Earlier this week, I paid a lovely older Russian man named Victor to perform a Platza Oak Leaf treatment on my wet body at the Russian & Turkish baths in New York’s East Village. I was supposed to pay another $43 for an entrance fee, but successfully argued that money back in the form of a strongly worded personal email to management. I didn’t use any of the facilities, and it’s a longer story than that and not really appropriate for this forum. The banya’s website calls this “Jewish acupuncture.” I don’t think that’s a very good comparison, though I will admit I was raised in a secular household. In any case, the Platza Oak Leaf treatment is really just a man named Victor pouring buckets of water over your head and then methodically flapping a bundle of leaves on your back in a sauna.
If you’ve never been to the Russian & Turkish Baths, they are a set of saunas in the basement of an old East Village building. They’re dark and poorly ventilated, and smell of Siberian delights from the (very good!) restaurant upstairs. They’ve also been having a bit of a moment this year, thanks to a New York Times piece on how the alt men and women of America enjoy a steam. The locker rooms are cramped, and everyone’s wearing a bathing suit, unless it’s single-sex hours, in which case, most people are naked.
I’d been to the Russian & Turkish Baths once before for pleasure, at the suggestion of a male coworker ten years my senior back when I had a job writing tweets and Google+ posts for a living. (This was before I became an international lifestyle influencer.) I went for “women’s hour” at the baths on a Wednesday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. This time, due to the scheduling restrictions of being an international lifestyle influencer (I spent the morning at a Salvation Army where a truck was unloading a bunch of pre-worn knock-off Supreme merch, then I went to the opening of an envelope), I could only make it for coed hours.
Going back to the Russian baths provoked a bit of anxiety. Last time I was there, the wet heat and dark corners and lack of windows had me in a right fit. But, as always, for my craft (bathing for money), I’ll try anything twice. So off I went, click-clacking in a pair of Baths-provided plastic slippers. When I got to the saunas downstairs, I realized I was the only woman in there.
My first mistake was wearing what I thought would be a modest bathing suit in front of the regulars. I’m a soft girl with childbearing hips, and I wore one of those high-cut, backless American Apparel one pieces (this one) where the leg holes are cut up to where my boobs meet my rib cage. I was given a cloak to wear downstairs and I was sort of feeling myself in it, but then Victor brought me into the “Russian Room” (a very hot sauna!!) and asked me to disrobe.
Three bearded old dudes were talking amongst each other in the wet darkness. One of them tried to get my attention. “Miss?” he said, and I pretended not to hear him. I prefer “Ms.” (Just kidding! I simply didn’t want to engage with a wet old man while I was wearing a high-cut backless bathing suit.) He tried again: “Miss. If it hurts, tell him to stop.” But it was too late. I was already lying on a wet towel on my stomach on a body-shaped ledge on the far wall of the Russian Room, near a water spigot, with another wet towel covering my head.
Victor began beating me with a bundle of oak leaves and olive soap. After completing a section of my body, he’d throw a bucket of warm water over it to wash off the olive soap, followed by a cold bucket of water over my head. It didn’t hurt, but I panicked. I had no idea how hot it was in there (further research suggests a possibility of 199 degrees), and more importantly, I had no idea how long this treatment would last.
When Victor cracked my back with his hands and then lifted my head and torso by pulling on my arms from behind, it was my clue to flip over. (“Good girl,” he whispered.) I was unsure how much time had passed. Possibly two hours? For real, it was probably eight minutes. Victor went to town on my feet, legs, and arms. Wash, wash, beat, beat, rinse, rinse. Then he stretched my legs in a pose I can only describe as “wind removing.”
“Good girl,” he whispered again.
Victor guided me off the body shelf and into my plastic sandals. He then led me out the door and toward a freezing dunk pool and whispered, “Get in.” I generally try to be as easygoing as possible, plus I have a deep-seated fear of authority (especially by way of older Russian gentlemen), so down the steps I went. I made a bunch of performative, “Woo! It’s cold” noises, and Victor yelled “Head! Head!” at me. I had no choice but to dunk my head.
“Good girl!” Victor shouted, and beckoned me out of the pool like a proud dad after youth league swim practice.
And that was it. I went upstairs in a bit of a feel-good haze that dissipated as I haggled with the employee at the front desk about money, then walked out into the muggy September heat in a wet, ill-fitting bathing suit. I felt no Russian revitalization; I felt the same. But my head was underwater the whole time, and I didn’t sink. Good girl.
Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis.