“So what are you doing tonight, Jimmy?”
As I listen to the question, I gasp for air. Steam clouds my eyes as sweat drips down my face. The smell of eucalyptus hangs heavy in the air.
“My wife, she thinks I’m gonna bring her flowers or take her out for sushi,” Jimmy says, his voice thick with the swagger of a New York City accent.
“She thinks I’m gonna do one. I’m gonna do both. That’s how you make her happy.”
The men laugh while the moisture suffocates me. It’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m in a steam room at the Russian & Turkish Baths in downtown NYC.
Jimmy continues talking, discussing the finer points of his marriage (“Put it this way, when I go to work, at least I’m getting out of the house”) and debating the merits of different falafel joints (“You can’t say one is the best, that one is only best for you”). When he leaves the room, he drops a gem on two girls chatting about failed relationships: “Without love, we can’t have peace.”
The Russian & Turkish Baths are an East Village institution, and tonight it’s crowded with couples, singles and regulars like Jimmy and his crew, all seeking a hot, steamy respite from the February cold. New Yorkers in varying levels of undress hop from room to room: the mild steam room, the pleasant redwood sauna room, the radiator-heated Turkish Room, the intensely scented Aromatherapy Room. A regular advises us to stay no longer than 15 minutes in each spot and take a plunge in the icy central pool between sessions, which is said to improve circulation.
Then, the regular points us to the largest room, the big Kahuna, the star of the bathhouse: the Russian Sauna room. Here, an oven filled with 20,000 pounds of stones cooked overnight emits a radiant heat that ranges from intense to unbearable. Before we head in, we listen to the splashing of water and whipping of platza oak leaves, and we watch as people emerge with bright red skin, soaked from head to toe and looking like they’re about to have a heart attack. I brace myself.
Inside it feels like a cauldron and smells like a heady mix of essential oils and B.O. The room is packed with people, some sitting on bleacher-style benches, some receiving platza oak leaf treatments ($40) from husky men in robes and some dousing themselves with buckets of ice cold water streaming from a spout in the center of the room. The walls are solid rock. I’d never seen anything like it.
Unfortunately, I only last about 3.25 minutes before the room started spinning. The Russian Sauna isn’t for the faint of heart. I push my way out, skin bright red, and dive into the plunge pool. I think I’m done.
Upstairs the smell of homestyle Russian food greets us. After a quick shower and change, we ditch our plans for a swanky night of dinner and dancing and settle instead for a warm meal of dumplings and borscht — no flowers or sushi needed.
The Russian & Turkish Baths are located at 268 10th Street in New York City. A one-day pass is $35 and includes facilities, robes, slippers, towels, soap, razor and timeless words of wisdom.
[Image via Russian & Turkish Baths]