Elegy for the Sports Palace, 828 Valencia Street, San Francisco, 1972 – 1998
on the concrete floor,
banging out the percussion line
under groans and grunts of
“Pssshah,” the sharp exhale
pushing a heavy lift.
At 6a.m. we could see our breath in
the Mission District storefront gym
so we came swaddled in baggy sweats.
We were the breakfast club at the Sports Palace—
Pete warming up for his construction job,
Joan in the process of becoming James,
Vito the counselor sliding out of his cherry
Ghia after working overnight at Juvie,
Sam and Jon who bickered
like partners in a bad marriage
after years as salesmen
for the same car dealer,
the 90-pound poet who lived
around the corner, and the stove-up
unemployed ex-Marine, ex-rugby player
known to all as “The Animal.”
We inhaled the rusty-nail smell
of the metal weights, the scent of menthol-rub
and sweat tinged with beer and garlic.
We used the old-school tools—
barbells and dumbbells and benches—
curling, extending, squatting, pulling and
pressing to exhaustion.
We challenged each other to
one more rep, razzed one another
on the lazy days. We heard about Jon’s
divorce, Vito’s latest gal and Pete’s
weeks of living on Top Ramen after he
hurt his knee at work and some fuzzbrain in
the Comp office lost his claim.
One day a few guys from the donut shop next door
tailed Joan as she left, taunting “What are you,
anyway? Maybe we should find out.”
The Animal saw this and hauled himself up
from the saggy-springed chair by the door
where he was resting with a crossword puzzle.
He charged out with Jon and Pete
in tow, and told those bozos loud enough
for the whole street to hear
that they’d be fucked
if they messed with his friend.
We should’ve seen it coming
when the plume-hatted ladies
from St. Mark’s A.M.E. across the street
started losing their Sunday parking spots
to real estate agents, when
the used-furniture store
went out of business, replaced by
a boutique named “Therapy,”
and the dive on the corner of 19th Street
turned into an oxygen bar.
Then my landlady hiked the rent
on my apartment and The Animal
got booted out of his.
But still, it hit us hard
when the Sports Palace lost its lease
after 30 years.
Sam and Jon and I went
up the street to the new gym with some of
the same people but it was just a gym.
Pete came back from his knee injury and got a new
new life teaching PE, and we lost track of
James and Vito.
One day a year later I rode by on my bike
and saw The Animal, khakis riding lower
on his butt than ever, weedy hair
overrunning his collar, staring in
at the little art gallery that filled the
space of the old Sports Palace
with splashy abstract canvases and
angular papier-maché figures in tangerine
and spring green.
I didn’t get back to the old spot much,
but when I happened by
a few years later
I saw the space vacant,
a sign advertising Thai-Malaysian takeout
still tacked over the door,
and the plateglass windows
staring blankly at three men
sacked out on the sidewalk,
not moving a muscle.
© 2020 Marcy Rein