Paul Solotaroff was just another scrawny college freshman in the mid-1970s when he discovered lifting weights and steroids, a period he chronicles in his new memoir, "The Body Shop: Parties, Pills and Pumping Iron -- Or My Life in the Age of Muscle." Here he reminisces on the seductive power of the bulging bicep.
I happened to get big the year disco hit and turned New York into a pleine-aire
porn shoot. Lawyers walked from work with their shirts half-buttoned, presenting their hairy chests as Exhibit A in the case for mass psychosis. Women fired back by squeezing their rumps into sausage-casing Sasson jeans and clomp-clomp-clomped around in Cork-Ease sandals, the straps of which cut like willow switches.
Swingers clubs thrived in the Flower District, sex tourists thronged the bathhouse scene, and every other month a new dance palace opened, citing, in its breathless mission statement, the glories of Nero's Rome.
It was the summer of 1977, and I was 200 pounds of cold-rolled steel, with dockworker arms, shrink-wrapped skin and a chest that popped when I flexed it.
Girls, steno-pool-types wearing too much liner and with rooftop, lunchtime tans cruised me all summer in discos and East Side fern bars. They stared in frank appraisal and approached me walking down Broadway.
Just that January, I'd been a college kid so glum that even my hair was depressed. Styled on David Bowie
of "Aladdin Sane
" vintage, it was long in back and purportedly spiked on top, but drooped like Three Dog Night
in a two-day downpour.
I stood 6-foot-1, weighed 150 pounds and hadn't been laid since Nixon's re-election, making me, like George McGovern
, a landslide loser.
Just five months later though, when my dad drove out to collect me for the summer, everything had changed. I was on daily injections of Deca Durabolin, twice-weekly spikes of smooth-shooting Winstrol and occasional bumps of test-cypionate. I was packing on two or three pounds a week and racing to the mirror every morning to find a fresh eruption of muscle.
There'd be hell to pay later for my ill-gotten brawn, but for now the chief side effect of shooting juice was the lusty attention of female strangers. They'd approach me in diners, brazenly ogle my pecs and ask if they could touch them through my shirt, or goose my ass on the crosstown bus as they made their way to the door.
By July, I'd met a crew of gym-toned bruisers who took me under their wing, showing me how to make muscle pay at bachelorette parties and bridal showers. We'd drive to the boroughs dressed as Con Ed men, then peel off our work suits for cosmeticians and big-haired legal secretaries. For all my size, I gave a terrible name to fledgling college strippers.
At an early show, I was so unnerved that I forgot to doff my Dickies; by midnight, skulking around in a Star of David thong, I'd been groped by three generations of Jews, including a couple of aging aunts who tipped me in change and those chocolate coins they give to kids at Purim.
It couldn't last, of course, and at some karmic level I knew it. When you treat your body like a science project, the bill comes due in a hurry. That autumn, I started to spin off symptoms of the long-term ills to come. My mood-state zigzagged from belly laughs to big, weepy hugs and property damage. A free-range anxiety came on at all hours, and soon I wasn't sleeping or eating.
By the fall of '77, I was down to 180 and hearing my heartbeat go on crazy runs. One night, benching alone in the gym, I stood after a set and felt a swoon come on. I grabbed at my chest and sank to the bench; the pain in my ribs was a chisel.
At the hospital later, I had a tense chat with the doctor. Having done a thorough workup on my severe arrhythmia, he grilled me about the track-marks on my rear and told me to quit, pronto, or I'd come back in full arrest.
I did quit juicing, after three attempts. It was the hardest psychic labor I've undertaken. No one had warned me how ruthless 'roids are, conspiring, as they do, with your self-contempt to distort what you see in the mirror. They never got me high or flushed with pleasure, the bliss of tipped endorphins.
Instead, they strung me out on an off-shoot drug: the ravishing gazes of women. For one crazed summer, I was big in New York. It was almost worth dying for.
Paul Solotaroff is the author of "The Body Shop: Parties, Pills and Pumping Iron -- Or My Life in the Age of Muscle."