At the Y, All These Years


There’s just something about how a YMCA smells.

Maybe other gyms smell the same way, but I like to think Y’s have a peculiar smell—something older and more evocative than any health club has.

When I was a little kid in Denver, Colorado, my father took me and my older brother to the downtown YMCA. My mother had recently died from breast cancer, and my father, a square-jawed minister who boxed in the army, found refuge in the heavy bag there. Dressed all in gray sweats, he’d slip on his Everlast training gloves and, after a couple light jabs to the bag, start wailing away with the anger of a man who thought his god had forgotten him. I thought that old bag would bust open every time he landed one of his terrifying left hooks.

Meanwhile, my brother and I were free to go mess around wherever we liked. Geoff preferred shooting hoops in the gym. I liked to run on the creaky wooden track suspended over the gym area. I remember sprinting around like someone was chasing me, passing old men who moved with the purposefulness of ocean liners. One time, I got so caught up counting laps that I ran five miles before my brother came and told me it was time to go.

My dad liked a steam bath after working out, so we’d head to the locker room and get towels and salt pills from the attendant there. Undressed, with the thin, white towels wrapped around our thin, white bodies, my brother and I followed our father into the steam room, sucking in our breath as the heat hit our bodies. There were usually other men inside, sitting like Roman senators in the cloud of mentholated steam, letting the sweat drops roll off their noses. Our father never spoke in the steam room, so we didn’t either. It all felt sacramental, as if doing things any differently might break whatever spell kept him distracted from his thoughts.

The smell of a YMCA is more a ghost than a smell, I think. It’s my memory and olfactory senses in a kind of swoon together: the eucalyptus of the steam bath, the salt pill dissolving on my tongue. It’s the musky redolence of sweat, the oil and sawdust they used for sweeping the gymnasium. When I go to the Y, I detect that complex of smells—faintly, as if it travelled across decades to recall my eight-year-old self. Whether it’s my imagination or not, it doesn’t really matter—I would want my senses to conjure their own magic.

Sometimes, when I’m doing laps on the track upstairs, I’ll see a guy, gloved-up and sweaty, laying into the heavy bag for all he’s worth. I’ll crane my neck as I pass to see how the bag swings and whether his left hook is anywhere as good as my dad’s.

One thought on “At the Y, All These Years

  1. What you capture about the Y seems utterly apt to me. It’s an intergenerational space. What’s more it has deep historical roots, and so it becomes a space for the temporal layers of past and present, of our own workouts as well as those sensations and memories from childhood. It’s a place that unites both people and times. Next time I’m at my Y, your post has given me plenty to think about to motivate me through those multiple laps on the track. Thanks!

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