Losing Your Mind at the Russian-Turkish Baths



E 10th St & 1st Ave, NY, NY 10009

Neighborhood: East Village

I’ve been living half a block away from the Russian-Turkish Baths on 268 East 10th St for two years, and until the other day I’d never been inside. The sidewalk thereabouts smells faintly of eucalyptus, like parts of San Francisco, but not because of the trees (which are mainly gingko and ailanthus). Eucalyptus and lavender are infused in one of the underground bath’s Turkish steam rooms, and seep into the street through cracks in the ancient brick and cement walls. For about 13 steps it replaces the smells of stale coffee, melting garbage, and car exhaust that go with living on E 10th.

It turns out the lobby of the RTB resembles a pizza place, with signed headshots of popular 80’s stars, artificial wood-grained walls, and a ceiling-mounted TV playing premiere league soccer. Sleeveless, red-armed Russian-looking men move here and there with fresh towels and what look like oak leaf pom-poms—the instruments, when soaked in olive oil soap, of the traditional platza massage. The board behind the front desk lists the Bath’s service fees, including one day admission for $30, a 45 minute Thai or sports massages for $75, and a Dead Sea salt scrub for $45.

“It’s worth it,” said a tall wet man beside me, in plastic slippers and a thin cotton robe, when he saw me hesitating to hand over the $30, which seemed outrageous. “It’s like a workout, but without having to do shit. It’ll clear your head.” I paid the $30 and he nodded proudly.

My impression of bathhouses in general had been biased by the mythology of San Francisco’s swinging gay bathhouses of the 1980’s and ‘90’s. The word “bathhouse” gives me an image of Phil Collins as Eddie Papasano, in Hawaiian shirt and white pants, flamboyantly protesting the closure of his all-male bathhouse in The Band Played On, the ‘93 film about the discovery of the AIDS epidemic. The first person I saw on exiting the locker room, however, in my own plastic slippers and robe, was a stunning barefoot girl in a tiny hibiscus print bikini, leaving watery footprints on the tile floor. She immediately approached me and asked if I’d like a private massage. Shocked by her aggression, and wary of the price, I said “No, thanks.” In response she squinted at me in a way that conveyed, to me, that I must be gay not to want her massage. Then she turned and pushed open the small swinging wooden doors of the women’s locker room, as if entering a saloon.

I’d invited a girl to come with me, but she declined, using the odd excuse that she didn’t want me to see her in a bathing suit, even though I’ve seen her naked several times. “It’s just different,” she said. “You don’t understand.” To persuade her, I showed her an excerpt from the Bath’s website. “No one seems self-conscious,” it reads, “lounging or walking in almost naked bliss, whether their body resembles Jackie Gleason or an Olympic Russian Gymnast.” But she refused. So I’d asked my friend Paul, a freelance carpenter who owns a $300 membership, good for 15 admissions, and who goes to the baths bi-monthly “to calm down.” He was waiting for me down below, sitting in what looked like the appropriate bath posture: shirtless, hunched, elbows on knees, staring at the floor—like someone sitting on a stoop at 4:00 am, waiting for a wave of nausea to pass. This observation, mixed with the vague Romanness of the room—the expanse of white tiles, gurgling faucets, men in robes—cued the word “vomitorium” in my mind, though I didn’t really know what a vomitorium was.

We went into the Russian Sauna first, where an oven containing 20,000 pounds of baked rocks gives off heat upwards of 180ºF. Men and women were sitting on tiered redwood benches, in the same hunched position, sweating heavily. A muscular man with a doo-rag was flopping bundles of soapy leaves, like mops at a car wash, onto the back of a woman lying face down on the boards. Periodically he dumped a bucket of cold water on her and himself.

I wear a beard, and within minutes it was almost too hot to touch. Paul suggested I dump some cold water over my head, which I did. The water was freezing. I gasped for breath, scared I might pass out. The man with the leaves looked at me and laughed.

The next two hours passed in a blur.

You go into the Russian-Turkish Baths expecting to clear your head—or even, as the website suggests, “to get in touch with your real self”—but once there you stop thinking clearly at all. Rather you’re focused on not passing out, becoming dehydrated, freezing to death in the ice bath, or accidentally agreeing to a $75 Swedish massage from one of the cunning male masseuses, who understand the vulnerability induced by extreme changes in temperature. Your head is not cleared, but replaced with simple survivalist thoughts like “I can’t breathe” and “My skin is burning.” Which is nevertheless effective. The usual loop of grievances, regrets, and obligations shuts down to focus on getting out of the Russian-Turkish Baths alive. Only distracted small talk is possible.

For instance, while in the Turkish steam room (the one with eucalyptus), I told Paul about the girl I’d met in the lobby.

“She’s a hooker,” he replied. “She’s here all the time. I think she has some arrangement worked out with the owners.”

“Huh,” I said, only dimly registering what he was saying.

Suddenly a pale girl beside us, in Tevas and a black one-piece Speedo, mentioned she was thinking about getting a platza, but wasn’t sure.

“You should get one,” Paul said.

“They call it the Jewish acupuncture,” she said excitedly.

“Yeah,” Paul said, ending the conversation.

Later, after we’d slipped into the ice bath, I saw the girl walk out of the Russian sauna, completely spaced out, the platza guy leading her by the hand. I gave her the thumbs up, as if to say, “Nice. You did it.” But she stared at me uncomprehendingly, even a little repulsed.

Confused, I looked at Paul.

“That’s not the same girl,” he said flatly, his eyes a little glazed.

And he was right. No Tevas.

The platza guy helped this different girl to sit down—after what must have been a punishing 20-minute massage—just as two hairy old Bath veterans pulled up.

“You’re steaming baby, you’re steaming!” one of them said in a Brooklyn accent. She was indeed steaming, as if her bathing suit had caught fire and been extinguished by a bucket of cold water; but he’d meant it flirtatiously. The girl slowly turned her head away. I felt a simple-minded pity for her—hounded by me and this guy in her defenseless post-platza condition—and whispered “Sorry,” but only loud enough for me to hear.

Eventually we ended up on the sun deck, though it was an overcast day, threatening rain. Cushioned wooden cots were available to lie on and rest. The one person resting, a portly middle-aged man with a thick layer of gray hair on his chest, was doing so with his genitals exposed to the air. A pink hand towel beside his thigh had either slipped or been intentionally displaced. His wrap-around sunglasses made it impossible to tell whether he was asleep or awake. Ominous private massage rooms lined the south side of the deck.

Paul and I sat facing away from the man, drinking bottles of Zhiguliovskoye beer, recovering from the intensity of the basement. I wasn’t scared anymore, my thoughts of survival having been replaced by nothing at all. It was difficult to speak, so I listened to Paul tell me about the fire that had recently blackened part of his and his wife’s Avenue A apartment. He’d mentioned this to me earlier in the week, but I’d already forgotten. The firemen had apparently shown little regard for their belongings, recklessly breaking and squashing stuff untouched by the flames. In my bath-induced silence, I was conscious of making excellent eye contact with him, which is usually difficult for me. Paul seemed to acknowledge this small intimacy, and his voice became slightly more trusting and convivial in response. “Half of our stuff was burnt to a crisp!” he said. “Can you believe that?”

I shook my head no. And suddenly I was flooded with a kind of primitive empathy for him and his wife—their lives complicated by fire. When he finished, I silently put my hand on his forearm in solace. He gave me a warm, resigned smile. Then we stood up to leave.

“I’m being a good friend,” I thought. “Maybe this is the real me.”

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§ 3 Responses to “Losing Your Mind at the Russian-Turkish Baths”

  • Max says:

    I can’t believe you had such a terrible experience at the Russian & Turkish baths! I have been half a dozen times, and always leave feeling relaxed, detoxified, and refreshed. I find the place to be clean, well kept, and the clientele very friendly.

  • engrim says:

    But being on the verge of death is refreshing. I mean it. It takes you to the edge, then you feel better.

  • Carlos Ensenat says:

    Exelent article, I was browsing for Turkish baths as I grew up going every Sunday, my uncle;a Spaniard leaving in Mexico City would take me along every week,following with a heardy breakfast consisting of: fresh orange juice, large prawns and oister cocktail and a variety of fish soup to conclude the rejuvenation.
    After that we would go to a jai-alai,a soccer game, baseball or a bull fight…always something different, so much to do in Mexico City. I’m trying to bring back those great memories.

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