, weaving in and out of lanes at a high speed so I could get squat stands.
Unlike the shining stainless steel squat stands I had seen in various gyms and at school, these squat stands were flat black with square bases that rattled on our uneven basement floor.
I started the Universal Body Building Program, but couldn’t keep up with the lessons or the twelve dollar monthly payments. Even though I had squat stands, I still had weak quads, and soon, I also had a collection agency coming after me.
I did squats for a few more weeks on my own and then moved on to smoking pot instead.
I spent school days getting high, but I still wanted to get strong. I still had a man crush on Irving Ackerman, now a senior and possibly the strongest Jew in the world. He was musclebound from all the furniture he lifted at his father’s store: Ackerman’s Eclectic Antiques, one of the famous high school dozen that could bench press the entire rack. He gave up wrestling to become a body builder.
Sometimes I followed Ackerman in school. I admired his Herculean walk, the wide lats and bulky thighs that never allowed him to bring his arms or legs together. He seemed the perfect person to lift weights with, if only I could get him to notice me.
My only hope to gain favor with Ackerman was a scaly one-eyed kid with a limp named Gallo, who hobbled alongside Ackerman like a pilot fish. Gallo also happened to sell pot, so one day when I was buying a joint, I asked if he ever lifted weights with Ackerman.
Gallo looked at me sideways, compensating for his glass eye. “We lift all the time, man.”
Gallo didn’t seem muscular but he was tough. “You want to lift with me? You’re not going to be able to lift with Irving until you bulk up a little.”
I hesitated, not wanting to be alone with Gallo, but I realized this was probably my only chance.
“I’ll lift with you,” I said. “You have weights?”
“Of course I got weights. I got lots of weights. More than you can ever lift.”
“Should I come over after school?”
“Sure, come the fuck over. If you don’t mind cat piss. I got cat piss all over the basement. That’s where the weights are.”
“I’m allergic to cats,” I said thinking about the horrible smell of cat piss and Gallo actually looked pissed although I couldn’t tell if he was looking at me. He was one of the few people I knew who would actually look better with an eye patch.
“You got weights?” he said finally.
“Yeah, I have weights but I don’t know if there’s enough for you. How much you lift?”
“I lift lots. What you got?”
“I don’t know, maybe one sixty.”
“That’s weak. Smith, you’re pretty fucking weak.”
“I got squat stands.”
“I’ll be over at three,” he said.
After school, Gallo showed up at my house in a leather jacket reeking of pot. His dress shirt underneath was unbuttoned to reveal a gigantic metallic cross. He limped across our foyer in sweatpants without underwear.
I introduced Gallo to my mother and he winked at her with his glass eye.
I showed him the weights in the basement.
“Vinyl weights? That’s so weak, Smith. But I like the squat stands. Fucking Dan Lurie. You know, he was supposed to be Lou Ferrigno’s understudy for the Incredible Hulk.”
“Cool. You ready to lift?”
“I need a ruler,” Gallo said. “I gotta measure the handgrip position and make sure it’s even on both sides.”
“Richid can I speak to you?”
I hated being interrupted by my mother.”
“Mom, do we have a ruler?”
“Richid. Come upstairs.”
I left Gallo behind to set up the weights and went upstairs.
“I don’t like the looks of that kid,” my mother said.
“Mom, stop judging my friends.”
She handed me an envelope. “You also have mail from a collection agency.”
I lifted weights with Gallo for over an hour and we didn’t lift much. After each set we had to wait while he painstakingly measured the distance between hand positions on the bar.
“You don’t want it uneven, otherwise one arm will be stronger than the other,” he said.
I didn’t criticize Gallo, but I had watched Irving Ackerman lift and it only took him a minute between sets. Maybe that’s why Irving was huge and Gallo wasn’t.
I decided this would be the last time we would lift together but Gallo called me the next night and the night after and every day asked if we would lift after school. My mother continued to complain that he was a creepy kid and a bad influence, and despite all the lifting I never got any bigger because we spent most of the time measuring our hand positions. I was afraid to tell Gallo to stop calling me, so I went along with it until one night when he called, instead of asking me to lift, he asked if I wanted to go to a party.
I said yes but made the mistake of telling my parents.
“You’re not going to a party with that kid,” my mother said at the dinner table.
My father grabbed another lamb chop. “Which kid?”
“The kid with the weights,” said my mother.
“You mean the kid that comes over every day? The kid with the cross and the glass eye who refuses to wear a jock strap?”
“Yeah. That kid.”
“That kid means trouble. Forget about it.”
“That kid is best friends with Irving Ackerman,” I said.
Everyone knew Irving. At least everyone Jewish did.
“Irving’s huge,” said my father.
“That gentile kid doesn’t look like an athlete,” said my mother.
“Irving’s an athlete,” said my father. “He’s a wrestler. He doesn’t have collection agencies coming after him. I don’t want you going to any parties. Have the party here.”
“No way,” I said and stormed away from the table.
But, I thought about it. If I had a party, Irving Ackerman would most certainly come, and he would see my squat stands. Hopefully he would be impressed.
“I’m having the party at my place,” I told Gallo the next day. We were on the exit ramp where the cool people in school smoked cigarettes. I didn’t smoke cigarettes but speaking with Gallo gave me an excuse to hang out there.
“You think people will come?” I asked, but I was really referring to Irving Ackerman.
Gallo blew smoke out of his mouth sideways, in the opposite direction of his drifting glass eye. “People might come,” he said. “Will your parents be home?”
“Of course not,” I said, preparing for the argument with my parents.
“We have to be home,” said my father. “Otherwise it’s illegal for you to have a party.”
I knew this wasn’t true.
“We promise not to bother you,” said my mother.
“I just have to warn you,” I said. “Some of the kids smoke cigarettes, and there may be beer there.”
“We weren’t born yesterday,” said my father. “Just use common sense.”
Unlike the parties these kids were used to, I presumed my house was different. I had “a finished basement.” They were used to sitting around on bridge chairs next to an oil burner.
I set up the stereo I earned as a gift after my Bar Mitzvah, with the turntable on top and the 8-track cassette player.
My mother wanted to hang crepe paper decorations. I nixed that.
“It’s a party for cool people,” I said. “Not a sweet-sixteen.”
I was delighted to see how quickly the tough kids swarmed in. Soon it was smoky, loud and crowded.
At the peak of the party, and fashionably late, Irving Ackerman arrived with Gallo limping down the stairs behind him.
Irving Ackerman saw everyone guzzling Rolling Rock and Miller light. He saw the bucket of Alabama Slammers I mixed in a garbage can as well as Theresa Milliken vomiting into a paper bag in the corner of my basement. Immediately he smiled.
Gallo pointed at my squat stands and Irving nodded his approval.
I handed Irving a beer and he shook my hand.
I blasted Emerson Lake and Palmer.
“Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends. We’re so glad you could attend come inside come inside.”
Joey, the biggest burnout in the class, asked Gallo to watch his beer while he was taking a pee.
Gallo nodded, placing the bottle on the table next to him. “Yeah, I’ll keep my eye on it,” he said with a laugh, and reached to yank out his glass eye—but Irving stopped him.
People made out. Everyone smoked weed. There were joints and pipes and even a bong.
Joey switched on Black Sabbath, sandwiching his head with my Bar Mitzvah speakers blasting Iron Man into each ear.
Things spiraled out of control.
The smell of pot drifted up through our wilting ceiling.
People fought to get into the small basement bathroom pounding on the aluminum shower and it sounded like thunder.
In the laundry room, someone made a torch out of a can of Wizard toilet spray, singeing my mother’s negligee.
Kids carved their initials in the bathroom door. Someone shellacked my father’s college pennant. Foam rubber torn from our couch rained like confetti.
Out of desperation, I went upstairs to seek advice from my parents.
“What the hell’s going on down there?” asked my father. “Are people smoking marijuana?”
“I’m not sure,” I lied. “Maybe.”
“Everyone has to leave now.”
“I can’t just ask everyone to split,” I said. “It’s the middle of a party.”
“They’re destroying our house.”
Ending the party seemed very uncool, but I knew my parents were right.
“If you don’t ask them to leave,” my father said, “I will.”
My mother shrugged. “Just tell them someone called the police.”
“Yes,” said my father, “the cops are on the way.”
I spread the word.
“The pigs are onto us,” said Gallo. “Party’s over.” He and Irving were the first to leave.
Eventually everyone was gone, except for Tomlinson, a short, shy kid still hiding in our cedar closet. My mother dragged him out by the ears.
The basement simmered like a crater after a mortar blast.
That Monday after the party I was kind of popular at school. I had trashed my entire basement and supposedly the cops visited. Apparently this met the very definition of a cool party.
I hung out with the smokers on the exit ramp between periods and some of the cool people even acknowledged me.
A car screeched in the distance, tires shredding over asphalt and Gallo pulled up in his souped up Camaro. The passenger window lowered and Irving Ackerman waved me over, tan and handsome in sunglasses. Up close, the leather of his jacket was soft and grainy, a much higher quality than Gallo’s. He was drinking a beer.
“Great party, Smith,” he said.
A compliment from Irving Ackerman.
“Thanks for coming,” I said. “It was a cool time.”
“Very cool,” said Ackerman. “Here,” he said. “Finish the beer. We should lift sometime.”
“That would be great,” I said holding the beer as the car screeched away and for the first time in a while, I felt oddly victorious, even invincible.
But fifteen minutes later I was suspended for the possession of alcohol on school property; suspended for holding a beer handed to me by the one kid I truly idolized.
And three months after that, Gallo was on the local news, arrested for trying to steal a safe from our elementary school.
I never lifted with Ackerman. A year later I left for college and my parents gave away the squat stands.