We were soaking - I in a bikini, he in shorts and a felt hat with a red star on it, my friend in garments only vaguely resembling swimwear – in a luke-warm Jacuzzi overflowing with bubbles. A tall, very mustached man came by in intervals to release a few pumps from an unmarked spray bottle onto us. The room itself was all laid out in blue tiles, except one wall, which is crowned by a salmon pink cap of décor, the top quarter festooned with faux balconies, Corinthian columns and plaster statues; Apollo holding a bouquet of dried flowers, one armless beauty, another, demurely holding up a snatch of cloth in front of her breasts. The TVs, one in each corner, blasted an oversaturated, bombastic variety show of dance and song routines with costumes, snow globe winter effects, theatrical make-up, and leg-flinging choreography.
In a way, Vital was right; there is nothing interesting about the banya, or public bath. People have been getting clean in them since at least Ancient Roman times. Of course, there are the myriad of less than spotless stereotypes about the Turkish bath, implying an un-cleanliness rather than a cleanliness, of den-based, concupiscent pleasures made all the more salacious when performed in dark, steamy, public rooms. When I was attending high school in Israel, for instance, the mention of the relatively more tangible Turkish bath brought on a snickering amongst the gaggle of adolescent boys that was undeniably reminiscent of dorm-room conquests and not of, for example, hoards of Russian men bathing together in mustached man-unity. But in Philly, until 1950, The Public Baths Association of Philadelphia maintained six inexpensive baths for the “self-respecting poor” to cleanse. In New York, one can still see defunct public bathhouse buildings in the middle of major streets and hidden behind wrought iron fences. And yet here, despite our generic past of communal washing, we are now shy and private and Puritan and rich, so public bathing is a little uncommon, unnecessary, and, let’s admit, interesting.
My aunt, who invited me, goes religiously on Tuesdays, when there is a discount to enter - $20 all day for use of all facilities including Turkish bath, Russian bath, pool, Jacuzzis, steam room, Swiss showers, ice pool, and tanning services . She’s a woman that hustles hard, a natural caretaker whose efforts have not been reciprocated enough by her loved ones, who cackles when retelling steamy nostalgia about the saunas she frequented while working on the Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM) in Siberia.
The first time I went with her, it was empty. We spent 7 hours in a euphoric routine of steaming, cooling and relentless relaxation. We’d go into the Turkish bath, more humid than the dry heat Russian bath, and lie down on the top tier, towels on our heads. Sweat appeared in the first 30 seconds, small bubbles sitting on top of each pore like paper candy buttons, as if the body was being squeezed to delicately ooze its liquids. Then we’d stand, side by side, under shower heads that looked like street lamps, and pull on a chain that released a flood of cold water. In matching white robes, thread bare on the sleeves, we’d schlep back to our table, onto white plastic chairs with backs carved into roses and we would sit, drinking tea. That time, the TVs were blasting a program about Russian monastery life; a pretty girl in a black wimple recounted nun fights, a man in robes performed a ceremony where he repeatedly let “slip” a pair of scissors onto another man’s robes, and a handsome priest with a salt and pepper beard conveyed to the viewers how Forrest Gump is the ultimate servant, for “he was told to run, and so he ran.” Russian Orthodox choral music echoed thinly in the main pool room. We sat for hours, red-faced and calm, drinking tea and sweating it back out.
This time, I brought two American friends, similarly inexperienced in the ways of the glorious public bath. We strolled in West-Philly dirty, the man at the desk smirked at us knowingly before handing us our locks, and we proceeded to don the provided, worn, white robes and plastic slippers. And this time, it was full; ladies in ankle-length leather coats kept strolling poolside towards the changing rooms, and tables filled up with thermoses and bottles. One had to sweat parked on a bench between a platinum blond bombshell and a gold-toothed, rounded Aunty-type, across from the strangely intimidating resident banya experts, sitting in a unified buffalo stance with heads topped by their starred, felt hats.
My aunt was busy beautifying and so we ventured, clueless bathers into the wooded infernos of cleanliness, veniks in hand. A venik is, essentially, a broom; a dry bundle of, in this case, either maple of birch branches. These are soaked in hot water until they lose their brittleness and then used to whack the body, providing a termagant but aromatic massage that can, supposedly, not only open up your lungs, but also cleanse your skin, up your metabolism, cure joint and muscle aches, heart aches, hangovers, etc. Use of the venik seems to be a point of pride among the regulars, who smack each other around in practiced rhythm redolent of rich forests and hippie S&M.
We not only got called out on our weak-wristed walloping, but had a group of volunteers who seemed more than willing to perform the cleansing for us. They took to it so enthusiastically that they didn't even hear our whimpers for mercy, burning up under the too hot breath of the branches and the pleasant thump when they hit. After hitting some, ice is dumped and rubbed all over the body, and then the treatment resumes on the other side. When we finally stumbled out of the sauna in a cloud of steam, red-faced and with leaves sticking to our sweaty bodies and tucked into our bathing suits, we must've looked like we had just narrowly escaped an attack by a tree, near a volcano.
And again, between rounds of aggressive sweating and red-faced relaxation in the saunas, we sat. We sat with my aunt and drank tea. And when, after about five hours of this, my non-English speaking aunt gleaned from our conversation that maybe it was time to go, she laughed at us and told us, quite simply, that it wasn't time, yet.
And here, finally, is what I found interesting. Where the public bath was a matter of scrubbing oneself clean, it has vanished. In the U.S. practically every home is equipped with private facilities for the upkeep of hygiene and water is subsidized by the government, telling us, in effect, that we should use plenty of it to make sure we keep that hygiene up. Public bathing is limited to the beaches of various bodies of water, well chlorinated pools, and people’s parents’ Jacuzzis. On the other hand, where public bathing served a role larger than hygiene, it persists. In New York, for example, public bath houses were a popular meeting place for gay men into the mid ‘80s, when the NY Supreme Court ruled it legitimate to close one such establishment (thereby setting a precedent) under the pretext of public safety, citing the rising numbers of AIDS cases. Elsewhere, notably Mexico City, such massage parlors and bath houses carry on as before. In the US, there is no widespread tradition of the public bath except in the context of cleaning, and when cleaning became affordable, bathing became private and public baths extinct. Not so for the Russians, Japanese, Finnish, etc, who have a long history of using the bath not only to wash but also to socialize and conduct business. Those who have experienced the bath in its grander sense don’t seem to want to trade it in for a 5 minute shower in the mornings. And Temazcalteci (Aztec god of bathing and sweat baths) bless ‘em, because I fully support their ways.