Sunday, January 8, 2012
Adventure #2: The Human Car Wash
Yesterday evening, I completed my second adventure. I would have tweeted, but my phone ran out of juice just before I got to the baths. But that's fine. There's no way I could have described yesterday's experience in 140-character increments.
I'll confess--I wasn't sure if my visit to the Russian/Turkish Baths would qualify as an adventure. I worried that the only thing I'd find at the underground "spa" would be a crowd of sweaty New Yorkers sitting around in their bathing suits. I needn't have worried. My visit to the famous 10th Street Baths in the East Village was among the strangest experiences of my life.
To begin with, the baths are no place for the germ-phobic. I am a card-carrying member of that particular group. Fortunately, I left my card at home yesterday (along with all of my valuables). This is my YEAR OF ADVENTURE, and I can't afford to be squeamish! I plan to encounter all sorts of disgusting stuff over the next 50 weeks. A little sweat should be the least of it.
(Above: NOT what you should expect.)
That having been said, if you visit the baths, I highly recommend that you schlep your own supplies (as I did). Bathing suit. Flip flops. You might even bring your own towel or robe.
OK--now that you've been warned, allow me to set the scene. After you arrive, you deposit your belongings in a locker, pull on your bathing suit, and head downstairs to the pool and saunas. This is the main part of the baths. It's much smaller than I imagined. And there's absolutely nothing pretty about it. In fact, the place looks oddly industrial--like a human car wash.
The basement was full when I got there. (If you don't like company, you should probably go during the work week.) The crowd was fairly young (I'd been expecting to see a bunch of old Russian guys) and there were lots of ladies. Still, there was an astonishing array of body hair on display (not all of it attached to the men). At first I felt like I'd wandered into a carpet showroom. Then I decided to mind my own business--which is probably what I should have been doing in the first place. After that, I didn't feel weird at all. Seriously. Even I was surprised.
Downstairs, I was immediately approached by one of the bath's "therapists," who wanted to know if I would like any extra "treatments." I know some people find the solicitations annoying, but since I was there for adventure, I wasn't bothered at all. The therapist spoke with a thick accent I couldn't place and he wore a big gold chain around his throat. Super nice guy. But I don't think you'd want to make him angry.
I started with a goopy mud treatment. I'm afraid there's not much to report. The mud was cold at first. It seeped under my bathing suit and stained the inside lining. Getting it washed off was the best part. They hose you down like an elephant. But I didn't go to the baths for mud. I went for the platza treatment. And that's where the experience became a true adventure.
There are five saunas in the basement of the baths. The hottest is known as the Russian Room. It is, beyond all doubt, an entrance to Hades. I have never felt heat like that. I didn't check a thermometer, but it was hot enough to scorch my lungs the moment I stepped inside. I didn't think I could stay for more than a minute. But the Russian Room is where the platza treatment is administered. I'm not sure how long I was in there. But each and every one felt like an eternity.
A giant Russian man in long, monkish robes told me to lie face-down on one of the benches. He put a wet towel over my head, which made it somewhat easier to breathe in the heat. Then he proceeded to beat my skin with a bunch of soapy oak leaves. I don't think it hurt. But I honestly don't know for sure. Because the entire time I was far more concerned that I might die from the heat. I'm not exaggerating at all. And what really freaked me out was that I'd probably end up partially cooked before the giant Russian figured out that he was beating a corpse.
When it was over, I was guided out of the Russian Room and told to take a dip in the freezing cold plunge pool. (Horrible, horrible, horrible.) After the giant confirmed that I could "move my face" (was there a chance that I might not be able to?), he smeared my skin with honey and told me to sit still for five minutes. At that point I wasn't ready to go anywhere.
So that's it. Am I glad I visited the 10th Street Baths? Absolutely. Will I go back? Maybe--but probably not. If I do, will I ask for the platza treatment? My first response would be NOOOOO! But whenever I look in a mirror, I gotta admit that my skin looks fantastic. The only question is: How much will I suffer for beauty?
Interested in going to a Russian bath? Here's a list of a few in New York!