Thursday, May 21, 2015

Mirror, Mirror

by Timothy Pauley

"Seven, eight, nine, teeeeeeeeen!" Big Paul growled as he pumped out his final rep of curls. He quickly dropped the bar on the bench below and flexed in the mirror. First it was a double biceps pose, then a side shot, then from the other side. Big Paul loved the mirror. In fact, he loved it so much that he actually paid other prisoners to run to the weight room and save that area for him so he could gaze at himself while he worked out and especially in between sets.

When I got to the Walls the weight room was just a small expanded hallway with a few pieces of old equipment off to the sides in either direction. The fitness craze had not caught on yet and there were only a small group of men who used these facilities with any regularity.

A few years later "Muscle & Fitness" magazine had helped popularize bodybuilding and the prison caught this trend early on. They opened a new recreation building and made the weight room three times the size it had been. They also filled it with new equipment. It was easily the most expensive and well thought out part of the new recreation program.

Within a couple of years, the bodybuilding and powerlifting phenomenon had become so popular, even the new weight room was too small. Prison officials could not have anticipated the quadrupling of popularity for this area, but it soon became a madhouse of activity, with prisoners squeezing into every available square foot of space, trying to get a workout.

Recreation staff were always fielding requests for more equipment but they wisely elected not to cram any more equipment (or people) into the already crowded weight room. But they still had a budget allowance for equipment so when a couple of guys requested they mount a mirror on the wall, it was a done deal almost immediately.

The day the mirror was installed was a memorable occasion. Instead of enhancing the bodybuilding experience, it quickly became an idiot magnet. Not only did three different groups of guys all attempt to crowd around this two foot wide space, but it even attracted idiots that previously had never been in the weight room. Guys would get done playing basketball, take a shower, then come in the weight room and try to lean in front of the mirror while they combed out their eighteen inch afros. It was quite a sight to see all these people jockeying for position, some with weights in hand.

After about a week I finally warmed to the concept of the idiot magnet. True, it brought extra traffic into an already overcrowded weight room, but not to the area I used. In fact, the idiot magnet actually created more room for those of us who were not smitten with our own image and were content to workout away from the crowd. We finally reached near unanimous agreement that idiot magnets were great.

Big Paul's infatuation with the idiot magnet was unparalleled. At first he tried to push his way to a spot directly in front of the mirror. He was 6'5" and weighted about 280. This gave him the notion that others would just get out of his way. Maybe a handful actually did, but they were replaced by several others who did not care now big anyone was. This was prison, little guys could kill you too.

After a week of frustration, Big Paul decided on a strategy. He found a guy who worked near the gym. When recreation was announced, this guy had a two block head start and could easily claim any piece of equipment he wanted. So Paul cut a deal. For five bucks a week, Slim would dash to the weight room and claim the bench directly in front of the mirror for Big Paul.

For the next three months life was good for Big Paul. Each day he’d take his place in front of the mirror and gaze at his muscles for nearly the entire recreation period. No days off for him, he was a fixture. For a guy who worked out so much he wasn't nearly as strong as his size would indicate and he was very smooth with excess body fat, but whatever he was in that mirror must have looked fantastic to him because he seemed to have almost a religious fanaticism about the mirror. On the rare occasion Slim didn’t come through for him, Big Paul would have something akin to a psychotic episode. That mirror was as important to Big Paul as most people's first born son is.

Another strange phenomenon in most prison weight rooms is the calling of attention to oneself. Perhaps it's the testosterone. Or maybe it's just some inner need for recognition. Whatever the case, many prisoners like to holler and grunt loudly while they lift. Many even like to throw weights down, sometimes even from shoulder level. It's almost like they're saying, "Hey, look at me, I’m a tough guy!"

This is probably one of the reasons the floor of the weight room was a base of wooden planks covered with thick rubber mats. Instead of the thrown down weights breaking or cracking the floor, they simply bounced. This could be humorous at times.

It was not uncommon at all to see guys limping out of the weight room. It was usually the screamers too. They'd finish a set, then throw the weights out of their hands at whatever height they happened to be at the conclusion of the final rep. Often these discarded weights would hit the floor and bounce several inches. Sometimes that could result in the second touchdown being right on someone’s foot. Usually this was the person who’d thrown them in the first place, as he would be the only one in the room not paying attention to where the rebound was going to land. Initially this would cause instant laughter from around the room, which would often set the screamer off into a tirade. That would lead to even more laughter because what is the guy with the recently broken foot going to do? Chase you? Beat you up? The typical response was to tuck his tail and slink off.

Big Paul loved to throw the weights around as much as anyone. But at least he paid attention to where his feet were. A man of his size had no trouble wielding the biggest dumbbells in the room, which were ninety pounds each. On his last rep, Paul would growl loudly, pitch the dumbbells as high in the air as his spent arms would heft them, then lift his feet off the floor to avoid any embarrassing situations. We all learned to respond to this routine. When the growl came, everyone within ten feet watched to see where the dumbbells would fly.

It was a cold December day. I happened to be doing squats that day so it was all the more important I pay attention to Big Paul. He was doing dumbbell bench presses with the ninety pound dumbbells. Even though I was more than ten feet away, I was not about to be the victim of some freak accident when one of those chunks of iron took a wayward bounce in my direction. Each time Paul let out his end of set wail, my eyes would find the dumbbells as quickly as possible. There were very few people in that room who did not do this.

On his fifth set, Paul was particularly pleased with himself and growled even louder than normal. As he prepared to rid himself of the dumbbells, he put a little extra oomph into this thrust and I watched as they sailed past his feet. From the moment they hit the rubber mat, nearly everyone in the room knew what was going to happen next, including Big Paul. I watched as his face contorted into a look of complete horror as the dumbbells bounced off the floor and flew toward the mirror. It was almost like slow motion. But nothing could stop them. First one, then the other sunk into the glass panes with a satisfying thunk.

Instantly lines shot up to the very top of the mirror. In the blink of an eye the mirror had become covered with lines and distortions where the glass had shattered in predictable fashion.

At first I thought Big Paul was going to start crying right there in front of us all. His face could not have registered any more distress than if his first born child had just fallen out a tenth story window. The room went completely silent in a matter of seconds.

Big Paul sat on the end of the exercise bench for a long time, staring into the broken shards of mirror that were now only held together by a wooden frame. It was almost as if he was trying to will the damage to be undone. Slowly the rest of the guys in the weight room went back to their routines. Soon the room was full of the usual sounds of normal activity. Paul remained frozen for nearly twenty minutes before he finally pulled his shirt on and shuffled out the door.

In the weeks that followed, a decision was made by recreation staff that this mirror would not be replaced. They directed a couple of us to tape up the part where the dumbbell hit and leave the rest until such time as it actually started to fall out. That took months, but at the first sign of missing fragments, the frame was pried from the wall and the mirror was no more.

During this time Big Paul continued to work out in front of the mirror. He could often be seen trying to adjust his body position to enable him to see more of himself in whatever fragment he'd chosen to focus on. But it just wasn't the same.

Soon the crowd in that few square feet of the weight room was no longer highly congested. Paul had it all to himself. I missed the idiot magnet and even though the breaking of the mirror had been hilarious, I couldn't help but feel a little sorry for Big Paul. Had he seen some outside threat directed towards his mirror, there is no doubt Paul would have defended this with great ferocity. How could he have known that all the while he was looking at the threat in the mirror?

Timothy Pauley 273053 A316
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

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