“His position is unofficial and unpaid, but nevertheless he takes the post seriously.” Fiction from Max Ross.
The sauna was too hot, and the Mayor of the Locker Room was displeased. Evidently someone had messed with the thermostat—within ten minutes the temperature had jumped from 180° to 190°, and was still rising. The Mayor entered the sauna, and the air cooled—dissolved, is what it felt like—as he held open the door.
“Do you know what happens when the temperature reaches one-ninety-four?” he asked. There were a half dozen of us in there, a group that included a tenured professor of art history and two members of NYU’s wrestling squad, all of us mostly naked and draped in beige towels. “Ready? The alarm starts going. Do you know what happens when the alarm starts going? Ready? The sauna switches off. The temperature can. Not. Go. Above. One. Eighty. The sauna stays at one-eighty. We all have to live with one-eighty. Otherwise there’s no sauna for anybody. All right? Ten-four.”
The Mayor gave everyone a thumbs-up, and then the door shut behind him.
His position is unofficial and unpaid, but nevertheless he takes the post seriously. As we heard him fumble with the exterior controls, the group in the sauna collectively exhaled, a little guiltily. No one knew who’d reset the thermostat, but we all felt bad for having enjoyed the heat.
The Mayor of the Locker Room’s name is Michael, and he used to be a fire chief in lower Manhattan. In the late fall of 2001 health complications forced him into retirement; he tried rejoining his squadron in 2002, but found he was still unable to work. Most weekdays, and also most weekends, at unpredictably varying times between 10:00 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.—one suspects high-level calculus would be necessary to graph his schedule—he can be found patrolling the men’s locker room at NYU’s Coles Sports Center in his small black Speedo swimsuit. Also he wears his glasses, which are frameless with rectangular-cut lenses. He is a bit above six feet tall and all that’s left of his hair is a gray widow’s peak. His stomach protrudes just slightly, and with only a suggestion of roundness, over his waistband: a soft belly, perhaps, but one that hints at real power beneath, and real energy, like a fist wrapped in a boxing glove.
He’s been a member at Coles since 1982, before which he belonged to the NYU gym on Washington Square West—now an undergraduate dormitory—which had a steam room that he still pines for; one presumes he monitored this as well. When the gym closed down he was disappointed, he said, but unsurprised, and quickly adapted himself to his new locale.
There have been allegations that the Mayor swims in the Coles Center pool, but I’ve never seen him do so. Nor have I seen him in the weight room, the cardio room, nor on the basketball or squash courts. Although my research in the area is admittedly incomplete, I’ve never seen him nude, which leads one (me) to wonder if his Speedo is ever removed.
“The other day,” he said on a recent afternoon, “some kid in the law school put water on the thermostat. Ready? He was trying to trick it. If you put water on the thermostat, it thinks it’s cooler than it is, and the temperature rises. Do you know what happens when the temperature rises?”
“The alarm goes off?” I said. At the time I’d been a member of Coles for nearly two years, and this exchange had achieved the perfunctory-ness of catechism.
It was midday, and we were the only gym-goers in the sauna. I sat on the high bench, and the Mayor stood on the gridded rubber mat, with one leg perched on the low bench, leaning his weight forward and backward like a sprinter readying for the gun. We’d been baking for about fifteen minutes—The Mayor had been discussing with me socialism (he’s for it), abstract expressionist art (he’s not), and the etymology of the word “peruse”—and both of us were sweating through pores that did not customarily sweat at temperatures below wilting.
“The alarm goes off. Ten-four,” he said. “And when the alarm goes off?”
“The sauna goes off.”
Occasionally civilians will bring to the Mayor their complaints about other parts of the locker room.
“Some guy comes to me and says these shower heads are okay, but this, this, and this showerhead aren’t getting good pressure.” We were still in the sauna, and the Mayor pointed at the cedar-panel walls as if showerheads were mounted on them. “Another guy says—ready? He says the electronic scale isn’t working. Can I get it fixed?” Here he shrugs his shoulders. “Probably, yeah, I can get it fixed,” the Mayor says. “But I can’t go upstairs and complain about every single thing. I have to pick my battles. I said the scale is for my waist. I can weigh myself at home. But—ready?—the sauna’s for my head. It’s for my heart. I live for the sauna. All I care about is that the pool is open, and the sauna’s hot.”
But rumors have begun to circulate that Coles is going to be torn down soon so that NYU can build another undergraduate dormitory in its place. It’s part of an ongoing project called Framework 2031, wherein the University is endeavoring to expand its physical space (its global real estate) over the next twenty years. Right now the word is that, to support the institution’s growth, Coles will be soon shut down completely, and then renovated and reopened—though whether it will have a sauna is doubtful. The Mayor evaluates this with something like strained equanimity.
“I’ve talked with the people upstairs,” he said. “They said we’re safe until 2014. I don’t know why they’d get rid of the sauna—I really just can’t understand it—but I’ve found that when there are rumors around here, they usually turn out for the worst.”
My towel at this point had the slimy consistency of a cantaloupe’s insides, and I said I needed to leave the sauna. The Mayor, as was his custom, saluted me goodbye. While I made my way to the showers, the Mayor stepped outside the sauna for a moment to check its dials. Nodding slowly, with a single finger on his chin, he evidently approved the system’s present configuration. Then, with surprising nimbleness, he re-entered the sauna, quickly pulling shut the door behind him.
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