The Dortmunder Workout or Criminal Exercise (Short) (1990) – The New York Times Magazine

A Dortmunder Thing



The Sunday edition of The New York Times doesn’t weigh enough all by itself to satisfy its editors, so they add special sections now and again, and sometimes this special section is a Health supplement to the Magazine. An editor from there phoned me, one day in 1989, wondering if John Dortmunder had any thoughts about health, and I had to admit I didn’t know but I’d ask. I did, and when “The Dortmunder Workout” was published in the Health supplement to the New York Times Magazine in the spring of 1990 John was the only guy in the issue without a sweatband around his brow. The editor told me afterward that the staffers who already knew Dortmunder thought it was a nice piece, but those who hadn’t previously met my boy were baffled. Well, that seems fair. ~DEW




When Dortmunder walked into the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue that afternoon the regulars were talking about health and exercise, pro and con. “A healthy regime is very important,” one of the regulars was saying, hunched over his beer.

“You don’t mean regime,” a second regular told him. “A healthy regime is like Australia. You mean regimen.”

“Regimen is women,” a third regular put in. “Something about women.”

The other regulars frowned at that, trying to figure out if it meant anything. In the silence, Dortmunder said, “Rollo.”

Rollo the bartender, observing the world from a three-point stance — large feet solidly planted on the duckboards behind the bar, elbow atop the cash register drawer — seemed too absorbed either by the conversation or in contemplation of the possibility of health to notice the arrival of a new customer. In any event, he didn’t even twitch, just stood there like a genre painting of himself, while the first regular said, “Well, whatever the word is, the point is, if you got your health you got everything.”

“I don’t see how that follows,” the second regular said. “You could have your health and still not have a Pontiac Trans Am.”

“If you got your health,” the first regular told him, “you don’t need a Pontiac Trans Am. You can walk.”

“Walk where?”

“Wherever it was you were gonna go.”

“St. Louis,” the second regular said, and knocked back some of his tequila sunrise in satisfaction.

“Well, now you’re just being argumentative,” the first regular complained.

“Some of that health stuff can get dangerous,” the third regular put in. “I know a guy knew a guy had a heart attack from the Raquel Welch workout videos.”

“Well, sure,” the first regular agreed, “it’s always possible to exercise too much, but–”

“He wasn’t exercising, he was just watching.”

“Rollo,” Dortmunder said.

“When I was in the Army,” the first regular said, “they used to make us do sailor jumps.”

“If you were in the Army,” the second regular told him, “they were soldier jumps.”

“Sailor jumps,” insisted the first regular.

“We used to call those jumping jacks,” the third regular chimed in.

“You did not,” the second regular told him. “Jumping jacks is that little girls’ game with the lug nuts.”

“Rollo,” Dortmunder demanded, and this time Rollo raised an eyebrow in Dortmunder’s direction, but then he was distracted by movement from the third regular, the jumping jacks man, who, with a scornful, “Lug nuts!” climbed off his stool, paused to wheeze, and then said, “This is jumping jacks.” And he stood there at a kind of crumpled attention, arms at his sides, heels together, chest in.

The second regular gazed upon him with growing disgust. “That’s what?”

“It isn’t sailor jumps, I know that much,” the first regular said.

But the third regular was unfazed. “This is first position,” he explained. “Now watch.” Carefully. he lifted his right foot and moved it about 18 inches to the side, then put it back down on the floor. After stooping a bit to be sure he had both feet where he wanted them, he straightened up, more or less, faced forward, took a deep breath you could hear across the street and slowly lifted both arms straight up into the air, leaning his palms against each other above his head. “Position two,” he said.

“That’s some hell of an exercise,” said the second regular.

The third regular’s arms dropped to his sides like fish off a delivery truck. “When you’re really into it,” he pointed out, “you do it faster.”

“That might be sailor jumps,” the first regular admitted.

“In my personal opinion,” the second regular said, twirling the dregs of his tequila sunrise, “diet is the most important part of your personal health program. Vitamins, minerals and food groups.”

“I don’t think you got that quite right,” the third regular told him. “I think it goes, animal, vitamin or mineral.”

“Food groups,” the second regular contended. “This isn’t twenty questions.”

The first regular said, “I don’t get what you mean by this food groups.”

“Well,” the second regular told him, “your principal food groups are meat, vegetables, dessert and beer.”

“Oh,” the first regular said. “In that case, then, I’m okay.”

“Rollo,” Dortmunder begged.

Sighing like an entire Marine boot camp, Rollo bestirred himself and came plodding down the duckboards. “How ya doin?” he said, flipping a coaster onto the bar.

“Keeping healthy,” Dortmunder told him.

“That’s good. The usual?”

“Carrot juice,” Dortmunder said.

“You got it,” Rollo told him, and reached for the bourbon bottle.


Copyright © 1990 by Donald Westlake


Back to list