I’ve been a self-proclaimed semi-regular of the Russian & Turkish Baths in Manhattan’s East Village for about three winters now. I consider my biweekly or monthly visits (the former if my pockets allow, the latter if otherwise) a pilgrimage, beckoned by the promise of a cleanse. My chief purpose there is of a therapeutic nature. New York — for all of its marvelously reinvigorating opportunities — can be a serious grind, wearing down the constitution of my character, from stoically cool and calm to anxiously neurotic and nervous. I’m worn down by the immense volume of human traffic to navigate, the constant stream of ambient noise bombarding my ear drums and my own expectations to actively explore and join. I believe that both tension and friction are mental blocks, but with physical passageways for discharge. The Baths are where I bring my burdensome worries to ritually cast them off by virtue of a concentrated breath amidst the heavy clouds of steamy air.
The Baths has been in the business of perspiration since 1892, providing New Yorkers a place to experience the elements of a classic sweat. My original time there, invited to accompany my friend, Matthew Horowitz — proud owner of a packaged deal for some extravagant number of sauna sessions — was a revelation. For me, it’s the city’s crown jewel of meditative pleasure, situated interestingly enough at the threshold of a grimy and gritty turned counter-vogue Alphabet City. I recently accompanied that very same friend on a trip to the Baths, saddled up with substantial bottles of water of course, and a little summary would serve well to informally introduce this urban paradise.
As we approach the Baths, we see the loftily erected sign guiding us to the refurbished concrete steps, leading up to the door behind which the magic happens. It’s a co-ed day, so with both sexes present, partial covering of the flesh is required. If you’re a truly free spirit, comfortable in your own nudity and the presence of other members’, consult the schedule for single sex hours. The lobby bustles with comically confused activity from those unaccustomed to Russian courtesies like aggressively massaging a stranger’s shoulders as a suggestion for massage treatment, or the common Russian cuisine on display and the common intimidation of a Russian woman of middle age stature. Those same individuals are bewildered when the receptionist immediately dispossesses them of their valuables. I’ve determined that the ethnically expensive dishes are better left for the conclusion of my time at the sauna. We’ll save the awkwardly ordered carrot juice from the restaurant counter for later, hungrily consumed on the plastic furniture of the ground floor or maybe the beach furniture of the luxuriously illustrated sun deck lounge where denizens drink and smoke to their heart’s content.
My attitude whenever I come to this sultry haven is always one of foreign nostalgia. During the collectivization of Soviet society, generations of Russians and Ukrainians used a not too dissimilar facility wherever household options weren’t available. I imagine myself to be a congregant of a modern, significantly pricier, version of those establishments and am ready for any interactions — whether they be illuminating, cordially mundane or bizarre. As the son of Soviet parents, I’ve constantly had shouted at me, roughly translated, “Go to the Bath!” throughout my childhood. These words are actually an idiomatic term of dismissive frustration, invoking a culture where the victims of socialism’s unspeakable inequalities were relegated to maintaining their personal hygiene at public water facilities. At the age of 24, I finally transcended the expression and found myself a natural patron, incorporating these convalescent schvitzes into my lifestyle. I cannot capture the psychological state of those old world structures — massive blunders of architectural constipation — however I do have a picture in my head of the inhospitable spatial arrangement, which I doubt bears any relation to the Baths of my recuperative missions. My occasional escapes into this glorious place of the body’s renewal are a crystal clear image that I will remember until my dying day.
We start by exchanging our wallets and smart phones for rusty bronze keys attached to soggy bands of elastic and move on toward the communal lockers. Payment is made as the customer leaves. The men’s space is of dominant dimensions to the women’s for no apparent reason and voices float from one side to the other — the divide being nothing more than the lockers themselves — as people change clothes and prepare for hot heaven. We collect our slippers and towels, and descend the stairs to the main space itself. Folk of all creed leisurely amble between chambers, recline on the central bench and stop by the sink, alternately shaving or lathering themselves with a variety of bogusly holistic creams. We are ready to engage in our Bath routine, the cyclically rejuvenating motion all guests go through amongst the rooms, from aroma therapy to wood-based, to tile-based, etc. — transitions between worlds, all of unique composition and energy source, be it electric or radiator.
What I count on, and what happens, are the depths of conversation during the breaks on subjects of trivial irrelevance, with total strangers. We make the acquaintance of a local journalist who pitches us an idea about a how-to all-purpose utility magazine targeted toward the fabulously wealthy, aristocratic male demographic who are apparently lost in the periodical shuffle. I politely decline to give my opinion, instead pretending to be in a reflective trance. My friend and I haven’t been together in a while and being here in a place of relatively absent distraction is the perfect chance for doing what friends do — bullshitting on matters we have very little knowledge of, namely what the real physiological benefits of the Baths are and, of course, women and politics. I have no disagreement with the tattoo gang, the bikini and speedo couples, or the veteran crowd commanding the rest of us on appropriate sauna behavior, but today is for reconnecting.
A hallway travels between the emergency exit and the sizzling, feverous Russian Room — the sacred sanctuary. Home to oven-baked chunks of rock weighing thousands of pounds, this authentic representation of the traditional Russian sauna radiates immense waves of heat, balanced only by an over-flowing burrow of chillingly cold water with several buckets for splashing or steadily pouring liquid relief onto oneself. What we witness here in the room’s corner some might misidentify as methods of torture. A sizable Russian man, typically muscular, fiercely strikes some innocent individual — a victim of brutal inquisition by all appearances — with the full brunt of broom head. Known as a Platza, this special treatment is a bundle of oak leafs, soaked in olive oil and roughly scrubbed on one’s shoulders to exfoliate dead layers of skin. Regular massages are also offered. We’ve spent close to a solid two hours here but critical to completing our journey to the Motherland’s realm of extreme relaxation is submerging ourselves in the artic pool — not a place for an individual with a heart condition. We do so in rapid succession, hustle back up the stairs, change again and gather our belongings.
We both have other plans afterwards, so rather than a hurried beer on the roof, we pay our bill and go diagonally across the street to Kung Fu Tea for some much deserved bubbles. The city is still the city — dynamic and energetic as ever — but I’ve gone through a temporary metamorphosis, returning home with nothing but peace to share with everybody along the way. For me the Baths exist at the juncture of intensity and luxury, where exercise meets enjoyment. This feeling of easy-natured delight doesn’t last forever. The weighty stress of city life will inevitably build up again and my tolerance for exposure to the unfortunate variables of this existence will reach a downgraded level, whereby I will address the issues by another visit to the Baths, my idea of urban pleasure.