One recent Tuesday afternoon, I found myself sitting in the hottest room in the house while sweating out a hangover from the night before (a Monday night is every self-respecting comedian’s weekend), surrounded by an eclectic group of bathers: a Wall Street businessman, a lady in her seventies from the Upper West Side, two tattooed hipsters and six Hasidic Jewish guys. But what the hell does it all matter – when you’re half naked, nobody cares if you’re a banker or a baker. The one thing we all have in common is sweaty flesh, wet hair and a love for the heat.
It’s a ritual that’s been enjoyed throughout the years at the Tenth Street Baths – as they’re affectionately known – by such folk as Timothy Leary, Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy, Jr. These days, the likes of Colin Farrell, Renee Zellweger and James Franco swing by now and then to open up their pores and enjoy the air of serenity the baths can sometimes bring. But this isn’t some upmarket boutique spa. It’s a working-class schvitz – one hundred and twenty years old – that began its life in the days when people from the neighbourhood tenements came to scrub themselves clean, in an age when hot running water at home was non-existent and a private bathroom at home was a rare and beautiful thing. This is the real deal: it’s old-school New York, a place where the ambience can go from the blissful quiet of solitary contemplation to the noise of a ton of people who fill the steamy air with rich expletives yelled in accents that come all the way from Bay Ridge right up to the Bronx. It’s a place where Mafioso's have mingled alongside movie stars, and where cops, cab drivers and lawyers have jostled for space amidst the rising temperatures.
Two astute Russians named Boris and David have been the co-owners of the Baths since the 1980’s following the death of the last owner – Big Al Modlinz, said to have met his end while giving platza (a Russian ritual that involves being beaten with red hot oak leaves, said to improve circulation and giving a sedative after-effect). But Boris and David no longer do business together. A sign greets you in the lobby area stating “Cards for Boris and David weeks must be purchased separately.” They’ve split the schvitz down the middle, operating it on alternate weeks. So, if you buy a pass from Boris (a punch-hole, rubber-stamped card), you can only use it during Boris’s week. If you buy a pass during David’s week (a smart swipe card with magnetic strip), you can only use it during David’s week. It’s astonishing that any business can operate this way yet somehow – thankfully – it does.
While the act of sweating out half your brains in a place like this should never be an endurance test it is, however, all about extremities. Firstly, you let your body get as cold as possible by spending as much time as you can handle in the ice-cold plunge pool. It’s straight from there into the Russian Room, a dark, cave-like space, where tens of thousands of rocks are heated in a stone oven overnight to release the heat throughout the day which, if you’re lucky, hits two hundred degrees. Yes, there’s a ferocity to it – but there’s also a sense of timelessness to it all. You get your body heated up, then you dunk yourself right into the ice-cold water again. Then repeat. And then when you’re ready, take a rest in a robe, some slippers and bury yourself in all the towels you need. Or you can go take it easy in one of the gentler steam rooms or in the dry sauna.
The health benefits of this cycle of repetition are well documented. It improves blood circulation, helps to produce white cells – thus creating a stronger immune system – and de-stresses (and detoxifies) the body and the mind. It also improves the flow of blood to
the skin, aiding the growth of new skin while removing all the dead cells that have built up previously. So, it keeps you looking – and feeling – fresh.
Up on the roof deck that faces away from the street (the perfect place to cool down), life can sometimes be so still that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that you’re actually in downtown Manhattan. It’s an urban paradise, you see – be it in blazing sunshine or in heavy snowfall. It’s also one of the few places left where the last thing you want to do is stare at a screen. No phone. No email. Just bliss.
Leaving the baths behind you at sunset and stepping out onto the street again, you feel somehow a little lighter in every sense. Squeaky clean and just a little more alive. It’s a tiny pocket of New York City and one that should have died out many years ago, though thanks to the Russians, it hasn’t. As they themselves will gladly tell you: “the Russian Bath mends everything”.
With thanks to Matt Roper for the text and imagery.
Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush goes back to 2011 when he appeared before the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings - a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.
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