i first heard about the russian bath houses during my first year in new york. i was on a train coming back to the city from virginia. the entire northeast was in the middle of a relentless snow storm, and thus my usual 6 hour trip was on hour 10 and counting. we’d been stuck in philly for over an hour and i met a guy at the bar in the train station who was also heading to new york, and also intentionally getting drunk to pass the time. we boarded together and made plans to meet in the dining car. i had a bota full of wine, he had a bottle of dewar’s – our christmas spoils. as we sat and drank, he was a plethora of knowledge about the city. he drew me a map of manhattan and all the things i needed to know; which parks were prettiest in autumn and which ones you could consistently score drugs in, neighborhoods with the most authentic cuisine from a range of cultures and why you should use the staten island ferry (just as a free boat ride and then to turn right back around and come back, he advised). i still have this map, and the spot on it where he showed me his favorite russian bath house was. he looked at me very seriously as he described the nearly religious process of going room to room, the russian men that would beat you if you asked for it and sometimes even if you didn’t, the absolute euphoric feeling in your body after you left. he marked it on the map, and told me i have to go. then he pulled a lighter from his pocket and started burning the edges of the map and we were both laughing wildly, drunk and restless from the ride. they kicked us out of the dining car. we ran into the area between the cars to hide, laughing loudly and then he pressed his body against mine and we made out aggressively and madly all the way through new jersey.
seven years and, well, quite a few makeout sessions with strangers on trains later, i finally made it to the russian & turkish bath house. thankfully i went with someone who knew the routine, and now i will pass that knowledge off to you. the whole experience was insane and hilarious and hard and uncomfortable and then completely, corporally euphoric.
first, bring a bathing suit. honestly, i’d say a one-piece is best, but a two-piece works too. they have little cotton shorts that you can (and should) keep over your suit, and if you happen to spend the night away from home, then your uniform can simply be a borrowed sleeveless tee and just the shorts. which i kind of thought was hip. regardless of what getup you choose, go in the locker room, change, and loop the key around your wrist or ankle as if your life depended on it. trust me, you don’t want to know what they do if people lose them.
choose a pair of rubber slippers, a towel, and then go downstairs and enter into a tiled basement of different rooms and the knowledge that your dignity is far, far behind you. i arrived with my hair tossed up in a top bun, smiley and bright-eyed and mistakenly wearing mascara. within minutes i became a desperate, drowned rat.
the whole scene transports you back into history, imagining this activity in countries all over the world, a social scene. built in 1892, this is clearly the oldest activity in New York, other than drinking and lying. it all kind of felt like being at the gym, just without the working out. everyone is suffering, out of breath, wanting the activity they are doing to stop but also trying to push through it. some people talk, which usually consists of “god it’s just so hot in here.” some people just moan every so often. most just exchange eye contact that says, “are you ok? because i don’t know if i’m ok. and if i pass out, will you drag my body out of here? because i’ll drag yours.”
there are 7 rooms, i think. honestly i lost track and along with my sense of direction because when you enter one room, you take a deep breath knowing it will be the last time you can actually fill you lungs for the duration of your stay, and when you exit, all you can think about is submerging your body in the ice pool. which, as soon as you do, all you can think of is getting out of the ice pool. the room that i suppose i decided was my favorite, which i don’t know if that means it was the most tolerable or most challenging, was a stone cave that looked like part of a putt-putt course. it has tiers of wooden benches that you can’t sit on straight away because you’ll burn your buns off. literally. i saw it happen. you sit on your wet towel and every 30 seconds you force your body to walk over to a well of cold water and dump an entire bucket over your head. i was hesitant to do this at first because it looks ridiculous, just shaming yourself with a bucket of water in front of a group of strangers. it felt as dumb as the ice bucket challenge but the only charity it’s supporting is you and your own momentary survival. my hesitance quickly evaporated along with every ounce of moisture on my skin, lips, and hair. that bucket saved my life, again and again and again and again.
the steamy rooms felt like you were in confession with a large group of strangers. you felt, saw, and heard all of their sins exiting their bodies. then all of our sins hung there in a heavy cloud together as we all sat paying our public penance. everyone sits leaning over, their shoulders heavy, their breath short. just sitting and trying to continue sitting, somehow.
every so often a large man with a gold chain wanders through the rooms saying “who wants a platza!!” to which, without inquiring, i would recommend going with, “no sir, i would not like a platza today.” i saw one man being platza’d, which took place in the hot stone room, in front of everyone. he was instructed to lay down, turn over, sit up, stand up, all while being beaten with a wet rag and having water and some other liquid poured over him. it was like a public shaming, and i felt the desire to help him but of course, all i could do was muster the energy to drag my body over to the well and baptize myself every 30 seconds. he chose the platza. now he must suffer.
at some point, you carry your tired body up the steep stairs to the roof for some sun. this, again, is not a glamorous experience; you lay your body upon some old rubber mats and close your eyes and feel your heart nearly beating out of your chest from the intense environments you’ve been experiencing. men are walking around with some sort of thick white mud face masks caked on their faces, looking like mimes. mimes are walking around without any face masks, looking like men. you realize you may never leave the rubber mat. you are trapped in a glass case of corporal instability. you and the mimes.
you descend back into the basement and wander again from room to room. into the pool and immediately back out. breathing in steam and heat and sins and nothing at all. you sit in the social room between the other wet humans. everyone seems to be marginally surviving and you think, maybe, you will too.
i remember being concerned that my boobs were showing through my wet clingy man tank top or that my baggie shorts were exposing everything beneath and then immediately thinking that i should concentrate on breathing. inhale, exhale. nothing is private here, we are all exposed.
and that’s when anthony weiner walked by in a tiny speedo and started doing slow, languid ballet moves with his tiny tight leg upon the bar in front of me.
when you finally leave, putting back on your clothes and saying goodbye to the sassy little shorts and shoes, you emerge out onto 10th street and new york is still happening all around you. i kept wanting to ask people as they passed on the sidewalk – do you have any idea what is going on in there? my body felt completely cleansed and euphoric. my skin felt new. i felt grounded and displaced in the city i knew so well.
the russian & turkish baths are not only the best hangover cure i have ever experienced, they are a glimpse into an ancient history and a strange social experience you can’t find anywhere else, unless i suppose you actually do slip into the confession booth in your skivs with a bunch of strangers and steam.
also, it’s the best way to see Anthony Weiner’s wiener without giving him your phone number. because he is always, always there.
the russian and turkish baths are located at 268 east 10th st.
check the site for the schedule, because there are men-only and women-only hours in addition to the co-ed and anthony weiner hours.