By Michael E. Miller
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It's a sunny afternoon. You're out strolling along Washington Avenue, dodging the tanned in-line skaters as they dart among knots of oblivious models, model wanna-be's, and shirtless muscle boys in Daisy Dukes and combat boots. As you approach the South Beach Pub near Seventh Street, you look up and notice a four-foot-wide green oval sign with letters that match the faded yellow pastel color of the building from which the sign hangs. It reads "Dalia Valle Gymnasium."
Beneath the sign there is an open doorway. You duck inside and find yourself in a shadowy green and yellow foyer that could have been lifted right out of a Martin Scorsese movie; it exudes a seedy, Mean Streets kind of charm. The cracked and faded linoleum floor beneath your feet leads to two large metal doors: a black one on the left labeled "Design Studio"; on the right, an unmarked slab covered with a thick coat of vibrant green enamel that has chipped off at most of the corners. Behind the green door awaits not the carnal pleasure palace of Marilyn Chambers fame, but a long, narrow, dimly lighted flight of stairs, the same stairs featured in almost every second-rate boxing movie made in the Forties and Fifties.
But Rocky doesn't train in the gym at the top of this particular flight of stairs. Soothing classical music from a radio tuned to WTMI-FM serenades you, not the rat-a-tat-tat of a speed bag, the slap of a jump rope, or the thumping and grunting of a couple of sparring palookas. The two or three gentlemen lifting weights in this cavernous fitness studio do not huff or puff or exhort each other to "Push it! Push it!" They do not high-five. And they never, ever drop their weights. You just have entered the quietest gymnasium in the world.
Smartest, too, very likely. Against the wall ahead of you and to the right lean a couple of bookshelves laden with the writings of Plutarch, Homer, Cervantes, and Plato, as well as scholarly tomes on painting, nutrition, medicine, and the natural wonders of the world. An Editor's Treasury. Medical Aid Encyclopedia. Controlled Painting. Gray's Anatomy.
An old wooden desk rises directly in front of you. Atop it repose an ancient Smith-Corona typewriter, a paperweight bearing the logo of the U.S. Secret Service, a takeout menu from Charlotte's Kitchen, a government-issue nameplate, and a jumble of papers and pamphlets, some of which look new and some of which look weathered by time. The gym's diminutive 79-year-old proprietress, Dalia Valle, sits at the desk, one leg drawn up under her like a high school student. From her vantage point near the top of the stairs she can both monitor the efforts of the patrons who train at her establishment and immediately confront unwelcome interlopers who invade her realm.
The latter category includes uninvited New Times reporters. "I don't want publicity," she warns sternly. "What for? So hundreds of idiots can come and bother my members? Who needs that?" It takes some serious coaxing to persuade her to relent, and only under the condition that any story about her stresses that DALIA VALLE DOES NOT ACCEPT NEW MEMBERS WHO HAVE NOT BEEN REFERRED BY AN EXISTING MEMBER! So all you muscle-heads and gym rats looking for a new place to work out on the Beach can forget it. Dalia doesn't want you. Especially if you box.
"People are in the habit of thinking this is a boxing gym. That makes me furious," she scowls. "I don't want boxers in here. They're a loud bunch of people. You know how they are -- groaning and making lots of noises. That would distract the rest of my members."
Valle speaks protectively of her members. Hers are not the usual motley assortment of health club habitues and dumbbell dilettantes. Most of Dalia Valle's regulars are long-time Beach residents who come not to socialize or to salve their consciences for recent culinary misdemeanors, but rather to grab a no-B.S. workout: The kind of people who don't mind rusty barbell plates, who don't need the latest gleaming Ergo-Life-O-HydroCam equipment with attached pulse counter to tell them how many calories they burned from thinking about working out.
And her members speak just as affectionately of Dalia. "She's unbelievable," opines Albert Rivero, who discovered Valle's gym six months ago on a tip from a co-worker at nearby Puerto Sagua restaurant. "She's in incredible shape. She gives everybody personal training at first, and then she keeps an eye on your progress." Rivero has tried a few other gyms in the area, but prefers Valle's because, as he puts it, "Nobody bothers you. People come to this place to feel comfortable."
Richard Hale, a waiter and caddy who has followed the likes of Greg Norman around the golf links, echoes Rivero's sentiments. "This is the only gym I can really go to," he claims. When Hale first came to her gym in 1981, Valle worked with him to build a workout routine. "It just suits me. Dalia makes you feel comfortable. She's fair and honest and she doesn't play loud bubble-gum music like all the other gyms."