reasons to love new york

Farewell to the Place I Got In Shape (and Stayed Sane)

Wyatt Cenac, Cat Marnell, and Joshua David Stein on losing their favorite workouts.

StairMasters at New York Health & Racquet Club, 1989. Photo: James Keyser/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
StairMasters at New York Health & Racquet Club, 1989. Photo: James Keyser/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

This year, we have devoted New York’s annual “Reasons to Love New York” issue to a celebration of the go-tos that have closed since the pandemic struck. A wake for the places that defined our lives here — that gave us community and let us try on new identities in return for our money. The bars where we came together for after-work drinks, the boxing gym where everybody thinks they’re in an action movie, the gallery that trusted you to build a cloud, the coffee shop where you were left alone to read, the restaurant with the full bar where you’d find yourself trying to eat after an all-night bender, the place that was so of its moment that it became a relic and then (deservedly) an icon. All gone. And sadly, probably, more to come before the city returns to its purpose: a place of gathering. We’ll be sharing these tributes all week on Curbed.

Muay Thai Gym

The Wat

Tribeca, first opened in 2002

Wyatt Cenac:

I’d love to say that I started going to the Wat because I had to get in shape for a Marvel movie, but that’s not the case. Around 2012 or 2013, my friend Shane sent me a gift certificate, and I said, “Okay, I’ll check it out.” It felt like a really nice community, where you had people kind of coming from all over. Some people are like me, just trying to get in shape, and then there are the people who are training for the Marvel movies in their minds. I’ve seen high-school kids come in there and, over the years, turn into Golden Gloves. And I feel like, as much as I got exercise, I also got to live vicariously through people who were in much better shape than I have ever been.

They had two boxing trainers there, Susan and Mike Reno, a husband and wife. One day, Mike was like, “You know, you’ve actually been improving. And I’m wondering — because you’ve got some good footwork and you’re kind of fast — if you would help me out in the ring with this boxer that we’re training for the fire department?” The FDNY fights the NYPD every year, and they were getting ready for that. (Let me tell you: If you’ve ever wanted an excuse to just yell “Fuck the police!” in a cop’s face without any repercussions, the FDNY-NYPD boxing match is great, because you just sit with the Fire Department, and all of the Fire Departments are just screaming horrible things at the Police Department, and it’s just like, Oh, wow. I feel seen.)

So Mike was training this Fire Department boxer, and I had just finished my — I’ll call it “exercise,” but I’m sure if someone else saw me, they would be like, “That man just looks like he’s just flailing about” — and he said, “I want to work on this boxer’s endurance, so what I’d like you to do, if you wouldn’t mind, is come into the ring and spar with him.” And my immediate response was no, because I didn’t want to get punched. And he was like, “No, he’s not gonna punch you back. What I want him to do is work on his defense. You just punch him for three minutes straight, and he’s going to keep his guard up the entire time.”

This firefighter was a big guy. We weren’t in the same weight class. He was shorter than I am, but the width of his shoulders was probably like the length of my leg. And so I was like, “Oh, okay. I’ll get to kind of pretend to be a boxer for a minute.” The idea was we’d go for three rounds. The first round started, and I felt pretty good. I tried to land a few punches. I was like, “Oh, okay. I think he’s got an opening in his ribs.” He would immediately bring his arm down and block, and I would punch into what felt like the side of a truck.

He was an immovable object, and it wasn’t like this immovable object meets an unstoppable force; this was an immovable object meets an extremely breakable object. By the end of the first round, I’m trying to take more time to catch my breath between throwing punches, and Mike is just like, “No, no, no! Keep going! Keep going at him!” My arms just feel like noodles, and by the end, I’m just kind of pawing at him, like a cat pawing at a ball of string.

Thankfully, the real athletes showed up. I had merely been there to kill time before his real sparring partners arrived. I think there was an offer for me to stick around and do a third round, but by that time, I had already climbed over the rope and was halfway out the door.

And I loved every minute of it. I would totally do it again. In my head — and I think I said it to the boxer — it was like, If you win, I want credit. I helped get you there. And if you lose, I had nothing to do with this. I think he won his fight.

That’s what was nice about the Wat. I felt like everybody wound up helping each other out. It was a really, really magical place in that way. I enjoyed every time I got to walk down the stairs into that musty basement space. And here’s a message to any boxers who are training out there: If you need somebody to just punch at you and then eventually just kind of like paw at you for three to six minutes, I’m a proven winner. —As told to Diana Budds

yoga studio

Yoga to the People

East Village, first opened in 2006

I was always the chick you see at night in workout clothes with headphones on — hustling past the Mermaid Inn on Second Avenue (RIP), say, at 8:45 p.m., when you and your friends were finishing your lovely meals there. It was always to get to one place: the pay-what-you-like 9 p.m. candlelit class at Yoga to the People on St. Marks Place. I learned about it in 2011 from Amanda Lepore. The platinum-blonde transgender nightlife queen told me she’d struggled to find a workout that didn’t bulk up her body; then she discovered Yoga to the People and easily achieved the feminine curves she wanted. Sold! I went that week — and once I started, I didn’t quit.

It occupied two stories of a walk-up surrounded by tattoo parlors, tourist-bong-and-punk-rock-T-shirt boutiques, and bubble-tea salons. You buzzed to get upstairs — then would fly up (if you were always late, like I was) four flights. You’d take your shoes off and pile them on a rack on the landing, then grab your spot inside the room. It was crowded as fuck. You constantly had to move your mat to squeeze in more people … and more people. It was always more or less the same Vinyasa flow, and it was always hard. I mean, slip-on-your-mat-by-the-end hard, because you’d be so sweaty. On the way out, you’d shove whatever money you could into some sort of tissue-box situation. You’d put on your shoes in the hall, always with sweaty people in the way. You always left feeling elated. I went to Yoga to the People more than anywhere else in New York. It got me through breakups. Through writing a book. Through addiction! For real. —Cat Marnell


Sun Dojo

Windsor Terrace, first opened in 2015

Brazilian jiujitsu dojos are like bagel shops or slice joints: You find the one closest to you, and that is yours. When I moved to Windsor Terrace four years ago, it took only a few days of walking past the storefront of Sun Dojo on Prospect Avenue before I pushed open the door and entered. Inside, 20 or so mostly middle-aged men and women in bright-blue gis, or “uniforms,” were gently grappling. I say gently because I’ve been in schools before that bristle with aggression, but this wasn’t that. This was slower, more deliberate, a lot of hand slapping and bowing. Over them watched a stern bald guy in a black gi with a black belt who, I surmised correctly, was the sensei, or “professor.” He came over to greet me with an intensity one finds only in those in recovery, evangelists, and martial artists. Soon I was signed up for a year, given a cheap cotton gi, a flimsy white attendance card, and, of course, a white belt.

Dojos aren’t like gyms; they’re like churches. The professor makes a commitment to you, and you make a commitment to the professor. Some dojos, like Sun Dojo, border on cults. It billed itself as a family dojo: It wasn’t uncommon to see a couple training together while their children were enrolled in the Little Ninja program. Professor Carroll, the bald guy, or his wife, Professor Laurel, were the co-owners and would call you just to check in if you skipped training for a week or two. If you didn’t have a good excuse, they weren’t angry, but they seemed disappointed. Once Sun Dojo got its hooks into you, there was no escape.

I began training in earnest during a moment of turmoil in my life. I was going through a divorce, struggling with my own mental health, in between jobs and all sorts of other middle-aged-man flailings. But on the mat, BJJ made sense to me. Having trained in the martial arts solidly for the past 30 years, it was a return to the familiar logic of the body.
I knew how to use my weight, knew how to isolate limbs, knew how to gain control, how to move. It was a return to flow. The texture of the community too was familiar. The dojo, at least for me, has always been a loose association of men and women with whom I might have little in common off the mat but who were brethren on it. The relative superficiality of the connections was more than made up for by their quantity. I couldn’t walk down Prospect Avenue without running into someone from the dojo. We’d greet each other with an “Osu,” which is to Japanese martial arts what shalom is to Hebrew, fist-bump (in the old days), and move on. The conversations weren’t deep, but neither are the roots of bamboo.

No question, the most profound lesson Professor Carroll taught was the jiujitsu spiral — briefly put, the idea that, when rolling (as open-ended training is called), there is never an end but simply another opening, if you can see it. A triangle choke attempt becomes an opening for an arm bar, which is a setup for an omoplata, rolled out of which becomes a sweep. And on and on. The spiral is, in short, the idea that there is no end, just adaptation, which is obviously appealing to someone for whom all the walls are closing in, which, after two years of training, they kinda did.

When COVID-19 hit, all of us at Sun Dojo were bereft and anxious. In June, Professor Laurel sent a short email saying the dojo was closing. There was no ceremony. There were none of the clear-eyed moral lectures by Professor Carroll that ended many of the classes, about, I don’t know, the importance of continuing to train or how every setback is an opportunity or every black belt a white belt that just never gave up.

But I was still hungry to train. Not simply to feel that flow again or — let’s be honest — the sort of physical intimacy with an array of bodies jiujitsu offers — but to sort of find my ground again. After a month or so of not training at all, I caught wind that Jeremiah Fox, who owns a couple of businesses in Windsor Terrace, was rolling in the basement of his building. One day, after running into him outside his restaurant, I got his number and, a few days later, received a text. “Tomorrow at 10?” These days, I roll with him and Michael, a jeweler from Miami, and sometimes a handyman from Russia named Tim, in a basement real-estate office. Jeremiah looks up YouTube videos from a guy named Silver Fox and teaches techniques from them. We go by memory of what Professor taught us at Sun Dojo, and we teach ourselves. There’s no one to bestow belts or stripes. No lectures at the end. But the spiral goes on. —Joshua David Stein

*A version of this article appears in the December 7, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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