Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Jamais vu

The 1987 World Fantasy Convention was held in Nashville, Tennessee, at the downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel. The building has changed hands and names several times since then. I think it goes by the name of Sheraton, now. It sits on Union St. between Capitol Blvd. and Seventh St., the former site of the Downtown Nashville YMCA.

As I’ve said before, the downtown Y was my “secure beachhead” (to borrow the concept from von Clausewitz’s “On War”) in my exploration and assault upon the world that existed outside of Donelson, Tennessee. Save for the year we lived in Kentucky, I attended YMCA gym and swim classes more or less continually (three times a week or more) from when I was 8 until 16, after having attended every summer from 6-8. It took me longer than usual to learn to swim, so I overcompensated to the extent that I was a lifeguard at the Y pool, beginning at about age 15 and continuing until I left for college.

The building cornerstone said 1912, as I recall, so it stood for well over half a century. It’s gone now, and I have a right to be nostalgic about it, dammit.


Union St. near the Tennessee State Capitol is a fairly steep incline, such that the short block between Capitol and Seventh amounted to almost an entire floor of the YMCA building, with the first floor being below ground level as seen from the front of the building on Seventh. The Seventh St. entrance was the lobby for the Y hotel, as well as being the level of the main locker room. The dormitory rooms, as the men’s hotel rooms were called, were tiny, with barely enough space for a bed and a small desk. I don’t recall seeing the inside of any of the dorm rooms for more than a glance from the hall, and then only on the second floor. It does cause me some puzzlement, these many years later, as to why I had the curiosity to wander over so much of the downtown city, yet remain completely oblivious to a large section of the Y building. I suspect it had to do with the idea that, within that building, I was under its rules, not all of them known to me, so I was much more timid in my explorations there. The reason for the timidity should be apparent: I didn’t want to do anything that annoyed anyone enough to banish me.

It may also have come from the gradual way I encountered the place. At the beginning, I didn’t even know that there was a front entrance. The Capitol Blvd. entrance was the one nearest the bus shelters (all Nashville public transit buses converged on a square in front of the State Capitol), and it was also the entrance to the lobby of the Boys Program lobby.

The lobby of the Boys Program had several ping pong tables, some card tables, a small vending machine nook, plus a couple of glassed in offices and the Program Desk. Past the lobby, through double doors was another large meeting room, with several smaller rooms on the periphery. To the left was a stairway (up to the Main Lobby), an elevator, and a cafeteria. Behind the elevator was a door that led to the pool, not the main doorway, but rather the one that the lifeguards used to dash over, place an order at the cafeteria, then, when it was ready, dash over to retrieve it. During slow periods, of course.

The main entrance for the Boys Program was just to the left of the Desk, and it led to the boys’ locker room and the pool showers. Past the showers was the pool, of course, the main reason why I was going downtown all those years. I mean, when I overcompensate, I overcompensate.

Still, there was a lot more to the Boys Program than swimming, and a lot more to the Y than the pool. Another door from the boys locker room went to the “small gym,” a half court basketball space, plus various gymnastics equipment, like an overhead bar, even parallel bars, rings, and a full size trampoline. I topped out fairly early in all the standard gymnastic endeavors. I managed a floor pike exactly once, though I managed to get proficient at both the overhead bar and p-bar kips, and could manage one on the rings when the stars were aligned. But full floor gymnastics were pretty well beyond my reach; I never got past the roundoff to the back flip. Back flips on the trampoline were not a problem but I was scared of the back ¾ for good reason: half the time I tried it I overshot and knocked the wind out of me.

I could, perhaps, have obsessed my way into becoming a competitive gymnast, but I had neither exceptional native talent nor burning desire. We did have one guy, nicknamed “Cotton” (even blonder than I was, which is hard to imagine) who once managed to place 5th in a regional tournament all by himself (if you totaled up his scores alone). The team as a whole placed 3rd.

Next to the small gym was a weight room. I learned to use the free weights (this was well pre-Nautilus), but again, not my obsession. Past the weight room were stairs that led to the Men’s Locker Room and then to the Big Gym.

And it was mighty big, you betcha. It had a full basketball court and three stories of overhead space. There were various extras on the sidelines, like an overhead ladder. One flight up was a mezzanine, for spectators during basketball games, and at the top was a circular track. I think the gym occupied most of three stories of the building, because I remember outside widows on two facing sides.

To the left as you entered the gym from the stairs were offices, a sun(lamp) room, a massage room, a dry sauna, and (I think) a steam room. This was the heart of the Men’s Athletic Club, which offered daytime exercise and such to Nashville Businessmen. Some while after I’d joined the “Leader’s Club,” a group of teenage boys that served as cheap semi-volunteer labor to assist the teaching of the boy’s classes and as a later source of lifeguards, I realized that the AC was the “connected” part of the enterprise, with links to the business and political community of Nashville.

Still farther up in the building there were three handball courts, which fulfilled every bit of the old Bill Cosby routine, with old men routinely beating the young ones by precision shots into the corner. We also played something called “paddle ball,” which had no relation to the ball-on-a-string thing. It was something of a precursor to racketball, only the ball used was a bit larger than a tennis ball and hollow rubber. The rackets were similar to tennis rackets but had a shorter handle. Sometimes we’d play handball with the paddle balls, especially if someone had forgotten his handball gloves. It was still a good way to pop a blood vessel in your hands, though.

The building was 8 stories, and the roof was tar and gravel. I know because we also went up to the roof a lot in summertime to get at least the hint of a tan. It was a little strange, after all; for a collection of teenagers in ongoing athletic pursuits, we were indoors almost all the time, save for the summer camps and later the Blue Ridge Leaders’ School (more on that some other time), where we’d get sunburns because, well, again, pale from the indoors.

For quite a few years in the 1950s and early 1960s, by far the tallest building in Nashville was the L&C Tower, a whopping 23 stories high. It was downhill from the Y, but of course the 23 stories meant that it was well above the roof of the YMCA building. But for years, it was the only one. Every other building in town was either below us or more or less at eye level. We could go as high as anyone else around. Almost.

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