I am, as it turns out, quite clean.

The past few months since I quit writing my blog, Is there no sin in it?, I’ve felt a little unmoored. I keep telling myself it’s a good thing, not blogging, not sharing every thought I have with a thousand strangers a day. I had started to feel like I couldn’t have an experience without narrating it to myself, trying to see if it would make a good story or if I could develop a theory out of it. I forgot which of my friends read my blog or not, and just as I’d launch into some story over coffee, I’d see her eyes glaze over. “I read this on your blog, AWB. Are you just using old material on me?” I am a cheap friend!

So it’s probably best that I don’t, at least not as a habit. But tonight at the Russian and Turkish Baths with some of TGW’s own, Bryan said, “I wish you still blogged so you’d blog about this.” He was pretty schvitzed out afterwards, so I volunteered for duty.

I’d read his post back in February about the joys of paying to sweat, and ever since then I’d been bringing it up to friends in a sidelong, wanna-do-drugs-with-me tone, hoping someone would say, “Oh, yes! I also have a prurient fascination with the excretion powers of my body’s largest organ! I can’t wait to put on unflattering baggy shorts with you and get ogled by hairy fat old people in a visibly semi-filthy environment!” Even with friends I didn’t mention it to, I’d hold it against them in my heart. She’d never go to the Russian Baths with me. I’ve got to get new friends!

Dave B confessed on Friday night that he was just that sort of friend. “Sure, we go all the time. It’s great, if you’re fairly brave.” I pleaded, briefly, and was invited along. I arrived shortly before everyone else, and noticed that everyone who walked by was talking about it.

“I hear they beat you, naked, with sticks.”

“I hear that all the girls are topless and guys just stare all they want.”

“I hear it’s not even clean.”

“I’d never do it. I’ve thought about it, and I walk past it every day, but I’m just not that kind of person.”

Relevant Discoveries I Made:

1. They do beat you with sticks, but you have to pay extra. When we came into the 200-degree Russian Room, there was a nice-looking full-bodied woman lying next to the oven in bikini bottoms, getting the crap beat out of her with olive-oil-soap-drenched oak branches. Soap was flying everywhere, on everyone nearby. It looked great. I wanted to be her. But then! She flipped over and was beaten on her (generous) breasts! Repeatedly! I was concerned!

This is getting kinky, I thought. It’s the sort of treatment one could expect to require a safeword. But at 200 degrees, who’d think to complain? I admired her fortitude. She didn’t even flinch. It is possible she was semi-unconscious at that point.

Then he sat her groggy naked body slowly up and washed her hair. This is when I started to feel uncomfortable. When was the last time you watched an adult wash another adult’s hair outside a barbershop? I still remember the thrill I got when John Edwards, at the 2004 DNC, mentioned a man brushing his disabled wife’s hair. I believe there was a similar scene in Secretary, and for good reason. Which brings us to:

2. There is, indeed, some toplessness, but what are you going to do about it? I am lucky, for a woman, that I don’t really have body-image issues. I tend to see extremely beautiful women the same way I see extremely handsome men—not as people to compare to myself, but as people to be furtively, curiously glanced at. I was mildly concerned that the Baths would be a “scene,” with everyone staring at each other salaciously. I was only partially wrong.

Everyone is absolutely staring at each other. There are big bodies, little bodies, tattooed bodies, sexy bodies, hairy bodies—they have in common that they are all very sweaty. But it’s not a salacious stare, or a disapproving one. It’s a “Look at you! Being you!” stare. It’s the one place I’ve ever been in New York where no one follows the code of the street, which is: If you don’t want to be creepy, you can still glance right at someone just as they’re passing you. But here, I looked and was looked upon, and no violence was committed. It’s not like anyone could be aroused when switching back and forth between 200 degrees and the 45-degree pool. Your head’s not in the game anyway, so stare away. (All the women I saw, other than the oak-leaf ministratee, were at least wearing bikini tops.)

3. I don’t care so much about cleanliness, I guess. As I happily slipped into a pair of slippers abandoned moments before by some random bather, I realized:

Sanitary environments kind of freak me out!

I used to work at a spa in Soho, the kind movie stars go to. Everything had to be spotless at all times. Drips of water in the locker room were considered to be bearing the potential for disease. They went through towels like tissues, and through tissues like toilet paper, and toilet paper like you don’t even want to know. I’ve never had that gut-level dread of a spot of someone’s lip gloss on a bathroom counter, but working there taught me to fake that I did. One of my jobs was to check every room for spotlessness every 15 minutes.

The locker room! Is horrifying! There’s a Q-Tip, just, like, sitting there! On the counter! Who knows if it’s been used!?, I’d report.

Yeah, I really don’t care. Towels on the floor? Super. Sitting in someone else’s sweat? Eh. Jumping into a pool swirling with other people’s dead skin and used oak leaves? That’s the spirit of humankind right there. Dave and Bryan and I all reached for a Q-Tip at the same time and just went for it, right there at the counter. Menschen, those guys.

4. I can’t get along with people who freak out about the above three things. While waiting for the subway back to Brooklyn, Dave and I tried to decide if the Baths would be a cool date activity or not. On the one hand, it would probably disturb your potential date. On the other hand, if it would, would we really want to date them?

What if a demand for public bathing was maybe a completely reasonable way of preventing bad relationships from taking root? Dave and I are both single, so maybe we shouldn’t be mentally ruling hypothetical people out these days, but getting older has made me pickier. I’d like to date someone who doesn’t mind getting sweaty. Hyperfastidiousness about germ-potential would make me paranoid. A cyclical desire to detox is kind of hot, and might mean he has a lifestyle worthy of regular detoxing. A relative comfort with human bodies, most of all, says volumes.

Getting fully schvitzed out was a very good thing for me today.

46 responses to “I am, as it turns out, quite clean.”

  1. Rachel says:

    Surely there’s some middle ground between going all HAZMAT over a Q-Tip and sitting in someone else’s dirty, flora-infested water? I’d hazard a guess that when it comes to hygiene, most of us fall somewhere inbetween Russian baths and spa-as-operating-theatre. I can’t even use my best friend’s toothbrush. Kudos for you guys, though–New Yorkers without the neuroses.

    Oh, and this post is fantastic. (Sorry, Dave.)

  2. […] 17th, 2007 · No Comments I’ve now entered the guestblogging phase of blog-denial. My entry on the Russian and Turkish Baths is up at The Great Whatsit, if you […]

  3. mcmc says:

    Is it the one on 13th street? I went there! It used to be gender-segregated, and laydeez could only go on laydeez night. The pool is spring-fed, so not like a stagnant bathtub or anything. Plus you could lie around and drink vodka. What a great place!

  4. A White Bear says:

    Thanks, Rachel! And yeah, I’m pretty sure most spa environments are somewhere in between the two. I think working at the super-clean spa made me paranoid because everyone was always freaking out about bodily fluids, even the massage therapists, and it made me feel like it wasn’t a comfortable environment to go and do bodily things in.

    Mcmc, we went to the one on 10th between 1st and A. They do have men-only and women-only times on certain days, but, from what I gather, the people who go during those times do so in order to sit around completely in the nude, which tends not to be the case during the more social co-ed times. I’m thinking all-nude ladies’ day will take a bit more self-hypnosis for me.

  5. I don't pay says:

    Should it become a habit you don’t want to go without, be advised that we have Russian-and-Turkish baths in Chicago. I’ve never been, but I have friends who go and have invited me. The baths are described in Bellow’s Humbolt’s Gift.

  6. Jackmormon says:

    Topless? That’s nothing. At the spas in Germany, everybody’s just plain naked. There were a couple of very bashful American GIs the afternoon I was there: they carefully kept their eyes on the ground—so adorable! I’ll have to check out the Russian baths, though, as I’ve never been beaten by a professional.

  7. Bryan says:

    AWB, this was so worth asking you to post! Not just the sleeping in part (well, I was still up by 6 anyway), but the pleasure of getting your comments on the scene. If your blogging habit won’t let you go easy, just drop me a line. You can guest blog for me anytime!

    That q-tip line was my favorite. Almost as fun as the original experience.

  8. mcmc says:

    Oh, that’s right, it was 10th street–it’s been a long time. There’s a Russian bath here in Chelsea I keep meaning to check out–I’m told some scenes for The Sopranos were shot there. But I can’t find anyone to go with–it’s men-only most of the time, women-only on Monday nights.

  9. Dave says:

    My roommate goes to some baths in South Brooklyn that are supposedly even more Russian than the 10th Street ones — more Soviet, actually, from what I gather. At 10th Street they only serve beer, not vodka, which is probably just as well.

  10. Tim Wager says:

    Welcome, AWB!

    My only experience with this sort of public schvitzing, outside of the occasional visit to saunas in gyms, was in Budapest at one of the largest and best-known baths. Everything was very much segregated along gender lines, with separate baths and schvitzing rooms for men and women. To cover oneself, everyone was given an apron — little ones for men, sort of like a loin cloth with a drawstring, and long ones for women, like a kitchen apron. I found it very interesting that the men adhered to a tacit no-nudity policy. Younger Hungarian guys were all in speedos, tourists in the aprons or board shorts, and older Hungarians in the aprons. According to my female traveling companion, practically all the women dispensed with the aprons completely, traipsing around and lounging entirely nude.

  11. rach — i’ve been thinking about your Q in #1 and my response is that part of the thrill of a scene like this is the germ threat among strangers — in a relatively safe setting. anonymous sweat exchange. not quite the full-blown larry craig airport treatment, but mildly thrilling nonetheless. and at 200 degrees, you have to hope a lot of minor things would be killed off. or it least it helps to imagine such is the case. can the medical professionals weigh in?

    i keep thinking about bringing in my own suit or flip flops but somehow always opt for the communistic one-size-fits-all shorts they hand out. when you see people who put too much into their clothing choices for the baths it kind of ruins the leveling aspect of the experience.

  12. trixie says:

    #11: i think that 200 degrees would be alot more likely promote festering rather than sterilization.

  13. Dave says:

    It’s good for you because it exposes you to new germs! A workout for your immune system!

  14. 12. darn!

    but tell me this — do you think it’s much more germy than a regular old gym, where stranger sweat is also routinely exchanged?

    also, i have noticed that the cold plunge pool has its fair share of chlorine …

    somehow, too, i think this topic — esp as AWB summed it up in her penultimate sentence — bears on the long-standing theory Bacon and i have defended regarding sqeamishness about food and sex: those who are picky about the former are probably also finicky about the latter.

  15. trixie says:

    actually it’s probably slightly germier, because of the increased temperature.
    but really, who cares unless you are immume compromised or have open sores through which to absorb the bacteria.
    i have to admit though, in this age of bacteria being more and more aggressive and antibiotic resistant, even i get slightly skeeved out at the thought of sitting in a pool of drippings from someone else’s perineum. or wherever.

  16. Rachel says:

    Thanks, Trixie. I have to go douse myself in bleach now.

    #14, while the food/sex thing definitely makes sense, I’m not sure the analogy extends to public bacteria. I’ll eat uni, but I won’t walk barefoot in the locker room. Contradictory? Not at all.

    Maybe it’s just the steam that skeeves me out. Look for me in the sauna.

  17. brooke says:

    If you’re into the schvitz, give Bikram Yoga a try. I go a couple of times a week, and I’m always amazed by the volume of sweat I generate. It’s remarkable. Buckets. Skeeved much?

  18. trixie says:

    brooke, i will never forget when we were at a bikram class together over the summer and you were sweating a big lake of salt water and then that person walked past you and almost wiped out sliding through it.
    har har

  19. brooke says:

    I know that was classic. Hey, happy birthday, btw ;)

  20. Tim Wager says:

    Is it Trixie’s birthday? It’s also Scotty’s!

    Happy Birthdays!

  21. brooke says:

    Yesterday was Trixie’s. Happy Birthday Scotty!!

  22. Dave says:

    Wow, so many September birthdays. Happy to all!

  23. Jen Mandel says:

    Wow – I’d like to try this Russian bath thing. Get all back to my roots an’ shit. But 200 degrees?? For how long? Isn’t that dangerous? There are Korean baths here in L.A. that are supposed to be great – I know L.T. has been.

  24. A White Bear says:

    Jen, you’re supposed to limit yourself to 30 minutes in the Russian Room, but most people cool off every five or so with a bucket of ice-cold water on the head. You’d think that would feel horrible, but it doesn’t. It’s quite delicious!

    And Bryan, I think this is probably true, this thing about food and sex. People who will eat adventurous foods served in a highly monitored environment are the same people who will have, e.g., kinky sex as long as there are a lot of rules (which I think is probably a fine way to be; I’m not judging). Some people are a little looser around the edges, while others may seek out harmful food-behaviors and dangerous sex.

    Then there are the people who eat the same bland old mass-produced thing every day. (shudder) What does it say that I best enjoy the elaborate things, time-consuming things I cook for myself? (sad, kinda)

  25. ruben mancillas says:

    I love the exotic (for me at least) verbs in this post. Anyone up for a breakdown of all the various tenses and forms of “schvitz” or “skeeve?”

  26. A White Bear says:

    Schvitzing is all-over sweating.

    Skeeve is more difficult. Somewhere between sleazy and sketchy, a skeevy person is a vaguely sexually threatening but also possibly criminal or filthy person, with neither quality dominating over the other.

    A skeeve then, is someone who is skeevy.
    To skeeve is to express vaguely skeevy behavior toward someone, usu. with “on.”

  27. A White Bear says:

    Oh, and “to be skeeved out,” then, is to feel that someone has skeeved on you, or, in trixie’s sense, that your personal sense of cleanliness and vaguely sexual integrity has been compromised or is in danger of being compromised.

  28. Trixie Honeycups says:

    i concur.

  29. Rachel says:

    parsing is hot.

  30. Kate The Great says:

    I agree with Rachel in the big numero uno, but only because I’m a Libra and I love balance. I have very little opinion in this, but I do have interest. This post makes me feel a little knowledgable on what Russian baths are, so if (hypothetically, now) some wacko friend tells me, “Hey come with me to this place called…” and I gather it’s a Russian bath, I know kind of what I’m getting into. And even if I didn’t, and some germ-infested, semi-nude place was in front of me, I would go.

    I wonder how I’d react, though. There’s a difference between what my attitude is (I’m all for the idea of nude people who don’t think of each other sexually but with a frank and natural manner) and what my social, ingrained instinct is. Even though I think the idea is cool, will I blush and duck anyway because I’ve been trained to think politely?

  31. Bryan says:

    31: at 200 degrees, no one has the wherewithal to think like that. even so, if someone were blushing, how would you know? everyone’s red-faced and sweating.

  32. Trixie Honeycups says:

    also, it’s one thing to *think* of another (possibly very hairy, very overweight) person in a frank and natural way, and perhaps another to bathe in their juices.
    not that i don’t enjoy the russian baths. because i do. perhaps for that very reason.

  33. A White Bear says:

    Bryan’s 31 is right. It’s so hot that you’re not really capable of being self-conscious about social behavior. It’s similar to how, if you get a bunch of uptight grad students to play a grueling softball double-header in 100-degree heat, suddenly all that weird grad-studenty self-absorption and hesitance drops away and everyone’s talking trash and patting each other on the rear. Sweat does weird things to people.

    It doesn’t, FWIW, IME, lead to actual sex. Sweating a priori makes sexual desire somewhat impossible. Sweating due to sex? Hot. Sex due to sweating? Highly unlikely. So I guess it might make a bad date activity.

  34. LT says:

    jen, the korean spa isn’t even close to 200 degrees (really? the russian spa is 200 degrees?), but one of the baths is about 115 degrees. the korean spa is only for women, but, for all youse guys imaginations, most of them are fully nude– in all colors shapes and sizes. quite beautiful and interesting…and,as AWB says, it’s “quite clean.”

    brooke, bikram yoga will kill you! i hate that pose where you, like, grab your foot with both hands and then extend it out in front of you…! not normal.

  35. Kate The Great says:

    Oh, well, if we’re only talking about hygeine…
    I’m okay with sharing chapstick and eating off each other’s plates and using the same fork and using someone else’s toothbrush. A household with eight people tends to be somewhat communal: half the time, my younger siblings didn’t know whose toothbrush was whose, so they just used whatever color toothbrush they liked that day.I had a friend take out the gum from her mouth and dare me to eat it; she was disgusted when I did without any real thought. I’m sure I’d be okay with sitting in someone else’s body juices, even when they’re not my relatives.

  36. WW says:

    I never thought I’d say this, but I sortta dig hanging out naked at the Korean Spas here in LA. You said it perfectly — tis a bunch of “Look at you! Being you!” going around — no leers, no jeers. It’s one of the few places in this size-6 city where no one is a size 6 — and if they are — you don’t care. Seeing your own body in relief of the other stages of being a woman — there are young women and older women alike — is awesome. Comforting. All inclusive.

  37. Ally says:

    Great post. I agree about the Korean spas being an oddly comforting experience in its lack of self-consciousness. That is, until you lie on a table in a communal room and get your epidermis scrubbed off every part of your body (and I mean EVERY part) by a middle-aged woman wearing only a black bra and briefs. That’s when it gets surreal, like you’re a tuna getting scaled or something. But then you get to lie down and take a nap on the heated bamboo floor and all is well again. And your skin feels so silky it’s all you can do not to invite everyone you know to touch it.

  38. J-Man says:

    Ok. So, you mean to tell me that people sit in 200 degree heat for 30 minutes?? How is that possible? Wouldn’t that cause brain damage after about 5 minutes? Can those in the medical field please weigh in on this further?
    Baffled in L.A.

  39. A White Bear says:

    A 20-pound turkey in a 325-degree oven takes about 7 hours to reach an internal temperature of 185 degrees. Live things like me have an incredible internal cooling system involving massive amounts of sweat, the flow of blood, and so forth. Additionally, most people pour a bucket of ice-cold water over their heads every five minutes or so. Evaporation is a beautiful thing!

  40. brooke says:

    Okay, I had to share the following: I was in yoga last night, stretching (and #34, I can’t do that pose), sweating like a stuck pig, naturally thinking about this post, hygiene, and human bodies in all their wonderful shapes and sizes, and I realized that there was something stuck between me teeth: a pubic hair, my friends. And it wasn’t mine. I spit it out and kept on schvitzing, despite my beskeeved condition. At least I was basting in my own sweat!

  41. Rachel says:

    How did it get there?

  42. was this a nude yoga class? if so, i’d suggest a little more space between the mats.

    i have to admit, as much as i favor nudity in general, when i’ve read in Time Out or some other place about places in the city that do nude yoga, I get pretty skeeved.

  43. brooke says:

    I’m not entirely sure how the hair got there, but I’m nearly certain it wasn’t there before class. And it wasn’t nude yoga. I saw a nude yoga class once, but I can’t imagine doing one unless I could pick my classmates.

  44. Jen says:

    eeewww! I get skeeved when the guy next to me on the stationary bike splashes sweat on me. Not that I don’t want to try the Russian baths – sounds like fun in a “I Made It through The Russian Baths” t-shirt kinda way. And anyway, I think I’d be more worried about baking my brains in that situation.

  45. the baths are pretty addictive. you’ll skip the t-shirt and find yourself craving 200 degree heat — even on warm days.

  46. Shane in Utah says:

    I’ve never been to a public bathhouse, but now you’ve got the opening lines of a Gogol Bordello song stuck in my head:

    Sitting in a Russian bathhouse on Avenue B
    No matter how much we sweat we just can’t agree

    I love that song… Nice to have you back on the ‘nets, AWB.