Strip Mall Misfits
It’s sandwiched between a garage and a bar where the burning embers of the regulars’ cigarettes dance through the night air as snippets of hard pounding classic rock rolls out of the constantly opening and closing door. If you follow the sidewalk you’ll find a wing place, a bodega, a laundromat and a Spanish speaking church.
A strip mall gym is a misfit.
Slightly buzzed patrons of the wing shack don’t even pretend to not stare when they walk by the garage doors and see all the collapsed sweat-drenched bodies trying to catch their breath to the backbeat of thumping hip hop. Sometimes the church goers will even cheer for us as we Frogger through the cars in the parking lot as we make the quarter mile lap around the buildings.
I arrived at this place during a time when I wasn’t that fond of myself. My best friend had moved. I was lonely and I was eating my feelings.
I joined this gym in hopes to lose some weight and get in better shape. However, what I have gained there, in an unheated and uncooled square filled with barbells and rowing machines and a type of stationary bike that can make grown men cry, was friendship, and support and community.
It was the pandemic, and the ensuing lockdown, that made me realize how much that little misfit gym in a strip mall truly meant to me. Although I continued to workout at home, it wasn't the same. I missed the smiles and high fives and good natured trash talk and I especially missed the hugs. It is the only place that I’ve ever been a part of where a liberal tattooed heathen such as myself would be wrapped in a supportive warm embrace by a conservative Catholic teetotaler without a moment’s hesitation.
The people I have met there have become some of my best friends…emergency-contact-trust-my-kid-with-them type of friends. They have helped me become a warmer, more peacefully confident version of myself.
So, yeah, a strip mall gym is certainly an oddball. However, there have been evenings when I have walked out of there and watched the cotton candy colored clouds pirouette against a setting Carolina sun and knew that I had found the place that I had been looking for all of my life.