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Where it's OK not to be buff, young and trendy

January 07, 2008|Marjorie Miller | Times Staff Writer

In the "hidden gems" catalog, my branch of the 24-Hour Fitness gym on Wilshire Boulevard and Serrano Avenue would be listed as an uncut jewel of uncertain value. It is one of the truly integrated spots in Los Angeles and has the advantage of being open 24/7, unlike the trendier one in Hollywood, where, on weekends at least, the 24-hour day begins at 8 a.m.

On the downside, the gym is, well, down at the heels: old televisions on the fritz, caution signs on broken exercise machines, wads of chewed gum and dirty tissues in the cup holders. (Exactly why does Hollywood get the cleaning crews, the steam room and flat-screen TVs? How does the chain get away with second-rate service in the flatlands?)

The front door is often broken, and when the air conditioning is down, the industrial-size fans don't quite blow away the locker room scent. The exercise machines are too close together. Yet I prefer the mid-Wilshire gym to its upscale counterparts because of the age and ethnic mix.

Unlike in Hollywood, where everyone is a svelte twentysomething no matter how old they are, many of the people working out at my gym have round edges and wrinkles.

Sure, some muscle-bound members run fast and lift enormous weights, and they have scarily authentic tattoos, compared with the fashionable Hollywood variety. But then there are the people who need reading glasses to see their workout charts, and guys in work boots who nap on the hip abductor. These people make me feel pretty good about dragging my fiftysomething glutes out of bed and onto the treadmill at 5 a.m.

The population is about evenly divided among Asians, Latinos, African Americans and whites.

There is a nice mix of dreadlocks and knuckle-to-knuckle handshakes, Korean newspapers and low-rider sweat pants. Though, lesson No. 1: Do not get on the machine behind a guy in low-rider sweat pants. A better view was of sunrise over the stately Wilshire Boulevard Temple, but a new apartment building has sprung up between us and done away with that pleasure.

I try to make my own pleasure with a posse of family and friends.

My husband, Carlos, daughter Anna and friend Amy go to the gym with me most mornings. We pass the time chatting or watching the news when the TVs are functioning. I like to tackle work problems on the treadmill or read other people's T-shirts when I'm on the weight machines.

One guy wears a "Great Britain and Northern Ireland" T-shirt. Another supports the British soccer team Arsenal. Some people are advocates for the homeless or women. USC and Berkeley are represented.

We have our occasional "Crash"-like moments, such as one that occurred not long ago between my Salvadoran husband and a white woman I've never seen since. Carlos stepped on the treadmill and reached up to switch channels on the television overhead. From a row behind him, a woman (already wearing earphones and holding a newspaper on her StairMaster panel) cried out, "Hey, I'm watching that! You can watch Mexican television over there."

Fortunately, I associate the place more with regulars such as Bernice, a 78-year-old retired civil servant roosting on an exercycle, who is the unofficial mother hen of the morning crowd. She has a big smile, and many of us gravitate to her for good cheer and inspiration. She is much more inspiring than the "motivational" music the club plays.

The fluorescent-light atmosphere throbs with bad hip-hop about lip gloss and suicide. I don't know why, but "Sui-cide, sui-cide," doesn't do it for me at 5 in the morning.

What does get me through the sweat and tears is the promise of coffee. There's a Starbucks across the street, where a homeless man often plays drums on the newspaper boxes outside, and the locals nod hello as we stream in with our sweat towels to order double lattes. Sometimes I'm tempted to skip the exercise and go straight for the coffee, but then I'd miss that hidden gem of a gym.


Marjorie Miller is The Times' foreign editor.

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