Back in the day, I used to hang out with my buddies in front of Richie’s Pizzeria. One sunny summer afternoon, a blue Buick Regal came racing up 30th Avenue and screeched to a stop behind the car I was leaning against. Before I could process what was happening, a huge body builder in a string tank top jumped out of his car, stormed over to where we were gathered and waved his finger in my face.
“Are you Eric Forte?” he barked menacingly — his pecs and lats fully flared and a pulsating vein popping out of his neck. “NO!” I said. “You tell Eric Forte that Mike Reilly is looking for him!”
Before I could eke out a “yes sir” or an “absolutely sir,” Mike Reilly jumped back in his Buick and peeled off, leaving a cloud of grey smoke in his wake. With my heart still in my throat, I ran inside Richie’s to call Eric from the pay phone. Thank God he answered.
“Eric, I don’t know what you did to piss off the Incredible Hulk, but he’s after you!” I told him, still agitated from the encounter. Always the cool customer, Eric calmed me down and said, “Relax…I’ll be up there in a few minutes.” Eric was a real smart guy, and didn’t want to get into a physical confrontation with Mike if he could avoid it, so he came up with a plan.
Later on that night, Eric and I cruised Astoria Park’s Shore Blvd in his jalopy, looking for Mike Reilly. When we spotted him hanging out with a small group of people underneath the Hells Gate Bridge, we parked several car lengths away and went over the game plan one last time: Eric would lead us on a slow walk over to the group. Once Eric was sure he had Mike’s attention, he would stop walking, pull a shiny object out from his waistband and hand it to me, making sure to never lose eye contact with Mike. Then Eric would continue his slow walk over to Mike while I waited several feet away, holding the object behind my back.
It worked like a charm. Eric had Mike shaking in his Capezios before they were even face-to-face. I couldn’t hear what they were saying when they did start talking, but I could see that Mike was a complete gentleman; he never raised his voice, never pointed his finger in Eric’s face…I bet he even apologized to Eric for the whole misunderstanding when they shook hands goodbye.
Eric and I waited until we were a safe distance from Mike and his crew before we started laughing uncontrollably. We took out the ‘shiny object,’ removed the aluminum foil we had wrapped it in, and split that pack of Yodels on our drive back up to Richie’s Pizzeria.
There are two things I’ll never forget about that day: The first, Eric’s cool and calm demeanor leading up to the confrontation; and the second, how great Mike Reilly looked. Sure he was a douche, but he had an amazing build. He was big and buff — his chest, shoulders, and arms were so impressive. I wanted to look like that. Not to intimidate people, but to make sure people would think twice about trying to intimidate me. So the next day, I took the money I had received as a gift for graduating high school, and joined a gym.
Broadway’s Gym sat above a dry cleaners on 38th Street in Astoria Queens. It was an “old school” body building gym, no more than 1,500 square feet. There was no aerobics room, no cardio area, just free weights and mirrors, and I loved it. I immediately became obsessed with getting big. I wanted to be huge.
It was 1985 and I was working in Manhattan as a messenger for United Cerebral Palsy during the day. Then I would take the RR train back home to Astoria, throw on my sweats, and pump iron every night. I consumed every bodybuilding magazine, book, and video I could get my hands on. I rented and re-rented the docu-drama Pumping Iron, starring a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, at least ten times in a row before finally buying my own copy.
As my lanky frame started to fill in, my posture got better. I started walking with confidence instead of hunched over. One evening in a nightclub, a girl from the neighborhood even complimented me on how hard my arms felt. She made my night. Within five years, I went from a 175-pound pencil neck geek to a 250-pound animal.
One day I was watching my friend Tommy practice his posing routine for an upcoming competition, and I had the scariest thought: “How I would fare in a bodybuilding competition?”
The bodybuilding competition I entered was The Natural Eastern Classic. I trained for seven months. I followed a strict diet of grilled chicken breast, brown rice, broccoli and egg whites. I was so paranoid about not arriving in-shape that I never missed a work out or cheated on my diet. Not once.
On November 9, 1991, I jumped on stage in nothing but my posing trunks, tanning oil, and a nervous smile, and posed my ass off. I was awarded second place in the Super Heavyweight Division (over 215 lbs) at a National Qualifying competition — not bad for my first time out. Just between us, there was only one other competitor in my weight class, and he won. So technically, I came in second — ok I lost — but it was fine because I did it! I set a goal and I achieved it.
Back in the day, I was a skinny high school graduate, with no direction or immediate plans for the future. It took a huge, muscle-bound guy to get in my face and yell at me, to make me realize that hanging out on a corner drinking beer and getting wasted every night was leading nowhere. So wherever you are these days, Mike Reilly, I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ for scaring the shit out of me… because who knows where I’d be today if you hadn’t!