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It's a wrap. And a bathmat, and a hotpad, and a turban …
Half a million towels come into the Recreational Sports Facility each year, at a cost of $45,000. A large number of those are spirited off the premises — at the hands of weight-trainers and studio cyclists unknown

| 05 March 2003

 

towels

RSF supervisor Jamey Dolowich folds towels at the RSF.
Noah Berger photo

Warm from the dryer or sodden and funky, a towel is a towel is a towel. Nothing to sweat over. But multiply that towel by, say, half a million — all to be washed, dried, stacked, distributed, collected, re-laundered, and preserved from theft, seven days a week, 12 months a year — and suddenly that utilitarian cotton rectangle is a standing agenda-item, budget line-item, and VIP issue.

The lowly gym towel is all of those things at the campus Recreational Sports Facility (RSF), where most staff meetings include a bit of towel-related talk — be it devoted to venting, strategizing, or marveling at patrons' varied and sometimes quirky towel habits and fashion statements. (A weightlifter dubbed "Turban Guy" and the broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped body-builder known as "Mr. Triangle," who's loathe to use a workout towel during his arduous, sweaty workouts, are two favorites.)

Jessica Fisher, RSF's director of operations and guest services, is in charge of purchasing towels for the facility. In the course of a year, she orders about 576,000 of them — which arrive in compressed, bacteria-resistant bales ("like pressure-treated wood," says one staffer) after a 45-day boat trip from southeast Asia — for a neat sum of close to $45,000. Add to that cost the laundering operation: 36 jumbo loads a day in four oversize washing machines and three huge dryers. Then there's the tab for soap: $11,000 per annum — plus utilities and labor.

Towels do have a natural life span, of course, and at 300 to 400 launderings a year, eventually are turned out to pasture as maintenance rags. But what drives up the budget numbers — and ultimately membership fees — is the fact that so many towels leave the premises.

Early in fall semester, "when new students realize that mom didn't pack enough towels," is a particularly perilous time for the inventory, notes Rec Sports staffer P.J. Ince. "Liberated" gym towels, though small, will serve in a pinch as residence-hall shower towels or co-op bathmats; some have been known to go on to second careers as car-wash cloths and kitchen hotpads.

Cal gym patrons are not unique in this regard. Schemes for preventing towel loss and theft, in fact, have preoccupied recreational facilities managers nationwide for decades. Ergo, at Berkeley, the era of pistachio-green towels (on the theory that something so distinctive and ugly would be less tempting), followed by the bright-yellow period (ditto) and towel-for-ID exchanges. At Hearst Gym, which is managed by the Physical Education Program, patrons are still issued a towel upon surrendering an ID. Such a system was in place a decade ago at Rec Sports — "but often resulted in long lines, and inevitably a certain number of lost IDS," Fisher says.

Other strategies — all of them imperfect — are periodically debated and rejected: imbedded magnetic tags (too expensive), requiring a deposit (too likely to create an incentive for swiping other's towels), bring-your-own (too hard on gym lockers, where a wet towel leads inexorably to rust, as well as to the odor of composting cotton). Last spring, RSF organized an end-of-semester towel amnesty, resulting in the repatriation of a small percentage of the inventory. It was "'No questions asked; we don't care if originally you stole them,'" Fisher recalls.

For now and the foreseeable future, signage urges patrons to take just one clean shower towel, so the supply lasts the day, and to return it to the dirty-towel bin as they leave the locker room. For the most part, the system works. Notwithstanding a few survivalists who continue to stock their lockers in anticipation of a future towel shortage, and individualists who smuggle towels through RSF's doors to new homes throughout greater Berkeley, never to return. Well, almost never — since every so often, conscience strikes. Take the student who, just before graduation, hauled a mother lode of gym towels — in a leaf 'n' lawn bag — back to the facility. "He even washed them," Ince recalls with amazement.