I don’t recall who first told me about Spa Castle. I do recall how it was described: “This fucking crazy, five-story Korean bathhouse, with a sauna that has LED-lights.” Amazed that such a place existed, I found myself slipping Spa Castle into conversations whenever possible. One occasion was during my walk across Manhattan with Realcity managing editor Jeff. Whatever I said must have resonated with Jeff, for a few weeks later I received a phone call asking if I wanted to do more things with strangers.
“I want you to write a serialized report,” he said, and suggested Spa Castle for the next installment.
“You want me to bathe with a stranger?” I asked.
After a pause, he said yes and told me that Cole, Realcity editor in chief, wanted to go too. Unfortunately, I had already met Cole and according to dictionary.com a stranger is defined as “a person with whom one has had no personal acquaintance.” Thus, we needed to find another person to come. Enter Justin, Realcity book editor. Below is a chart showing the relationship status between Justin, Cole and me.
A few weeks later, we met at the Court Square 7 train station for the trip. From there we took the train to the last stop in Queens where we boarded a shuttle bus. Here is a picture of the shuttle bus that I found on the Spa Castle website:
As you can see, the shuttle bus was really a van. Inside, it smelled like a new textbook. It was full of people who sat in silence. Everyone seemed nervous to relax.
When we arrived at Spa Castle, we did the following: paid, put our stuff in lockers, realized that we had to get naked to use the single-gendered pools, got naked, bathed, put on our required uniforms, went upstairs to use the saunas, discovered that the LED-light sauna actually existed, put on our bathing suits so that we could use the mixed-gender pools, used the mixed-gender pools, bought beer and dumplings, brushed our teeth, left.
This took four hours. Thanks to dehydration, it seemed like a blur. Note to reader: If you go to Spa Castle, drink water so that you can remember what happened. Fortunately, in lieu of a detailed description, I found this commercial for Spa Castle on YouTube.
The following Thursday, I ran into Justin at the Library, a dimly lit bar in the East Village. We had come for a Realcity happy hour event. Justin had already finished his article about the experience. I had not started. He suggested that I begin with the word penis.
“Penis?” I said. “I don’t think I can start my article with the word penis.”
“It’s not appropriate,” I said. I did not want to admit that the idea made me feel uncomfortable.
“It’s the most appropriate. Was there not tons of dong?” he said — in reference to the single-gendered mineral bath’s required nudity policy.
He turned to a dark haired woman I did not recognize and told her that she was going to have an interesting time editing my article.
“So you’re the guy who does things with strangers?” the dark haired woman asked, and introduced herself as Marissa, Realcity’s copy editor.
I nodded and shook her hand, embarrassed that I had been branded as “the guy who does things with strangers.”
Here is the first image that comes up on Google Images when you search “the guy who does things with strangers” without quotes:
From there we moved to the finer details of our post-Spa Castle experience — how I was struggling to write; how the following day, Justin had felt utterly relaxed, yet totally exposed — but despite my best efforts, I couldn’t help but think about his suggestion. While I had no intention of beginning this article with the word “penis,” something struck me as important about how the conversation had unraveled.
Two days later, I went to Breukelen Coffee House, a comfortable café in Crown Heights, to try to organize my thoughts. The night before, I e-mailed Cole explaining that I was having a difficult time getting started. He wrote back suggesting that because the article was part of a series, I should try to compare it to my previous installment, “Walking Manhattan with a Stranger.” Desperate for a direction, I opened a new Word document. Here is, more or less, what I ended up with:
|a) At SC I could not take notes — at least without getting them wet.
b) For WM I had auxiliary resources, e.g. photos and stickers.
c) At SC, I was sometimes naked.
d) During WM, I was never naked.
e) At SC, there were three people. During WM, there were two people.
f) I remember the WM experience vividly.
g) SC felt like a blur.
|a) During both experiences, I drank beer.
b) Both involved strangers.
c) During both, I was wet — the day of WM, it rained.
d) I had to write an article for both.
e) For both experiences, the following day, I was sore. I do not know how this happened after SC.
f) After both, I was sweaty.
After, I felt pretty worthless. The dullness of my analysis only reminded me of how little I could recall. It was at this point that Justin’s suggestion — beginning with the word “penis” — entered the mix. When he first brought up the idea, it sounded kitschy; a quality that I thought this article would have an excess of. But sitting at Breukelen Coffee, I realized that this was only an excuse to cover-up how uncomfortable our discussion at the Library had made me feel; interestingly enough, my discomfort was not because of the topic, but rather the circumstances. Below is the reason why:
In my experience writing this article and “Walking Manhattan with a Stranger,” I have come to understand that in the presence of strangers there is a certain kind of freedom. A freedom to act in a manner that you think is appropriate in relationship to your circumstances. Thus, bizarre situations, like nudity, become less of an alienation than an opportunity. At Spa Castle, I could act completely unaffected because Justin had no other basis for comparison; but if after experiencing these bizarre circumstances you find yourself with the same person in a normal setting (i.e., sitting at a bar, fully clothed), the freedom that being a stranger offers is marred by the fact that your relationship now has a history.
After all this, I decided to end — not start — with the word penis.