The Russian Turkish Baths are a legendary New York institution, referenced by some of the last century’s great writers such as Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets. Under Russian management throughout its entire 114 year-old history, the baths are set in a brownstone with a famous red staircase in the East Village, the city’s old Russian-Ukrainian neighborhood. For twenty-five dollars, one gets a sagging pair of shorts, an ill-fitting, un-closing robe, and a thin, undrying towel, and can enjoy an uninterrupted day of steaming and unclogging. Unlike many of the popular newer spas, like the Japanese Ten Thousand Waves in Santa Fe or Kabuki Springs in San Francisco, or the numerous trendy dayspas in New York, the Russian Turkish baths do not present a sleek, glamorous, or relaxing environment. There are no soothing aromatheraputic scents wafting in through the grates, no sliced cucumber for one’s eyes, no new-age instrumentals playing over hidden speakers, and the slippers lying around the locker room were almost certainly not sterilized since the last person wore them (when one leaves after a session of steaming, one might experience a perplexing mix of feeling cleaner than one has ever felt in one’s life and a conviction that one has contracted a skin condition). There’s often a burly middle-aged man stomping about in his soaked shorts shilling his massages to the patrons, sometimes by actually grabbing one of their forearms and kneading it until it’s red. The patrons aren’t the young yoga-toned professionals in anklets and lotus-tats who frequent the Japanese spas; they’re mostly ancient, thick-trunked Russians and African Americans with patchy leg hair and spinal humps—I have never seen so many naked blacks and Slavs in one place, and getting along so well!On Valentine’s evening, the Russian Turkish Baths hosted a public party, and I immediately knew this was indeed the thing to do on Valentine’s. I enlisted my good friend Angela (see “Totally Belated Halloween Post,” paragraph 3) to accompany me to this fete, which featured a boisterous gypsy band, unlimited vodka (which I found a little odd considering it was in a place that specialized in inducing lightheadedness and dehydration in its customers) and pierogi with sour cream. The crowd that night was younger and fitter than usual, and seemed more dedicated to the art of toxing than that of detoxing, replenishing their lost liquid with a constant stream of booze. People relaxed the usual New Yorker embargo on eye contact and spent the evening aggressively wooing each other, a trend that Angela and I avoided by getting into a serious debate on the Landmark Forum in the Turkish room; I guess men leave you alone once they realize just how argumentative you can be. One man proved more fearless than his colleagues, however. In the early part of the evening we noticed a young, small, reedy blond man shuffling back and forth in his flip-flops from the various steam rooms, carrying a laminated sheet of paper, which he offered for examination to one after another of mostly disinterested-looking bathers. In my dizzy state (which forced me to spend much of my time sitting on a bench in the common area nodding dully to the procession of men who approached me thinking I was waiting to get hit on), I didn’t think this man and his paper odd, although later I wondered how I could have overlooked the absurdity of someone carrying anything other than a bottle of vodka in the steaming areas. This man (I feel odd calling him a ‘man,’ as he couldn’t have been older than 22) approached Angela and me while we sat on the bench catching our breath. He introduced himself as “Avi,” the exoticism of his name contrasting noticeably with his rather whitebread appearance. A recent graduate of University of Michigan, Avi was trying to start his career as a boardgame inventor. Here he showed us the mysterious paper, steam-dampened even through the laminate, which depicted the ‘map,’ if you will, of a four-person boardgame inspired by the horrors occurring on the Gaza strip. The players represent Hamas, militant Israel, moderate Islam, and moderate Israel, with “global opinion” acting in a manner similar to monopoly’s chance card, and suicide attacks and car bombings as the modes of stealing/losing points towards the objective, Gaza control. The game itself, if dubiously informed, might have been pretty clever and appropriate for self-consciously intellectual New Yorkers, but the inventor’s sliding around the Turkish baths in his trunks presenting the game with an elaborate explanation of the rules and objectives to drunken strangers in bikinis, seemed somewhat uncouth. No matter, I started to nod off from faintness while Avi managed to engage the reluctant but unfortunately lucid Angela in a more personal discussion. In my stupor I caught snippets of their conversation indicative that I really should remain alert enough to eavesdrop more thoroughly—something about “rope burn,” and “transcendant pain.” Later Angela reprimanded me for failing to rescue her from an unwelcome invitation to a session of bondage and domination by the delicate Avi, who apparently enjoyed the strain of clamps on his nipples. I apologized for my negligence, secretly delighted that I could now use my low blood pressure as an excuse to obliviate from unwanted chatting.
Angela and I then proceeded to the Russian Room. A note on the Russian Room: this is an asset of the Baths that I have not encountered in any other spa I’ve patronized. The interior resembles what one might imagine the inside of a volcano to look like, craggy, dark, steamy, with sloped, rough walls—except along the walls are two rows of faucets out of which pour constant streams of ice-cold water into buckets. This room is so damn hot, hotter than anything in the Japanese or Finnish spas, that as soon as you step inside, you have to grab one of these buckets of chilled water and dump it on your head. This comforts you for about a minute and a half, until your hair starts to burn the back of your neck and you have to douse yourself again. Now you sit down on the wooden bench, flinch as you burn your ass on the molten cedar and curse loudly so everyone peers out at you from under their head towels, and then you pick a random towel, soaked with either some stranger’s sweat or the water collecting in the uneven plains of the floor, throw it on the bench and clumsily aim your ass on it before you faint and crack your head open against the jagged wall-boulders. Now you start to wheeze and you swear that you can actually hear the delicate cilia lining your lungs sizzle and char like so much dry brush. You wince at the worrisome sensation that the liquid membranes on the insides of your eyelids are burning your eyeballs. You dunk your head into the bucket nearest you, and take long, grateful gulps from the water, which is so cold that, at any other time, you would complain that it’s freezing your sensitive teeth and hazardous to your singing voice. You eventually resign yourself to your discomfort, as the danger of slipping, tripping, burning, or fainting on your way to the door scares you into staying put. Now your eyes adjust and you find that as long as you hog one of the buckets of water and sip at it like a giant beer mug, you can almost stand it without wanting to die. Now you notice that there are maybe fifteen other people in the room, all lounging and chatting and not seeming at all as though their every pore is screaming in protest at the heat. Gays in mud masks, burly middle-aged Russians comparing forearm bulk, babas in soaked robes, bemoaning the bitchery of their American grandaughters. In the corner atop an elevated platform, a youngish studly-type, lent a slightly-thuggish aura by the towel wrapped ‘do-rag style about his shorn head, straddles a topless woman lying on the bench, holding her ankle fast against her ear for several spectacular seconds until he lowers her leg to the bench and proceeds to flog her breasts with a soapy oak branch. You then realize that the disturbingly flexible topless girl is Angela, and the man with the best job on earth offers this service for $35 a pop. Then Angela emerges sudsy and glowing from this ‘treatment,’ slurrily testifying to the profound bliss induced by the Russian stretch-and-whip (a review you find suspect as you know Angela to be an undiscriminating enthusiast of any activity requiring toplessness, flexibility, and flagellation). She even offers to buy the treatment for you as a Valentine’s ‘gift,’ and expresses annoyance at your refusal. The other patrons overhear your bickering and join with Angela in pressuring you on, pooh-poohing your objections and then just shouting over your increasingly-frantic protests. Then they start splashing you with cold water from the buckets, which feels surprisingly unpleasant, perhaps because of the village-lottery atmosphere which has suddenly overtaken the Russian Room. Finally, the hooded strongman saunters over to you and unwinds the towel from his head, revealing a sensitive face touched with concern.
“Hello. I am Sasha. I not hurting you.”
He pouts at your resistance, offers you his beefy cocked arm, and gazes benevolently into your eyes. You hesitate a moment, then place your weary hand in the crook of his elbow. With a beatific, dippy grin on your face like Blanche du Bois receiving the kindness of strangers, you lean on his shoulder and ascend the steps to the whipping bench.
I remember very little else from that night other than treading through thick slush and the sharp 2am chill through an uncommonly quiet East Village to the subway for the long ride home, where I crawled, clean and chastened, into bed.