If you know anything about me, you should know that the first gym I belonged to was Mr. America’s Body Shop, in Farmingdale, Long Island. That’s not like saying I was a member of New York Sports Club or Equinox. When I mention Mr. America’s to those in the know, it’s like that scene in Jaws when Quint explains to Brody that the tattoo he had removed from his forearm was of the doomed USS Indianapolis, and Hooper’s jaw drops as he stares at the WWII vet in shock.

Some of the mystique of Mr. America’s comes via oral history, told and retold by those of us still kicking around who experienced it firsthand. More is owed to Paul Solotaro’s excellent 1990 Village Voice cover story, “The Power and the Glory,” which tells the history of Mr. A’s hyperbolic owner, Steve Michalik.

The winner of the 1972 Mr. America and a former IFBB pro, Michalik ran Mr. America’s as a cross between a boot camp and a carnival. Despite his gym being chock-full of some of the biggest, baddest, and oddest men around (and a few brave women), Michalik was its unchallenged captain, ringleader, and unhinged enforcer. Known as much for his volatile temperament as for his Herculean physique, he ran a tight ship that he routinely and purposefully sailed into choppy waters. It was dirty and electric and crazy and slightly
dangerous—yet, there’s no place I’d rather have spent my formative bodybuilding years. During that time (1982–89), I was an apt pupil, closely following the lead of the gym’s elder members. In time, I packed on some 30 lbs of muscle and created indelible memories—like the time Michalik winged a 5-lb plate at the head of a member who was talking instead of training, or when he throttled another who interrupted him midworkout.

Though Mr. America’s closed more than 20 years ago, and Michalik passed away in 2012, I still rely on the foundation I built back in Farmingdale, and fondly recall those days when I’m surrounded by texting, tweeting, and chatty gym-goers, rather than the intense, driven behemoths of Mr. A’s. Oh, the plates that would be flying if Michalik were still around…