I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe what I love about Portland, Oregon, and I think the way to do that may be to share with you my greatest discovery here: Loprinzi’s Gym. I know it doesn’t exactly fit with the rest of my skinny white guy persona, but I really love going to the gym and lifting weights. My Dad used to go a lot when I was a kid, and we always had equipment in our basement. Neither of us are power lifters, but he gave me a real love of working out, even though I’m always going to be a pretty lightweight dude. No matter how many times I get busy and stop going to the gym regularly, I always come back to it and that feeling of ending a workout; calm, exhausted, and gratified.
So I get here, to Oregon, after three days on a train where there’s barely room to walk around, much less do anything strenuous. After locating the essentials (bus stops, a bicycle, groceries) I am on the lookout for a gym. Hitting my trusty Google Maps, it turns out there’s one called “Loprinzi’s” a quarter-mile away, just off Division Street, the nearest major arterial to my home in Southeast Hawthorne. The genius of Portland, Oregon seems to be that every neighborhood is served by a major street that has frequent buses and dozens of local businesses. More to the point, these businesses provide the essentials you need to live. They are grocery stores, hardware stores, barbershops, coffee houses, and in this case, gymnasiums. So I check out their website, see that they have a six-week membership deal that would be perfect for me, and bike over to check it out.
I walk in the door, take one look, and I am in love. Now, when I mentioned “gym” earlier in this post, you probably thought of somewhere like Planet Fitness or Bally Total Fitness, a big building (surrounded by a bigger parking lot) full of shiny, very new treadmills, steppers, and various resistance machines populated by rank after rank of bespandexed people. I don’t mean to put down the big gyms. Hell, I’m a member at Planet Fitness, and I’ve had some good workouts there. What they provide is anonymity, and for some people that sense of being anonymous makes working out more comfortable. But they are, for better or worse, separate from the rest of your life. Both physically, in that huge parking lots often relegate them to locations outside of the urban core, and mentally, in that they are places where you inhabit a bubble of personal space that is rarely breached. The best word I can think to describe them, and I genuinely don't mean this to be pejorative, is "impersonal."
But Loprinzi’s is different. It’s out of another time, when professional bodybuilders would be guys who, when they weren’t competing in the Mr. Universe or Mr. Olympia events, owned gyms that were the center of a workout culture. Loprinzi's has been run by the Loprinzi family of bodybuilders since 1948, and is currently owned by Bob Loprinzi. There are framed photographs all over the place of other famous bodybuilders who dropped by to work out. Guys like Bill Pearl, who wrote Getting Stronger, probably the best book of exercises for anyone who wants to get in shape, and who in his later years competed as one of the first vegetarian weightlifters. Man, Jack Lalane used to work out here!
The equipment at Loprinzi’s, like the photographs, shows its history. It’s old and incredibly well maintained, and gives you the impression that you might run into Rocky Balboa training up for the fight with Apollo Creed. There are old style “bicycle chain” resistance machines, upholstered wooden benches, and (among other, more modern weights) a set of the dumbbells with two round globes of iron that you may have seen in vintage "strongman" photos from the late 19th and early 20th century.
Speaking as someone who has worked out in a few different places, Loprinzi’s is by far the best I’ve ever been in. I find the older equipment to be a lot more fun to use, like you’re part of the history of American fitness, and also a hell of a lot more comfortable than the stuff at more commercial gyms. I suspect that Loprinzi’s has had a lot of equipment over the years, and simply kept the stuff that they liked and that keeps working well. Also, talk about sustainability! When you start doing curls with one of the oldest dumbbells you're lifting a lump of iron that has been in continuous use for more than sixty years.
Loprinzi’s is also a neighborhood gym in the best sense of the word “neighborhood.” All kinds of people, from tattooed hippies to young women to middle-aged power lifters come to share their commitment to good health and different goals of strength and fitness. Although I’m sure there are lots of people who are totally comfortable at Bally or 24-Hour Fitness, I’m personally a lot more comfortable in my neighborhood gym, where I feel like we’re all just folks who like to work out rather than worshippers at some temple of body image and self-esteem. On a more practical side, the next time I go in I’m planning on asking Bob Loprinzi about a good exercise for the upper back. That kind of positive interaction, from just saying hi when you walk in the door to asking for help on a training issue, is a big part of having a good workout.
(this image from a flickrset available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/theoregonian/436389622/in/photostream/)
So how does my awesome neighborhood gym help describe the Portland, Oregon experience? Because Loprinzi’s is just so damn great, every one of my workouts there is better. My enjoyment of going to Loprinzi’s translates into a more challenging, more satisfying session, and so the four or five hours a week I spend there are higher quality experiences than they would be if I were going to the local 24-Hour Fitness. And that’s Portland, Oregon in a nutshell. Because there are so many places like Loprinzi’s here, places with character, culture, and class, all the time you spend doing pretty mundane things, from getting groceries to hitting the gym, is just better. It’s about the places you enjoy going and the everyday relationships you form with the people there that translates into a higher overall quality of life.
Portland, Maine, my Portland, has a lot of that too. But Portland, Oregon has managed to make that part of it’s brand, and I think it’s something that we can learn from our big sister, and namesake, as our Portland continues to grow. So let’s keep building our city of neighborhoods, and although I’m not advocating that we copy everything about Portland, Oregon, it would be totally sweet if there were a gym like Loprinzi’s back home.