Have you ever been inside a men’s locker room? It’s a kind of purgatory that smells like feet. You aren’t missing much. But just in case you want to know exactly what you’re missing, allow me to mansplain.
In my 10+ years of going to gyms in New York multiple times a week, I’ve noticed that at least 80 percent of the talking in men’s locker rooms happens under men’s breath, generally in the form of apologies. They mutter they’re sorry because they’re in your way or because you’re in theirs—an inevitability when you’re all using slender and short lockers stacked two high—or because they’ve filled the bench next to the lockers with their clothes and wet towels and toiletries and duffel bag. Space can get really tight—recently, it was so crowded that a man who was crouching down to get his stuff out of one of the lower lockers squatted his butt on my water bottle that was sitting at the edge of the bench. I watched his clothed butthole hit bullseye on the bottle’s cap. I can’t remember if I washed it after.
Sometimes a particularly good-natured patron will remark on how it always seems that you return to your locker at the same time that a person using an adjacent locker to yours does, no matter how empty or crowded the locker room is. It does always seem like this, but probably because you only notice when it happens and don’t even think about how annoying it is to change on top of another person when it isn’t happening. But maybe also there is something to general rules of space-filling yielding to clusters of people who roughly enter and exit the gym at the same time. I’m not sure, I’ve been meaning to look up a study on it.
Once a man approached the locker where I was changing and noted that his locker was near mine but that he’d wait for me to finish. I think I said, “OK,” and continued changing. After let’s say 30 seconds he changed his mind, and decided he wanted to get into his locker because he didn’t know how slow I was going to be. I told him I would have stepped aside to spare myself his evaluation of my process and that furthermore, “I shouldn’t have to even talk to you.” I think he gasped theatrically at the notion that I might not want to have a conversation with him. If he were smart, he would have slapped me with his workout glove for effect, but he just seemed like an idiot.
Beyond the otherwise, almost cartoonish politeness deriving from human crowding, it’s rare to hear any conversation in a men’s locker room and even rarer to hear interesting ones. I heard a guy proudly proclaim to his friends, “I cheated on my wife!” once. I took their non-responsiveness as embarrassment for him. Maybe I was just imposing empathy, because I was embarrassed for him. Another guy with a godlike physique and prominent bald spot that, much to my surprise, only made him hotter, talked about his ex-wife of six years to the gym employee that was picking up towels from the floor (I assumed they were friends, but really, they might have been total strangers). “Does your man know you still look at men like that?” he said, implying he had been the recipient of his ex’s lingering gaze. “Does he even know what that look means?” I dunno, it seemed plausible that this woman would have her own look for the man she had decided to be with over the hot balding guy? He compared the situation to a movie, but it sounded more like an R&B song to me.
Since deciding to write this post, I have paid extra attention to what gets said in the locker room, and that has been very boring. Yesterday, I walked in to hear a man muttering, “He did three fuckin’ sets.” And then, after a few beats: “Literally three sets.” And then, after a few more beats: “Three sets.” He had a Complete Cookie wrapper on the bench in front of him, and was wearing headphones, so perhaps he was on the phone and perhaps he was just talking to himself out loud. The nice thing about modern technology is that you can openly talk to yourself with your hands-free headphones in (or if you really want to be deceptive, by holding your phone up to your face in old-fashioned hands-on style) and no one will suspect anything (unless they’re gathering information on how people communicate in public). “Wait a minute, tomorrow is Wednesday…” that man continued to his best friend, himself.
I rarely hear music at my gym’s locker room, though once a man took it upon himself to play Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” from his iPhone speaker as he moisturized. I’ve listened that song so many times, but never with my balls glued to my underwear with sweat, so this experience made for a refreshing spin on a perennial favorite.
One thing that is interesting about men’s locker rooms is that you get to see dicks. Well, some dicks. Some guys change by wrapping themselves in a towel while still wearing their shorts/underwear and then sliding their bottom coverings off once they are covered. Sometimes this doesn’t work out and their towel becomes undone in the process, inadvertently exposing them, and you can’t help but wonder if they’re wondering why they bothered. I’m not the changing-while-covered kind of guy, in case you are wondering. I’m not a nudist or anything fun like that. In fact, I’m pretty self-conscious—so self-conscious, in fact, that I’d feel weirder being the guy changing under his towel than just quickly stripping myself and letting my dick hit the air for a few seconds. Fake it till you make it so that no one notices your insecurities about how well your dick is hanging at the moment. Once, seconds after changing, a stranger approached me to tell me that he liked something I had written. I wanted to say, “My dick was just out,” but I think I just said, “Thanks.”
Speaking of dicks out, you may wonder if men have sex in locker rooms. Yes, at least in New York they do, depending on your definition of sex. Rarely have I entered a sauna or steam room and not been at least masturbated at. These days I don’t join in, but when I first started going to a particularly cruisy gym in Manhattan, I had just watched the 2005 documentary Gay Sex in the ‘70s. What I had thought just days before was a bygone halcyon time of gay male liberation was alive and well, pulsing in the boners being adjusted and configured in soaked-through thin white towels. What a time to be alive. I’ve heard wild stories but I’ve only witnessed what amounts to heavy petting. In our current wave of man-on-man sexual liberation thanks to geolocation apps and a proliferation of orgies, steam-room sex is yet another choice in an option-saturated culture.
In my current gym, the steam-room door needs oiling. During particularly cruisy times (7-9 pm on weekdays, Sunday afternoons), you hear a steady stream of squeaks that sound like a dog being stepped on or an anal novice getting penetrated for the first time. Very jarring.
I used to go to this gym in Williamsburg with my ex that had shower stalls with frosted doors that allowed outsiders to more or less make out what was going on inside without seeing directly in. A guy was just straight-up jerking off by himself one day. He didn’t seem to be signaling that he wanted company. Just a dude finishing himself off after finishing off a workout. Nice.
I’m trying to think if anything meaningful has ever happened in the men’s locker room, and I’m coming up short but at least I tried. Men can only do so much.