We can all agree that bath salts are passé. (It turned out the “Miami zombie” had smoked weed before eating the face of his victim, though the “designer drug” did prompt a Pennsylvanian man to knife a clergyman in a monastery.) On the other hand, public baths have remained popular since their creation in the Bronze Age.
In New York, all that’s standing between you and the bathhouse is a subway ride and $35. You might shvitz—uh, sweat—with Dad at a Mikvah, or undertake the obligatory pre-bachelorette party shlep to the New York Spa Castle in Queens (or the Mermaid Spa in Coney Island, though it lacks a larger-than-life mushroom waterfall in its outdoor pool).
If you’ve come to expect a certain degree of lewdness from a roomful of semi-naked adults, the Times has evidence aplenty to back up your suspicions. This summer, the Jewish Orthodox community in Williamsburg was shaken by allegations that a disabled Hasidic boy was molested in a Brooklyn bathhouse.
In 1993, a neighbor leveled a lighter lawsuit at the Russian & Turkish Baths downtown. He alleged that the heat from the facility was so intense that, according to the New York Times, a tenant “fried an egg in his bathtub,” according to the New York Times. That East Village institution—founded in 1892—didn’t fare as well in the public eye in 2007, when a former employee and massage therapist claimed she was encouraged to offer services above and beyond those advertised to the largely male clientele.
Earlier this year, the rumor mill churned up a rather suspect “model turned high-profile drag queen,” who playfully accused John Travolta of “consensual touchy-feely moments” at a Russian and Turkish Bath in Miami.
Seedy enough for you? It’s really the fiction professionals who sussed out the classic bathhouse saga. The cult film Deep End (1970) depicts a shafted teenage Lothario—and bathhouse employee—launching a heavy light fixture illuminating an indoor swimming pool at the head of his dream girl, an older co-worker. The film ends as he swims in the bloodied water, clutching her naked, lifeless body. The partial lobotomy as an object lesson in desire, perhaps?
Or not. In 1937, W. H. Auden was said to have jokingly conspired—with Christopher Isherwood and other writers—to convince the burgeoning composer Benjamin Britten of his homosexuality by bringing him to a bathhouse. Britten’s diary after the excursion: “Completely sensuous, but very healthy. It is extraordinary to find one’s resistance to anything gradually weakening.” (The reputation of gay baths has since tempered, at least in New York, but the New St. Marks Baths was quite popular in the early 1980s.)
What hasn’t changed is the celebrity preference for these dingy-chic hotspots. P. Diddy (bodyguard in tow), Colin Farrell, and Mick Jagger have all stopped by the Russian & Turkish Baths (see lawsuits above) at 268 East 10th Street—where I recommend you begin your foray into the world of public bathing, questionable history aside. John Belushi was reported “to have spent an occasional Sunday morning taking in the steam there, followed by a bracing plunge into the ice-cold pool.” Roman Kaplan—owner of an equally cultish institution, the Russian Samovar—is a self-proclaimed regular.
With the $35 day pass, I promise you will see someone famous, or at least an amusingly high concentration of fit, tan, and aging Russian men. Why not give your body a facial? I suggest taking a moment to rub off all your dead skin after ten minutes in the Turkish Room. (To the horror of regular bath-goers, one can only assume.)
You could also venture to Brooklyn and hit the Russian Bath on Neck Road in Sheepshead Bay. Or there is the slightly classier Wall Street Bath and Spa. I will note only that The New York Spa Castle in Queens has nude rooms.
Not convinced the trip is worth it? Look at it this way: The prudent New Yorker ought to keep stock of locations in the city where one is allowed to stay for up to thirteen hours at a time. In a bikini.
For the flat fee, you walk into the Russian & Turkish Baths, dump your wallet in the “Soviet-style locker system,” and change in the locker room. It’s not really a clean space, per se—even the complimentary towels are rusty-purple and the black bathrobes a filmy black—so flip-flops and a hearty constitution are required. (Pre-plumbing, public baths were often referred to as “the people’s doctor.”)
Signs at the Russian & Turkish Baths warn that one “must wear shorts”—unattractive black knee-length items. I am here to tell you that everyone ignores these signs, and you should, too. What you shouldn’t pass up is the juice bar upstairs.
Massages and special treatments vary in price and loss of dignity. The Platza Oak Leaf treatment ($35) involves a young staffer—of the shirtless male variety, with a towel turbaned on his head—lathering you with olive oil and whipping you with an oak twig. Personally, I preferred standing in the Russian sauna and dump- ing buckets of ice-cold water over my head, but I can be kind of anti-social and cheap.
An old man sitting on the edge of the plunge pool advised that jumping in the ice-cold water would lock my pores. He distanced himself when I came up shrieking.
I report only that I made no friends, and my skin felt smooth for days.