My Lower East Side Bath House Experience

ImageThe other day I visited a bath house on the Lower East Side. Just the words ‘Bath House‘ immediately conjure thoughts of the pre-AIDS 80s as memorialised by Armistead Maupin but, while I expect the Bath House I visited probably had a role back then, there’s nothing seedy about it now. Well, not on mixed days anyway. (Although the promotional material is ripe with innuendo: ‘Located between First Avenue and Avenue A (can you get a hotter location?)… You’ll be in for a new old world pleasure of being totally relaxed and spanking clean.’

Obviously, I was intrigued.

The Russian And Turkish Baths at 268 East 10th Street have been there since 1892 and it’s evident immediately on stepping over the threshold that there has been no attempt whatsoever to turn it into a spa in the modern sense. A general air of seductive murkiness pervades. We’re greeted at reception by a beautiful man whose skin is plump and smooth, his eyebrows shaped in classic arches. He has a thick Russian accent. We put our valuables in tin safety deposit boxes and take our locker keys. The changing rooms are really just spaces created from rows of battered metal lockers about six-feet high. We change into bathing suits and pick up towels – threadbare brown things nowhere near big enough – and head downstairs.

The baths themselves are smaller than expected, dimly lit, clad in ancient tiles and strewn everywhere with the sopping brown towels like a demented laundrette. There are twice as many men as women, as is immediately obvious from the array of bodies lined up on the ledge beside the freezing plunge pool forming a steaming shelf-load of manly girth and body hair. For the coy female there is nowhere to hide, especially as new arrivals are spotted within seconds by giant Russian masseurs touting for business. ‘I’m Aleksandr. Your name?’ booms the one who gets to me first. ‘You want Platza?’ he demands. ‘I don’t know’, I say. ‘Why you no want Platza? You want Platza you ask for Aleks.’ ‘Okay,’ I say.

The various saunas and steam rooms continue the theme of no frills masochism. In one claustrophobically small sauna a large black man is sprawled on the floor ranting at a young white man who occasionally nods ‘Yeah’. The black man is cursing a lot and sporadically bursts into rap which he announces is Run DMC. It’s not a particularly relaxing experience.

Another steam room is full of bright young things wearing creative towel turbans in the shape of Princess Leia‘s hairdo, or a nun’s wimple. A woman hisses ‘Shut the door!’ every time someone comes in or goes out. It’s so crowded that there’s standing room only. I’ve never seen people just stand in a steam room.

After a bit I begin to feel a more comfortable among this heaving, sweating menagerie and look for Aleks. I’m up for a bit of Platza, which I’ve discovered involves being hit all over with branches of oak leaves soaked in olive oil soap while the other bathers in the sweltering Russian Room – essentially a giant oven carved from rock – look on. Well, I’m here for an experience.

Aleks has arms like tree trunks so the thought of allowing him to hit me with branches is daunting. I lie face down on a massage bench achingly aware of my audience and wait, rigid with anticipation. I hear slurping and then I feel a strange swirling sensation all over my body as Aleks works up a lather with the oak leaves. I can smell the soap as I write this, a slightly carbolic smell. Then he starts the whipping. It’s not unpleasant and it doesn’t hurt. I’m sure if you were the type of person who could abandon yourself to being hit by leaves while strangers watch then it could even be enjoyable but for me, in an agony of self-consciousness, it couldn’t be over quick enough. Now and then Aleks would break off from whipping me to manipulate my body into strange shapes it wouldn’t normally go into. I think the awareness that resistance could result in Aleks accidentally snapping my leg off made it unusually pliable.

A person can get used to anything if given enough time, and after a couple of hours I found myself sitting on the shelf by the plunge pool exchanging pleasantries with my fellow clientele. Just by being there I’d become a member of a very specialised club.

2 Responses to “My Lower East Side Bath House Experience”

  1. Fascinating. I especially enjoyed “…could result in Aleks accidentally snapping my leg off… “

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