286 East 10th St. ny ny

Neighborhood: East Village

illustrations: Steve Brodner;

Since 1892 New Yorkers have been flocking to The Tenth Street Bath on 10th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A to shvitz, to sweat out the gunk that clogs the pores and clouds the spirit. In the city, we have a fine selection of toxins to choose from: subway juice (that mysterious thick liquid that seeps out of subway ceilings), bus fumes, the occasional pigeon dropping. After leaving this old tenement house, you will feel invigorated, as if you just went on a two hour vacation, stepped into a time machine, and went back to the Lower East Side of yesteryear, long before wheat grass and smoothies and silicon breasts.

You don’t need to tell the personnel that this is your first time. They can tell from the way you are looking at the locker rooms. Shower curtains function as makeshift doors, facilitating a free peek at the gender of your choice. A sign reads: MEN MUST WEAR SHORTS ON COED DAYS OR YOU MUST LEAVE. This is comforting. The welcome counter is set up youth hostel style. “Put all your precious belongings in here, pay when you finish,” says the counter guy. The tradition of leaving private belongings began when gangsters in the old days would entrust their weapons to the attendant before sweating away the days stress.

He hands you a key, points to the shelves by the shower curtain, and tells you to take whatever you need, and points you in the direction of the locker room. A hairy fat man is eating an orange and smiling longingly at you. You grab two miniature brown towels and say a prayer. A few women of varying shapes are already shedding their clothes. “The first time here is funny,” says one of them when you confess your Bath virginity. “Go to the Russian Room first. Everything will be easy after that.” You follow the girls because they obviously know where they are going. You trail behind in the King Kong size 14 plastic slippers you found in your locker. Down the steps you go. It smells like hot coals, steam, and warm human flesh, with an afterthought of lavender.

The steam room is equipped with a drawstring shower. Yank the rope for a splash of ice water. It’s enough to make you feel like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. The smell is oddly inviting. What does a brothel smell like? You feel sexy. Inside, a slight brown haired man meditates with his arms outstretched. Another man enters. He’s hairless and sports a thin gold chain. Another woman sits down and glistens next to you. She compliments your purple two-piece Speedo. You’re the last one in and the first one to leave. You feel like quite the loser.

The redwood sauna is across the hall and much less inviting because the happy man is in there with his orange monkey-style and it is sitting room only in there. No lips are moving. You pace the hall waiting for the courage to enter the Russian Room.

The Russian Room could be Fred Flinstone’s sauna. It looks like it is made of bedrock, but it is in fact made of cement and the temperatures can scorch your lungs, reaching 250F degrees depending on the biorhythms of the furnace. Faucets drip ice cold water into buckets and are meant to be poured over the visitors, shivtzka. Your nose hairs start to sizzle and you wonder if you will end up looking like a wilted Peking Duck if you stay in there any longer. Some people take their towels, dunk them into the buckets and keep them on their heads. It’s dimly lit and smells slightly of rosewood. You feel lightheaded and entertain dungeon fantasies. Say someone was locked into the Russian Room. How long would it take to die?

Two girls talk in the corner. One has long cornrows and is creatively dressed in a wraparound and sports bra. It is too hot to talk or even eavesdrop. A gray haired man starts to chat with you about the whole experience and temporarily adopts you. “Peter gives a real good deep tissue massage,” he says. “You should do it if you’re up to it,” he says.

He’s a sweet harmless man, but you must leave before you pass out. You are no strangers to saunas. You know heat. You have been to India in the hot season, but shvitzing in a tandoori requires a lot of practice, although it does look very easy at first. There is relief outside the sauna. A pool, about the size of two king-size mattresses awaits the hot human dumplings. The water is ice cold and it’s hard to stay in there for longer than 5 seconds. The gray haired man shakes his head and laughs. A big boned lady in her fifties, draped in turquoise Mexican style jewelry is submerged from her neck down in the pool, her eyes closed and her arms outstretched to the Heavens. She stays in this position for fifteen minutes, and one begins to wonder if she has been frozen in place.

You pace the hall in a daze, trying to gather up the courage for a longer stay in the Russian Room. Peter, the masseuse, a husky bald headed Russian pops out of a small dark room and taps your shoulder blades. “Come to my office. I give you ma-ssage,” he says. The door to his “office” is ajar. A naked figure lays on a table face down, two white butt cheeks in repose. “Oh, thanks, maybe later, I’ll see.” After sweating for an hour, blushing is barely noticeable. “I see Peter tried to get you,” says my new friend. “Yeah.”

When you see yourself in the mirror, you can hardly get over how healthy and vibrant you look. Regular visits to this place could certainly help you fake a youthful healthy appearance and discontinue self-tanning products. In the locker room, a set of Indian twins negotiate their floppy mental hospital brown bathrobes. They are getting ready for their massage. You leave regretting that you did not have the courage to try the Platze Oak Leak treatment, the Dead Sea Salt Scrub, or the Black Mud Treatment. Maybe you’ll bring a friend along for moral support and you’ll be braver. After all, they do take credit cards now. You pay your $20 admittance, pick up your so-called valuables, and burst out of the building in search of a deli selling gourmet bottled water.

Click here for more info about the 10th Street Baths

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