I shuffled on the wet and slippery tiled floor, ready to accept my fate. I met my captor, a nameless Russian. His eyes shone red from the exposure to the constant billowing steam in this Soviet-era basement. There were no windows, no visibility and no escape. ‘You lie. Here.’ came the order. I lay face down on a stone bench, pockmarked from over a century of use. A towel was placed over my head. I heard the bucket dip in the water. My torture was to begin.
Burly Russians, wise all-knowing locals and rooms full of freshly steamed flesh. A trip to the Russian & Turkish baths in New York City’s East Village is not for the faint of heart. What promised to be a relaxing steam in the heart of Manhattan quickly turned into an anxious wait for the inevitable branch-wacking torture of a Russian Platza massage.
We had been enjoying the good life offered by the endless bars and restaurants of New York City. But it was beginning to take its toll. After another late night of overindulgence, it was time to begin a decent and dedicated detox. Our resident host, a good friend and now tour guide, Deirdre recommended a journey to the bathhouse. Being New York City, this was only two short blocks away.
The Russian & Turkish Baths in East Village has been in operation since 1892. It was originally designed to serve the influx of immigrants who had no hot running water. Gangsters took over during the mafia heyday of the 1920’s where secrecy was secured through the use of deaf masseuses! It’s one of few remaining old-school bathhouses in New York City, the majority were closed during the 1980’s AIDS epidemic. Known traditionally as a shvitz, it is a traditional steam bath of Yiddish origins practised mainly by Eastern European Jews.
Today, it is a tale of two owners. You have David, who has embraced modern technology, law and order and Groupon vouchers (yes they still exist!). And you have Boris, who has more of an anarchist approach and arguably a more traditional following. Patrons must choose their allegiances as access to the baths is split by weeks as part of a unique co-ownership agreement. Turn up with a Groupon voucher on a Boris week and you’ll be politely refused entry. Stroll in naked during a coed David week and you’ll be quickly asked to leave!
We attended on a ‘David’ week and it’s hard to imagine a more unlawful Boris week. Our valuables were taken at the door, not for their security but to ensure we didn’t depart without paying. Lockers, robes and shorts were provided and the locker key was attached to our wrists. A haphazard wall of lockers separates the men’s from the women’s change room, only a recent addition. Just two signs gave any instructions as to what to do. ‘Pants must be worn on co-ed days’ and ‘No razors allowed in the sauna’. I just hoped both signs weren’t created after a single incident!
We descended the ominous staircase to the tiled basement. Sensing we were lambs to the slaughter, a wizard-like man welcomed us. Despite being a fellow patron, he took to explaining the facility while combing his metre long white beard and an equally long ponytail. He explained there were 4 steam rooms of varying intensity plus the Russian Room. A super-hot sauna where your hair can quickly burn from in the 200°F (93°C) temperature. There was also a plunge pool to cool off when things got too intense.
It was probably a mistake, but we began with the Russian Room. Wrapping our heads in a soaked towel we stepped into the darkened chamber behind a thick cedar door. Two burly masseurs in shorts were dousing themselves in buckets of water before returning to the soapy, lifeless bodies of their customers. Breathing too deeply scorched the throat and very quickly we too poured buckets of water over our heads to subdue the intense heat. Two minutes later we were in the plunge pool.
The traditional Russian Platza massage is administered in the Russian Room. Branches of Platza Oak Leaves are dunked in an olive oil soap. The willing subject is solidly beat with these branches. Together with the heat, this is supposed to open the pores, remove toxins and also dead skin. It is known as a ‘Jewish acupuncture’. While the outcome of the treatment sounded exactly what the doctor ordered, spending more than two minutes in the Russian room would have me ordering a doctor instead.
“The Russian Room is a super-hot sauna where your hair can quickly burn”.
The two masseurs on duty were tricky to pin down. It was difficult to know what to ask for, how to schedule it in and how much it cost. Given it was a David shift they expect Groupon newbies like us to be floundering around. We were soon told it would be 30 minutes, they just needed to wait for the room to heat up a little more… Gulp.
“How long does it last?” I asked, my heart rate already increasing.
“10-15 minutes” he replied. The 5-minute variance seemed the difference between life and death. Maybe we could just go to a juice bar for our detox?
We sampled the steam and sauna rooms in between cooling dips in the plunge pool, steering clear of the Russian room until it was time. It was an afternoon midweek, patrons ranged from pot-bellied older men, tattooed hipsters, businessmen, couples and tourists. Soon enough the Russian room opened, two recently exfoliated gents fell into the plunge pool and we knew it was time. With only two masseurs on duty, chivalry paid dividends as I sent Erin and Deirdre in first. Although this only prolonged the anxiety.
The girls came out rosy red but alive. I now entered the fray. The intensity of the heat hit me immediately as I lay on the raised stone bed near to the roof. I felt like I was getting instantly sunburnt. A bucket of water was thrown over me just in time to cool things down. My head now covered in a towel, I can only now describe by feel. Soaked branches were thrashed up my back and down my legs. In between, more bucket drenchings continued to wash away the soap, skin and the excesses of city life. Fists were pushed into the middle of my back and caused just about every rib and vertebrae to crack simultaneously as the thrashing continued.
Just as I was beginning to suffocate in the heat beneath a soaked towel, it was all over. Ushered into the plunge pool I noticed a few Platza leaves float away from my freshly scrubbed skin. Beaten but alive. My torturer beamed a smile and stood me up and wrapped a towel around my head and then sent us all up to the rooftop deck to chill out. I immediately felt the stress subside and also the accumulated toxins of recent days released.
Lifestyle coaches, I hear, say to do something every day that scares you. I was thankful to tick that off the days to do list along with having a decent bath. I was transported to another continent, in another culture in another time. It was an experience that in some circles is still a very New York City thing to do. But, can we just like go to Central Park now?