Worth the Weight

The weight room's clank, fists hitting leather, a muffled yell from the oldest continuously operating pick-up basketball game in Denver -- the Twentieth Street gym sounds just as I remember. I haven't been here in almost five years, but nothing has changed.

The minute I open the front door, my body takes over for my brain. I have pumped iron for the past fifteen years, and my weight-lifting habit is probably the only reason anyone can stand me. Everyone has her own method of fending off rampant-ego-one-step-removed-from-the-loony-bin, and the gym is mine. And for me, no matter where I've been working out recently, "gym" means the Twentieth Street Recreation Center.

Twentieth Street is an archetype; it's not just the cheapest workout downtown, but the most dependable. It is what it is: a sparse, downtown gym where people have been sweating for 54 years. This place will never convert to step aerobics or spinning or power yoga at the expense of what it does best. And for this, it is rightly famous.

Wynton Marsalis shoots hoops at Twentieth Street when the mood strikes him; John Elway chose it as a nostalgic iron-pumping location for an EAS commercial.

"Andy Garcia was in here during that Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead movie," says Kay Spring, the gym's director. "One of my regulars told me she had never seen anything quite as beautiful as walking up the front stairs and seeing Andy Garcia at the top, standing in a bolt of sunlight."

The bolt of sunlight, with or without Andy Garcia, is always beautiful here, glancing off the tiny hexagonal tiles, dinged brass stair-rails, whatever boxer is running up and down the stairs. I love the Twentieth Street gym. This is why:

1. It's Always the Same

Spring and Robert Lopez, her assistant rec supervisor, disagree, and they try to tell me that big changes have taken place since I was last here. True, there is now toilet paper in the women's locker room. And in general, things are cleaner and more open to the light. The sign above the boxing gym -- the one that read "HOUSE OF PAIN" -- has been removed.

"We wanted it to be less intimidating," Spring explains. "We attracted a lot of pros, but we needed to focus on amateurs. Especially women."

And yet, when Melissa Barela, the eighteen-year-old Golden Gloves champion, registered with the state boxing commission, she listed her home gym as "Twentieth Street House of Pain."

The basketball game has continued nonstop, but there's a subtle movement afoot to make it less --

"-- intimidating," Lopez says. "The guys get wound up. We do a good job monitoring the situation. It's short court, very physical. If you didn't know, you might think these guys basically wanted to kill you. We try to keep that to a minimum."

In fact, they keep it to nonexistent. A long time ago, I was told never to bring my gym bag into the gym, because what if it contained a gun? But despite the stories, Twentieth Street never seemed dangerous, and I never felt anything could happen to me there -- unless we're talking about my quads, which always got bigger.

"Because our weight room is extraordinary," Lopez explains. "The whole place is. Sometimes it completely comes alive! It has an atmosphere that cannot be duplicated! It's, I don't know -- it's Chicago in the 1930s! It's the history that gets to me," he decides. "It started in 1908 as the Denver Bath House."

2. The History Really Gets to Me

The Denver Bath House wasn't a gym, but a place to get cleaned up, perhaps take a swim. With its central location, the building attracted the same disparate group it does today -- everyone from the homeless to the businessman to the family living in cramped quarters nearby. In 1949, Denver's recreation director spent $25,000 turning the bathhouse into the city's first rec center, keeping the swimming pool but adding two gyms and a series of locker rooms. State of the art for its time, it was seen as a place that would attract the entire community, including neighborhood kids who could learn to swim for free.

Unlike so many Denver remodels -- and I'm talking about the kind that usually result in a parking lot -- Twentieth Street has been gently treated. The huge windows in the weight room still open to let in actual city air. The pool was built long before the phrase "Olympic length" meant anything. Spring is frustrated by the building's "wasted space," but swears it will never be hacked into cubicles.

Good. What could be better than a weight room crowded not with people, but ghosts?

3. A Mysterious Gym Man on the Premises:

Weight lifting is fundamental, but it can also be boring -- what, really, is diverting about picking up heavy things and putting them down? In the course of my sweaty addiction, I've experienced countless moments of pure apathy. I'm unmotivated by the promise of a brand-new body; sometimes the only thing that keeps me going is the sense that someone is watching, and I'd better not give up just yet. At Twentieth Street, this person is Al Mack, who's run the weight room for more than thirty years. Because we were never introduced -- he's almost pathologically quiet -- I always thought of him as Mysterious Gym Man.

Al Mack was the one who warned me not to pack heat in his gym. A few years later, with not one word in the meantime, he suddenly instructed me to begin using a different lat pull-down machine. "I've seen what you do, and it is wrong," he said. "Now do this." Of course, I did. Even more years later, when I hadn't been to the gym in months and was sidelined by advanced pregnancy, Mysterious Gym Man suddenly told my husband to have me report to Twentieth Street so that I could be turned into a competitive power lifter. This fantasy -- which is exactly what it turned out to be -- got me through the rest of the pregnancy in fine style. I became my own Mysterious Gym Woman.

"Yes, I'm a giant, gestating lard-ass," I'd think, "but what nobody knows is that I'm fabulously strong! I have legs of iron! I am [cue noble music] the Jew-girl Giant!"

Understandably, Al Mack claims to remember none of this, although he will admit to coaching the occasional bodybuilder and power lifter over the years. He plays his cards as close to the vest as ever, and his rule over the weight room remains absolute. He says he has no idea when he'll retire -- and never thinks about that, anyway.

"I think about maximizing my time here," he says.

4. Twentieth Street, the Neighborhood

"That's really changed," Lopez tells me. "There's a loft next door."

"Are those people coming to the gym?" I ask.

"Maybe," he says doubtfully.

Twentieth Street was a fine way to commute to and from the gym, and it remains so. You still never know who you'll see slinking out of Diamond Lil's Adult Emporium, and the Twentieth Street Cafe stands ready to combat any workout with its brilliant, comforting meat loaf. This affirms the circular nature of life itself, and is much more fun than walking out to some parking lot eating a Power Bar.

5. Me and You

In no way is there a stereotypical Twentieth Street regular. I used to see a tall, slightly stooped, very old and very white man working out every day, always wearing the same thing: a state-U sweatshirt, '70s-era running shorts, knee socks and ancient Converse hightops. Once I spotted a crazy Hispanic man working out in Dingo boots and what looked like plaid boxer shorts. (The Mysterious Gym Man would never stand for this, if he knew.) There was a constant parade of gang-leaning tattoos, corporate softball-team T-shirts and everything -- really everything -- in between.

"True," says Spring. "The best thing about our gym has always been our clientele. We have the rich and the poor. All the types. It's not your elite facility, and it never will be."

In the coming months, Robin Chotzinoff will commemorate Westword's 25th anniversary with 25 profiles of Denver today. Click here to read these stories.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff