The Dinosaur is Still Alive, by John Cantwell

I love using this site as a forum for up-and-coming writers trying to gain an audience. Hence, when John Cantwell offered his services, I jumped. John is absolutely fantastic, and a visit to his blog is a trip worth taking. Here, he offers up a quick (and fantastic) profile of Frenchie and his Brooklyn gym. Enjoy …

The first time you go to Frenchie’s gym he sits you down for his talk. He is positioned in a creaking office chair behind an old Formica-top desk, his hands folded gently across his stomach. You are asked to sit on a small weight bench next to the desk. He looks straight at you and says, in a reedy Puerto Rican accent, “What can I do for you?” And you reply, “I would like to use your gym.”

Soul or salsa or maybe reggaeton plays through the speakers mounted in the far corners of the gym. And there’s the clank and rattle of weights being lifted, mostly by pumped-up Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans.

Frenchie gestures toward the space in which you sit, this gym. “What you see is what you get,” he says. “I don’t got no saunas, no showers. Nothing fancy. You wanna put a lock on a locker, that’s five dollars a month. No air conditioning. But in summer I open the windows.”

You understand Frenchie is telling the truth. There is not a frill in sight. The walls are lined with mirrors and above the mirrors there’s dark wood paneling like what you’d find in a suburban family room circa 1970. The floors are grubby black rubber; the ceiling is pressed tin painted dim white. The machines were perhaps reclaimed from a Soviet Olympic training facility.

You ask about the cost.

“Thirty a month, or 120 for six months. Pay upfront.”

Then you say yes, or you say no.

Frenchie is 72-years old. For 36 years, exactly half his life, he’s been the sole proprietor of Frenchie’s Gym in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

He is the benevolent dictator of this place, and a lot of people here call him Papa. There’s a Papa Frenchie T-shirt and everything—it’s an airbrushed portrait of Frenchie, showing his bald head, his long goatee, and the barbell-shaped earring he wears in his left ear. The script next to the head reads, “Papa Frenchie.” It costs 30 dollars.

Frenchie calls the gym members his disciples. As in, “My place is here with my disciples.” Some guys have been coming to Frenchie’s for decades, like Mo, who joined 27 years ago when he was trying to quit drinking, and now drives 45 minutes from Queens every day just to use the place. The walls are dotted with framed pictures of the disciples who’ve thrived here: they’re flexing in bodybuilding competitions, puffing up proudly next to a pool or at the beach.

In the 70s and 80s, when Williamsburg, like much of New York City, was overrun by drugs and left for dead, Frenchie’s was a rare bastion of positivity in the neighborhood, a place for self-improvement. Now, with rents soaring and gentrification squeezing in on all sides, it’s a proud symbol of the past. Something worth preserving.

The gym occupies the top two floors of a commercial building on the corner of Rodney and Broadway. On the first floor is a discount clothes store called Telco that used to be a Woolworth’s. The second floor was once a dentist’s office; now it’s where Frenchie keeps the ab equipment and the heavy bag. The old exam rooms were converted to locker rooms. Upstairs is the main floor, with the wood paneling, the pressed tin, etc. This is more like a loft, and it is here, from behind his desk, that Frenchie holds court and occasionally catnaps.

If you use the gym for a few months, as I have, you realize there is a certain perfection to it. Every inch of usable floor space is occupied by a piece of equipment, leaving just enough room for everything to move freely—it’s an elaborate, room-size jigsaw puzzle. And everything works. If the upholstery on a bench comes apart, it’s patched with material from a conveyor belt. When a treadmill breaks down, Frenchie tinkers with the motor on his desk while the guys gather around him, talking in Spanish, pointing at this thing or that thing. A few days later, the treadmill is working again.

On Friday nights Frenchie and a few guys play poker at his desk. In December there’s a Christmas party. The equipment on the third floor is pushed to the walls, and a table is set up in the middle of the room, filled with two big trays of pulled meat cooked by Frenchie’s wife, one tray of chicken, another of pork, the two helpfully differentiated by the roasted pig’s head in the pork tray.

“The Christmas party is because I cannot buy a present for everybody,” says Frenchie. “It’s more than a shirt or a tie.”

There are black-and-white pictures of a young Frenchie hanging in the gym: you see a chiseled little man in a Speedo type thing mugging for the camera. Bald head, immaculate goatee. He was a wrestler, and in some ways he still is.

Through his 20s he trained at a long-gone Williamsburg gym called Mr. Puerto Rico, a few blocks from the future location of his own gym. His wrestling outfit included a gold satin jacket and a red beret. The beret gave Frenchie, whose birth name is Santos Ramos, his name.

J.C.: How would you describe your wrestling style?
Frenchie: Clean.
J.C.: What kind of moves would you do?
Frenchie: Oh, the whole ensalada. Flying dropkicks, walking on the ropes, flying off the ropes.
J.C.: What did you like most about wrestling?
Frenchie: Wrestling is an entertainment. You’re not trying to kill the other guy; you’re trying to kill the crowd.

Jose Estrada and Johnny Ross were two pro wrestlers who used to work out at Frenchie’s. One day they asked Frenchie if he wanted to come to Madison Square Garden for a WWF event. Impressed by the size of the wrestlers, how they towered over him, Frenchie, who’s only 5’3”, knew he’d never wrestle in the WWF. But he could referee.

He debuted in August 1979, before a crowd of 23,000 people at MSG. He reffed acrobatically. “I used to jump around a lot,” he says. “They called me ‘The Flying Referee.’” None other than Vince McMahon told him to stop jumping around so damn much.

Wrestling is about pride, and it’s about good versus evil. Wrestlers are forever avenging insults, smiting doubters, righting wrongs real or perceived. Some of these theatrics have become part of Frenchie’s permanent disposition.

For instance, last December Frenchie told me he was going to appear in a movie. I said, “Really?” and then Frenchie said, mock-hurt, “This guy thinks I’m chopped liver.” Frenchie opened his desk and produced a signed contract for his appearance in the film “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” He played a boxing instructor with “some old guy” (Max von Sydow) in a scene that eventually wound up on the cutting-room floor.

Of course, Frenchie really has been fighting the odds and the doubters for years, running his business for nearly four decades almost exclusively on his terms. This is why the disciples call him Papa. He’s earned their respect.

In addition to the Papa Frenchie t-shirt, there’s also a Frenchie’s Gym T-shirt for sale: on the front it shows the Frenchie’s Gym logo, which is flanked by the image of two paramilitary bodybuilders wearing sunglasses, and the Puerto Rican and American flags. Below the logo and the bodybuilders are two of Frenchie’s operating mottos: Do It With Love, and We Must Survive.

The back of the shirt displays a hand-drawn Tyrannosaurus Rex holding a barbell between its teeth. The slogan beneath the T-Rex’s feet reads: “The dinosaur is still alive.”

J.C.: Where did you get the idea for the dinosaur?
Frenchie: They’re always saying, “Frenchie’s old, he’s a dinosaur.” But I’ll be here even if they have to carry me up the stairs.

2 thoughts on “The Dinosaur is Still Alive, by John Cantwell”

  1. Amazing article, John! I feel as though you have really encapsulated everything that is great about Frenchie, and his gym. I’ve been training there week in and week out for 2 years now, and it is easily one of the most inspiring places I have ever had the pleasure of training at.

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