There's the popular conception of a YMCA gym--the cramped, dim, musty, aging arena of manly exercise and competition in the big city--and there's the reality. In Long Beach, the Downtown Y has shed the fabled image and replaced it with a clean, bright and airy facility with modern amenities for both sexes. But some things never change. Jocks still go all-out. Teams are still divided between shirts and skins. And there's the towels . . .
They come in from their work world and receive that small, thin, white towel YMCAs have dispensed forever. They enter a locker room and yank off their ties. They hear basketballs bouncing upstairs in the gym. The games of shirts against skins await them. Their stomachs churn.
They are at the Downtown Long Beach Y at noon, but they could be at any big-city Y, where, on varnished wood, men release tensions and fire shots at white fan backboards whose rims clank.
"Instead of taking it out on your employer or wife, you yell and scream here," said one of the shirts, Stan Anderson, 42, explaining the purpose of this active, lunchless hour.
Half-Court Basketball Games
Half-court three-on-three or four-on-four games are going on at three baskets.
"Sometimes you get decent players, sometimes mediocre players, guys who are just out there," said Y veteran Alvin Allen, 34, of Compton.
The competition can be intense, with someone like Anderson trying to prove he is still young, but the level of play rarely rises above decent. This is where men try to recapture their game and their shape. And that effort, said Anderson, the hair on his chest matted by perspiration, makes them all "serious players."
Noontime basketball and the towels survive from the old Downtown Long Beach Y--but little else. The old building was demolished and replaced in 1980 by the new Y that looks and smells likes no old Y ever did.
The Smell of Sour Socks
But the old YMCAs burn in the memory like a former sweetheart. Their gyms had low ceilings, were cramped and smelled of sour socks, but had fire escapes where you could gulp air after a game. Their weight rooms were sweat-stained dungeons. And their tile swimming pools stunk of chlorine and required no bathing suit.
"The Y was altogether different then," said Bob Bonnell, a Long Beach chiropractor and self-proclaimed Mr. Y. "Now it's more sophisticated. Then it was hard grunt-and-groan conditioning. Hard, grind it out, rep after rep. Guys got bigger and stronger in those days."
The new Downtown Y has a bright, huge double gym, accented from the floor to the running track by red, white and butterscotch, and so airy that mustiness, regretably, may never get a grip.
The carpeted locker room smells like a hotel and has a Jacuzzi, a TV and a window that runs the length of a wall and looks out on trees.
But although approaching poshness, this is still a Y.
"This is not the beautiful-people, gold-chain crowd you find at the spas," said Ken McCarty, 39, a business broker who plays noon basketball four or five times a week. "Here the priority is health and exercise, not meeting people."
Comfortable but Not Too Ratty
The men, regardless of occupation, blend together in their gym clothes, which are comfortably ratty, but not too ratty now that women, in this era of aerobic dancing, have invaded the Young Men's Christian Assn.
"You used to not worry whether your gym shorts were ripped," said Justin Wheatley, 37. "Now they've let the gals in."
Of the downtown Y's 3,100 members, almost 40% are women.
So Wheatley, 6 feet 3 and 255 pounds, checks his shorts before going up to the gym where he tries but does not succeed in resembling the all-city high school star he was in Garden Grove 20 years and 50 pounds ago.
Wheatley, who spent many years playing noontime ball at the Pasadena Y, said the atmosphere is different at the Downtown Long Beach Y at 600 Long Beach Blvd.
"In Pasadena you had gym rats who wouldn't give up," he said. "You had words and fights. Here it's a real compatible group of people."
A YMCA Member for 37 Years
But fellowship was not always foremost, said Bonnell, who has been using the Y for 37 years.
"I'm 'Mr. Y,' all right," said Bonnell, who started noontime basketball at the old building in the early 1950s and has been playing in the games ever since. "There were a lot more fights then. They were settled in the boxing ring."
Bonnell said the games have always been marked by certain types of players who can be found at any Y. "You always have a guy who won't pass the ball or a guy who wants to change the score," he said.
The other players don't pass the ball to him much anymore, either, now that he is 61, despite the fact that the length and accuracy of his outside shots are legendary.
So Bonnell and his workout partner, Tony Distefano, concentrate on lifting weights, not in a dungeon, but in mirrored splendor on the other side of the gym.