The winter of 2003 is going to go down in my personal history as being the coldest, iciest, most miserable 4 months of my life. If you are on the East Coast and reading this, I don’t need to explain it to you. With temperatures consistently in the low 20’s and below, the city that I live in has been paralyzed. Combined with our nearly constant terror threats, apocalyptic rumors, and general mass hysteria, it’s been a hell of a year so far. I’d love nothing more than to escape the freeze and the fear. But an extended vacation to the tropics isn’t in the cards, and I can’t afford to visit the lavish and swank spas that dot our urban landscape with the kind of frequency I’m looking for. What’s a girl to do?
I was surfing the Internet for a solution one day when lo and behold, I clicked on the website for the 10th Street Baths– an authentic Russian bathhouse, right here in Manhattan! Now I know what you are thinking, and I can assure you that the thought crossed my mind too. A mental picture appeared of a room full of naked gay men, something out of the West Village’s seedy underbelly, circa 1977. A steamy gay porn of sorts, or at least some kind of kinky swingers club. But I was comforted as I read through the website. The bathhouse has been in existence since the 1890’s. It’s Russian, extremely Russian, and the Russians are known for their proclivity towards and special love for saunas and icy cold plunge pools. It’s supposed to cure almost all of what ails you. The drill goes like this: you practically sweat your skin off in a Russian stone sauna, with periodic buckets full of ice-cold water dumped over your head. When you can’t take any more, you leave the sauna and jump into the arctic plunge pool. When your heart starts beating again, you drag your withered body back into one of the 4 different saunas and steam rooms for more ‘schvitzing’. If you so desire, they’ll beat you with a broom-like instrument made of olive oil soap-soaked oak leaves for a “Platza” treatment; a ‘hurts so good’ whipping that promises to pull the toxins from your winter-weary pores. Massages by “strong Russian man or woman” are also available, as are Dead Sea salt scrubs and mud masks. All of this, for a $22 entrance fee, plus extra for the whippings or massages. Come when you like, stay until they close. You can schvitz to your heart’s content. Certain hours of the week are reserved for single sex usage (see: you can shvitz in the buff). The rest of the time is co-ed (bathing suits required).
I recruited my friend Rob, and on a shivery Friday evening in February, we headed down to 10th Street. The Russian & Turkish Bathhouse was immediately different from any spa I’ve ever set foot in. It’s kind of dirty, for one. There are large, hairy men in towels standing around speaking in various Eastern European languages. There is soccer on the TV and people are eating borscht in a small caf