In Praise of Public Bathhouses
Who even knows if the few remaining public bathhouses in New York are going to make it? But, damn, I could use a good steam right about now.
Why on earth would anyone in their right mind ever want to go sit in a fairly grungy tenement basement and bake themselves?
Because you float out of your two plus hours from the depths of New York City’s Russian Turkish baths on the lower east side feeling like you’ve never had any problems and won’t ever again. Seriously.
There were once many of these public bathhouses all around New York and any other U.S. city with a sizable Eastern European population. Here in New York they were often built by the city at the end of the 19th century as part of a public hygiene push when millions of people didn’t have ready access to decent bathrooms.
The AIDS plague of the late 80’s and early 90’s effectively wiped out most of them. But long before gay bathhouses offered their charms, public bathhouses provided more than hot running water and a good platza (more on that later). They were a relaxing place to hang out with your neighbors or people you never met before and they still are.
There are several decent banyas, the Russian word for a public bathhouse, left in New York City but the one I’ve spent the most time at is the venerable Russian Turkish Baths on East 10th Street. According to the sign, it was founded in 1892 and truth told, it looks it. This is not for the ladies who lunch crowd.
You walk in, surrender your valuables at the desk, get a key to a locker, change into your steam togs (some women opt for bikinis but I go with a tank top and shorts), and from there you descend into a very different world. Dimly lit, usually crowded, and very, very wet. The walls and floor are slick. The people are dripping. Piles of damp towels fill the bins. There’s a smell, not unpleasant, but not what you’d want your living room to smell like either. I always start out with the Russian Room; it’s a stone-lined cave with seating carved out of the rock. The heat is enough to singe your eyeballs (I recommend a quick, bracing dip in the 40 degree pool first). Breathing has to be shallow and careful at first in the Russian Room because 190 degree heat will shock the bejesus out of unprepared lungs.
Now, if none of this sounds like your idea of fun, that is only because you haven’t yet experienced having a bucket of icy cold water dumped over your head just as you’re hitting the breaking point. WOW!
Then sit there for another ten minutes or so until you think you can’t take another second and go jump into the pool.
Exhilarating is the word you’re looking for. Every nerve in you is jumping and alive. Your skin is taking in information it’s been deaf to for years. No rush to do it all again. Sit with it. Sit next to the skinny tattooed kids from Brooklyn and the fat old men from Jersey who used to live down the block but got priced out. And if you’re feeling stupendously adventurous, say yes to the platza man when he shakes his oak branches at you.
They say a platza is a massage but really you get the ever-loving you-know-what beat out of you by a well-muscled young man wielding a bunch of oak branches. In between thrashings, your platza man (from Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, or Queens) will slam bucket after bucket of ice cold water onto your unprotected body. People always walk away with a dazed smile on their faces.
Full disclosure: I have never been platza-ed and only part of that is because I just can’t justify the cost. The major reason is that I’m chicken. And I’ve been at the business end of a number of floggers and one very talented single tail whip in my life, but a platza? I’ll watch, thanks.
The other banya I’m fairly familiar with is down on Fulton Street in Manhattan; Spa 88 aka The Wall Street Baths (location, location, location). Spa 88 attracts a more Russian clientele and don’t bother going on Friday or Saturday night. There’s no room if you’re not there with your giant crowd of boisterous Russian drinking buddies.
It’s cleaner, so there’s that. It’s cold pool is colder but it’s tiny and you need to lower yourself down a not particularly stable ladder into the icy water and then manage to clamber out without falling back in. Their Russian room is bigger and better lit, but it doesn’t have that well of cold water or gushing faucets like the one on 10th Street. Their platza men, however, are just as enthusiastic.
Spa 88 has a tiny wooden dry sauna in addition to the larger sauna room that’s just big enough for maybe three people but more comfortably fits two. It’s not outrageously hot and is a lovely place to recuperate before taking on their steam room.
A word about the magic of steam rooms.
There’s something mysterious and otherworldly about steam rooms. The steamier, the better. It’s as if the clouds of steam that obscure the outlines of the room also obscure tiresome old reality. Add some eucalyptus to that and just bliss right out.
At either of these banyas the delight is in wandering from room to room. There is a range of different rooms with wet or dry heat, super-heated or just right, but 10th Street also boasts a Turkish sauna with a shower head by the door where you can douse yourself with (what else?) ice cold water. And if jumping into 40 degree water after coming out of the 190 degree Russian Room isn’t enough for you, at the 10th Street baths you can go up onto the roof and sit in the winter time with steam billowing off you and anyone else crazy enough to go up there with you.
It really is another world. The extremes of heat and cold, the shared experience of platzas (watching or surviving), dead sea salt scrubs, deep tissue massage, idle conversation, and, if you’d like, a mud facial combine to erase whatever stresses have been piling up.
I didn’t expect to get hooked on public bathhouses. I’m not that kind of girl. First: I deeply loathe hot, humid weather. I dread July and August. And then there’s the fact that I don’t feel all that comfortable in tight, soaking wet clothes. I don’t have the body for that kind of exposure. I’m also ridiculously critical of other people’s small talk. I remember really enjoying walking around Prague for exactly that reason; who knows what everyone was chattering on about. It was just interesting noise. But, dear God, don’t let me have to sit on a bus behind a couple of twenty somethings who can’t manage any sentence that doesn’t have the word “like” in it at least eight times.
Maybe it’s the surroundings, but listening to some yutz bragging about how he hiked the Appalachian trail with only a bed roll and a Bible just rolls off me like I’m Teflon after several rounds of Russian Room and pool at 10th Street.
I wasn’t that enthusiastic when a friend suggested it as our Friday night out years ago. It was the dead of winter which is by far the best time to go (although I am always surprised to walk out into a humid August night feeling refreshed and lighter after a couple of hours at the baths) and when we walked out later that evening I felt high. I felt like my feet were skimming the sidewalk.
So when you come to New York City, and you know you will, look me up. We’ll go to the baths. Maybe you’ll show me up and go for a platza.
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