As the one-year anniversary of the closing of “the Center” approaches, Dr. Jeff London reflects on his experience there.
For the past year or so, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10:30 a.m., I get in my car and take a ride to a nearby community pool for the 11 a.m. Senior Swim Hour. In the locker room, after my workout, I quickly shower and get dressed. If there are one or two other guys around, we say “hello” and maintain social distance.
It’s cordial, but I can’t help contrasting my current locker room experience with my long tenure at the JCC Executive Locker Room and Health Club, which I visited three to five times a week for about 35 years.
As the one-year anniversary of the closing of “the Center” (as we referred to it) approaches, it seems like a natural time to reflect further on my experience there.
The JCC Health Club was obviously only a part of our larger JCC. But when I said, “Honey, I’m going to the Center!” my wife knew I was talking about the Health Club locker room, pool and gym. The Center was a place where mostly Jewish folks went to schmooze and work out (probably in that order).
What was unique about it, compared to other health clubs, was its Jewish character. It always tended to attract more of an older than younger clientele, but it was also a place where people from different generations co-mingled on a regular basis. It truly served to connect diverse segments of our Jewish community. L’dor v’dor.
On arrival at the Center, I’d often have brief conversations with the people in my row of lockers, many of whom I saw almost every time I came. When I went to the exercise floor, I chatted with folks I knew from many aspects of my life. I saw Larry and Sharon who I knew since college; I recall how they encouraged me after my hip replacement.
I rode my favorite exercise bike next to Alan, who lived around the block from me in my early years, and we talked about our legendary days (in our own minds) as kids, playing baseball together at MacDowell Elementary in Detroit.
But the real highlights of my visits (as I look back on those many years) were the conversations I had with my locker mates after our workouts. My good friend Larry joined the JCC, in large part, to meet me there and share the best post-workout whirlpool in the known world, when it was working.
I shared conversations with Larry and others in the dry sauna, while other folks shvitzed together in the wet sauna. And then, after a shower, I returned to my locker and took my time getting dressed, sharing seemingly frivolous and, only in retrospect, serious interactions with my neighbors.
One guy in my row was a big talker who I too often allowed to draw me into ridiculous political arguments. But even he showed his softer side, when he dressed in his veteran’s garb to attend the funeral of a fellow Jewish War vet.
Sam was a retired attorney about 15 years older than I, who shared his philosophies and jokingly called me “my liberal friend” each time I showed up for my workout. Nathan always seemed to be at the Center, no matter when I came. He had grown up under the Soviets before emigrating to America and had a lot of stories to share. Not surprisingly, his view of American politics was fascinating.
A few of the guys endured the loss of their wives during the time I knew them. I watched and listened as they stood by their partners through serious illnesses and then as they talked about how sad it felt to be left alone.
Ken was a special guy, about 8 years older than I, who talked with me about his many trips with his wife, not to impress me, but to encourage me to travel while I was still able. He also told me great jokes and stories.
He was kind enough to purchase a children’s book I had written, and he made sure to tell me each time he read my book to his grandson, which he knew meant a lot to me. Ken passed away in the past year, and I made sure to send his wife a note of how much our locker room relationship meant to me.
I spoke with many other guys whose lockers were in nearby rows. I recall talking with Jay at the time of my daughter’s wedding a few years ago. I told him I was very happy, but I couldn’t understand my wife’s and daughter’s level of concern about the party. He smiled and suggested that both of them had been planning for that day since before my daughter was born!
Danny never missed a chance to talk about how much we both loved the ’60s singing group, the Vogues.
A retired psychiatrist nearby reached out to me during my own recent retirement from psychiatry and offered counsel and support. Marvin, about 10 years older than I, encouraged me to keep doing my balance exercises, since he promised I would need them even more as I got older.
But I’ve saved the best for last … my cousin Leo. Leo, who was my mother’s first cousin, talked with me about growing up with my mom and my aunts. He shared with me how lucky he felt to still be alive and fairly healthy into his 90s. He talked about how he missed his brother who had died of complications of Alzheimer’s.
We laughed together at stories about our family. Leo talked about his two Bernices, the two women with the same name to whom he had been married, and how much he missed each of them when they passed away.
I felt like Plato at the feet of Socrates, learning from my elder about what was truly important and what wasn’t. His smile, his laugh and the twinkle in his eyes will always be with me. And I watched at the end of his life when his daughter and son-in-law lovingly brought Leo to the Center, so he could see his friends at a familiar place which he clearly loved.
On some level, it was just a locker room. But to those of us who frequented “the Center,” it was so much more. I’m sure the dues we all paid couldn’t add up to enough to keep the JCC Health Club solvent. So, when the powers that be finally decided they needed to shut it down, who am I to explain why it had been worth keeping it going all those years?
Or perhaps I just did.
May the Center rest in peace. Amen.
Dr. Jeff London is a retired child psychiatrist from Farmington Hills.