In the fall of 1970 I moved into a semi derelict building right next to the old Russian & Turkish Baths on East 10th Street. A group of us were intrepidly (or foolishly) living on the block between First Avenue and Avenue A at a time when to cross A was sort of a guaranteed mugging at knife point. We did not cross A. Nor did we venture into our block’s most famous building, the last of the old NYC bathhouses. It was not until the late1980’s that I finally braved it. I was immediately hooked. Welcome to Eastern Europe in NYC, 1892! Welcome to the Baths.
Today’s NY Times (1/30/16) featured an article about the Baths. Well, I did live next to it in that long-ago time. And I finally ventured in for a good sweat, a hose-down scrub from Agnes, or a Platza in the Russian Room. From the article I see it has both changed and not changed. Here’s a story I wrote about it back in 1992.
THE BATHS: Today, after appointments uptown, downtown, and back to midtown, I ended my day in the East Village at a kind of duck down, out of town, heat up and cool down at the Tenth Street baths. I climbed the crumbling cement front steps into the old tenement, walked down the dark, narrow hall leading into a truly other world. This bath-house is, I think, the last remaining of the old “real” baths in the City. There is nothing trendy, pretty, cute, chic, or particularly comfortable here. Not one gold cupid. No no! I was not at a “spa;” I was at Ladies’ Day at the Russian & Turkish Baths.
On the first floor there are rows of bunk beds and lockers in a dark room (half the lights don’t work, or are simply not turned on.) Women in badly fitting cotton robes lounge about, moving slowly, or napping on cots. If you want, there is a “restaurant” where you can get health juices or chicken soup and smoked fish, depending on your orientation. I undress quickly, donning the somewhat tattered robe and enormous rubber slippers issued to me when I showed my pre-paid, punch card.
I descend the stairs into the basement and enter a steamy, tiled room. It is draped with naked female bodies of varying and often quite amazing sizes, shapes and colors. Old Ukrainian women from the neighborhood, young Black models with beads and cowrie shells bedecking their bellies, a number of young Soviet immigrants speaking Russian, a group of beauties chatting in Italian, an anorexic 65 year old. Like me, she’s a regular.
Some women have green mud on their faces. A couple Black women look truly odd with great dark eyes peering out of gray green masks framed by long dreads or braids. Some women have bodies covered with black mud. Some women sit rubbing their arms and legs with abrasive sponges. We are in the ante-room of the “Baths.” I hang up my issued robe and join the naked ladies. (There are a couple days a week that are co-ed. I’m not interested in going somewhere to sweat in a bathing suit.)
There is a wooden sauna available. Not many people use it. More popular, and hotter, is the “steam” room…a small room with wooden benches and a set of old, hissing apartment radiators. It is very hot in there. Anyone who has lived in NYC tenement know how much steam those radiators give off. I go there first to open my pores for the real goal, the Russian Room.
The Russian Room. A big square room with a stone furnace taking up one quarter of it. Enormous stones, cemented together. God knows what they burn in there! Whatever, it is HOT. There are three tiers of cement benches, over which a few wooden slabs have been places for brave souls to sit on. There is a pipe running around the center row, with a spigot every 4 or 5 feet. Buckets receive icy cold water….rarely does anyone sit on the top tier. Too hot.
Some women sit with their feet in the buckets. When I first started going, the buckets were wooden. They’ve been replaced with plastic ones. Not as authentic, but probably a bit more sanitary. Every few minutes, a woman stands, take a bucket and pours the ice cold water over her head. Me too, you bet! This is the best.
Really! This is the best. The room is built of stained cement looking a bit like an abstract painting in sepia and grey. There are cement covered beams and some old wooden ones showing too. The air, thick with steam, too, looks like opaque cement. And on the wall, two signs declare “save water.” Joke. The spigots are rarely turned off; water is a constant in here. The sound of it, the feel of it. That’s the point. It’s the Baths.
When I am too hot, I duck back out to the ante-room for a sit. I look around. There is an icy cold tiled swimming pool. People plunge in to recover from the intense heat of the Russian Room. The walls are tiled too, and along with tiled curlicues and such are the words “James Stravato Tile & Marble.” I wonder how many years ago Mr. Stravato did the job. I wonder how many of the old tenements here on the Lower East Side have his tiles. Possibly he also put in some of the marble fireplaces. (When I lived on Cornelia Street in 1967, in my tiny hole of an apartment there was a Carrera Marble fireplace. The Italians, like the rest of us, have interesting priorities. I was told that when they came to America, many of them brought marble for fireplaces.)
Generally when I go to the Baths, I get a hose down scrub from Agnes, a woman whose thickly blue veined legs look like that old Italian marble and whose slab of a marble “massage table” sits alongside the pool. She uses a garden hose and a seriously abrasive spongie-thing to give you a good cleaning. But today I decide to spring for a Platza, a therapeutic scrub with oak leaves.
My masseuse, a young woman, leads me back into the Russian Room. I lie on the massage table right next to the cement furnace. She covers my head and face with a towel. She proceeds to scrub and pummel me with an oak leaf scrubber which looks like a feather duster made of leaves. She scrubs with very hot water. She slaps. She rinses with buckets of cold water. More scrub. Then a good massage. Roll over. Same on the other side. All this takes about 20 minutes. Time is suspended; It feels like an hour. The woman finishes with a bucket of cold water and the instructions: “Go to the Pool.”
In an altered state of body and definitely of mind, I carefully make my way out of the cement hot box to Stravato’s tiled pool and descend into its icy waters, briefly. I’m out as soon as I’m in. I make my way to a bench and listen to the 65 year old anorexic talk of how fat is she getting (Her ribs show, she is so thin.) I listen to her story and nod. I can do no more.
When recovered from Russian Room heat and oak leaf pummeling, I realize it is 6 O’clock and I need to get home to make dinner for my son. I leave the basement bathhouse, re-enter the cot lined dressing room, and slowly put on clothes, discarding the frayed bathrobe and rubber slippers in a barrel. I make my way to 8th Street and the M8 crosstown bus. I look at all the people on that bus and wonder what their day was like. Mine definitely ended in Dream Time.