I'm in South Carolina this month, writing a musical, which is consuming all of my brain...SO, here's a left over essay from a salon I did last year, cause Mamma's too tired to make dinner. Enjoy. xx.
People wonder why I hate Frank Sinatra. Well, you would, too, if you listened to him while lifting weights in a room full of eighty-year olds, every morning for two years.
Now, I’m a girl who likes to say yes. If you ask me to go hiking, get high, or give blood, I will tell you, yes. But when my phone rang one morning, and the woman on the line said, “This is Beverly Hills Adult School. Would you be interested in teaching our Senior Citizen’s aerobics class?” I was hesitant to answer.
I only worked as a substitute so that I could write while the kids watched a video. And my idea of weight loss was replacing meals with coffee. Or a cocktail. “Ms. Barker? It pays thirty-five an hour,”
“Yes,” I replied. “Yes, that’s a yes.”
Working out with old people. How hard could it be? I told myself that, the first morning as I laced up my ironic Reeboks, told myself that as I trekked up the stairs to the wrestling room. Told myself that until the moment I was standing in front of sixty-three old ladies, wearing dance pants and expectant smiles. Jesus Christ. I had to work out with these old people.
“Okay, hi. I’m Tess. Your teacher,”
“She’s cute,” said one. “So perky,” gushed another. This might actually be fun.
Until class started. “Okay, time for weights,” I guessed.
“You don’t have any weights?” asked Mimi, adjusting her sequined leotard. “I do,” I said, defensively. “I just...No, I don’t, you know, own any weights,” Silence, and then a collective tongue click. “Okay, lift your arm over your head,”
“What muscle is this good for?” hissed a woman in ballet slippers and plastic optician glasses. “The arm muscle. Okay, now curls,”
“That’s not a curl,” chuckled Lois, a bottled red head in a Chanel jumpsuit.
“Maybe we should build up to this,” I said, brimming with unfounded confidence. “Time for dancing,”
Now, dancing I had in the bag. Aerobics is one of those things you can fudge. Just keep your hands pretty, and you’ll look like you know what you’re doing.
Or, you’ll scoot across the mat, slapping your feet and calling out arbitrary numbers. Anyway, that’s what happened to me. The back half of the class stopped, crossed their arms, and stared. The front half kept scooting with me, but it was purely out of courtesy, the way one forces a chuckle for a comedian who’s bombing.
“Come on! This is supposed to be fun!” No one cracked a smile. Even the nice ladies in the front were giving up. Now, any improviser knows, when you’re stuck, just say something and commit. Even if what you say is, “Do the cowboy!”
That’s right. The cowboy. I hitched my knees and cocked pantomime guns. I made shooting sounds. Jaws dropped. People left. I gave up the ghost and ended class. Or tried to. But they mobbed the exit.
“You didn’t do any exercises,”
“Have you ever danced before?”
A Persian woman summed it up nice and succinctly.
“That was terrible,”
It was. But I didn’t care. I nodded calmly, like a worker enduring one final patronizing remark from his boss before heading to Mexico with the night’s deposit. If there’s one thing I’m proficient in, it’s leaving a job, and I’ve never been so ready to step up to the plate.
Then Lilianna, a Swiss woman with a face like warm bread dough, ruined everything. She handed me a cookie. “For a sweet start,” Goddamn it. I couldn’t quit now. Someone had brought me a cookie.
So, I went home, and for the first time in the history of my day jobs, I exerted some effort. I googled the muscular system. I watched a DVD called Cardio Dance Party. I went to Target and bought some weights.
The next morning, to my delight, the students who I had truly appalled had dropped, and only the mildly annoyed remained.
When it was time for dancing, I threw on a down tempo version of “Gloria” and got to doing the grapevine. The song was so slow, that we weren’t so much dancing as taking a stylized stroll. Old people music isn’t exactly conducive to shaking ass. Still, I got through it without a mass exodus, and decided to kill some class time with a nice long break.
I pretended to write lesson plans in my notebook. Dan and Dot, a couple in matching velour, approached. “Hey, Boss. What do you do besides this?”
“I’m a writer and a comedian,” I confessed. Dot’s face lit up.
“Our daughter is a writer,”
Dan chimed in. “Tough life you chose. But you’ll be alright. You got good looks, kid,” Dot smiled apologetically, the way I’m sure she has at many a waitress.
“Let’s get back to work,” I called out. The class, now broken into silver haired school girl cliques, grudgingly made their way back for ab work.
I hovered my legs just above the ground, then checked to see if the class was following. Silence. Confusion. Then, from the back of the room, “We’re not all twenty, sweetie,”
Point taken. I led them through a few stretches, then mercifully released them.
At home, I searched for CDs that would be good for dancing. Unfortunately, my selection of Easy Listening was a little sparse. But then, I stumbled across my show tunes CDs. I made a play list fit for a West Hollywood karaoke bar: All that Jazz, Summer Lovin’. Then I came across my boyfriend’s Best of Frank Sinatra. Maybe for weights. And Moby for sit ups…
The next morning, I played Pennies from Heaven as we lifted dumb bells. Constance, a bird of a woman, lifted soup cans in place of weights, and sang along. “I listened to this when my husband was just my boyfriend,” She dreamily lifted a can of creamed corn over her head.
“Watch your grip, Constance,”
Then, All that Jazz came on. Trumpets sounded. Bebe Newirth’s voice whispered “Ah cha,” and the women in my class lost it. I led them through jazz boxes and Charlestons. At the point in the song where Roxy kills her husband, I urged them to get their guns out. The routine was a success. I applauded them and threatened, “I’m going to take you guys on the road,”
Mimi and her entourage skipped up to me.
“Did you see the movie Chicago?”
“I did. I loved it,”
“You should go see 42nd Street,”
“At the Ahmanson? I’m dying to,”
Finally, people who I could geek out on musical theater with.
As the weeks wore on, I lived up to what I had said in desperation on the first day: that this was supposed to be fun.
My students and I gossiped about our mutual love for George Clooney and Las Vegas. They would tell me what it was like to be married for fifty years. I would tell them what it was like to do stand up at a dive bar. At Christmas, they put together cash and gave it to me in a card. I planned a yoga sequence to Carol of the Bells. When it was someone’s birthday or anniversary, we had bundt cake and milk in the bleechers.
But all bizarre things must come to an end, and as I got busier, I realized I would have to quit teaching. For the first time in my history of quitting day jobs, I was sad. These people had become my little seventy-year-old babies.
The day I quit, I stood before them, anxious. Would there be tantrums? Charges of betrayal? A mutiny? “Guys, this is going to be my last week,” Their smiles deflated. I took a deep breath and braced for impact. But not one of them complained. Instead, they did what only a room full of grandparents would do. They hugged me, and wished me good luck.
My students are still stitched to my memory, tied to a myriad of songs. When I hear ‘I Will Survive,’ Dan is there, telling me to “Turn it up, Boss!” Lois lives in the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack, singing along through brightly made up lips. But Frank Sinatra, I just turn off. There’s only so much one can tolerate of that.