Good Clean Fun
Given what I know about Eastern Europeans and saunas, I initially have certain expectations of the Russian and Turkish Baths in the East Village. Perhaps I’ll see a shady business deal underway, or a woman cloaked in rags singing folk songs about her dead son while doing laundry by a giant, frothing vat. A stray penis, perhaps, would be poking out of a white robe or floating by like tumbleweed.
If you want to see penises, do NOT go to the Russian & Turkish Baths.
Instead, I’m greeted by a genial dude in an NYU T-Shirt who tells me that I pay for “all services” at the end. “All services” include a generous helping of borcsh, and the various treatments the bathhouse offers (the website calls the Platza Oak Leaf massage ‘Jewish acupuncture’ and adds that ‘a specialist will scrub you (actually beat you) with a broom)’. The only thing that indicates the baths have any connection to their namesake is the Ruble bill in the “Tips” jar on the entrance table. But something tells me this student isn’t saving up kopeks for his Bubbe back in the motherland.
The Turkish Sauna Room is empty and smells minty, two qualities that strike me as wildly hygienic. A very large man enters and sits across from me, one rung of seats above. This feels vaguely confrontational but I let it slide, mostly because my own naked body is beginning to slide. I am very sweaty at this point, and also wondering where the towels are. He offers me one of his stash. “They do so much laundry here!” he says, by way of explanation.
Towels obtained, I enter the Russian Room, where an old man performs sun salutations on a wicker yoga mat, and there is a mild smell of corn. The two bearded men there tell me they are “like, junior regulars. Three or four years. There are some guys who have been coming here a lot longer.”
As if on cue, the large man from the Turkish Room enters. “He’s one of them,” says Smallbeard, “a veteran of thirty years”. Large Man and Beardies all begin to regale me with the story of how, in 2000, the Russian & Turkish Baths was busted by the police. “Money laundering?” I ask. (Is that what Large Man meant before by laundry?)
No, they say. Female massage artists were giving happy endings to clientele and providing other sexual favors. When a police officer who frequented the bathhouse died, the operation no longer enjoyed de facto legal protection. Now, the bathhouse only hires male masseuses. “You can feel the difference,” laments Large Man, “even when they’re rubbing your head.”
In the hallway near the pool, I begin talking to other regulars, all middle aged, and attract a bit of a crowd. It turns out that in the ‘70s and ‘80s, mob members would meet in the sauna to plan hits in the nude, assured that no one had planted a wire on them. Colin Farrell and Russell Simmons used to be regulars (we can only scour Rap Genius for clues to Def Jam signing artists under the steamy auspices of the Turkish Room). There was once a more open swinger culture at the baths too, which somber Large Man says has vanished. “You’re here in the day - all the adults are here. At night, all the young people come. The girls come in their groups, the guys in theirs. There’s no mingling. Your generation, you guys all have your phones, your selfie-sticks. People used to come down here and meet strangers. Things are different now.”
For the first time that afternoon, I feel self-conscious. Millennials. We ruin everything.
This Old House
Turning off 160th Street onto the cobblestoned Jumel Terrace, I catch my first glimpse of the Morris-Jumel mansion. The stately, white-columned house sits in a small garden on a hill looking south toward distant midtown skyscrapers and the New York harbor. This Washington Heights home holds the distinction of being Manhattan’s oldest house. Built in 1765 by British Colonel Roger Morris, the mansion has welcomed notable guests such as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Today, the house is open to any visitor willing to pay the $3 admission fee.
As I get closer to the house I notice the chipped paint and rotting wood on the facade. The windows are shuttered and the front door is closed. Is the house even open today? Ascending the steps up to the front porch, I feel like a trespasser. I half expect a crotchety old man to emerge from the house, rifle in hand, telling me to get off his property.
Just as I am about to abandon my attempted visit, I notice a sign taped to the weathered wood. “Esteemed Guests: Please use the doorbell on the left side of the front door for admission to the museum.” I ring the doorbell and wait anxiously.
After what feels like several minutes, I hear the sound of a lock unlatching. The door opens a crack and an old woman sticks her head out. “Can I help you?” she croaks.
“I’m here to see the house,” I reply.
“Oh okay,” she says, seemingly surprised. “How did you hear about us?”
I follow her into the dark house (18th century wooden shutters cover the windows to protect the furnishings from sun damage). This, along with the lack of other visitors, gives the house an eerie vibe. Ruth, the docent, tells me that I am free to explore the building, but appears behind me every so often to relay a factoid about the architecture or mention a historical event that took place in a particular room. Somehow, she is able to sneak up on me despite the creaky floors, and each time she materializes, I have to catch my breath. Ruth apparently hears this, commenting, “You’re rather excitable, aren’t you?”
After making my way through the house, I stroll through the garden and nearby streets, which are lined with wooden row houses and imitation oil-lamps. The faint sound of traffic on Harlem River Drive is the only reminder that I am still in New York City.
The Morris-Jumel mansion is surprisingly unassuming for a National Historic Monument. You won’t find any Revolutionary War reenactments or foreign tour groups. “If you want to see people all dressed up making fools of themselves,” says Ruth, “Go to Boston or Philadelphia.”
“TRY OUR GOURMET VEGETARIAN WASHING MACHINES AND VEGAN DRYERS” begs a poster that fronts Sunshine Laundry, the Brooklyn laundromat known for its collection of pinball machines.
When I enter, passing a mechanized fortune telling monkey I’ve seen at every bowling alley arcade ever, I notice a row of at least ten pinball machines folded and stacked on washing machines down the narrow aisle. A staff member explains that the laundromat is currently “under construction.” They are adding a full-service bar in the back.
On the ceiling is a mural of an idyllic blue sky, featuring white clouds and trees bearing Tide detergent. The scene is interspersed with floating dachshunds blissfully folding their laundry, pushing carts full of clothes and playing levitating pinball machines. I must be in the Sistine Chapel of laundry.
A flier on the wall with some FAQs tells me that the laundromat keeps clothes soft by only employing people with soft hands. Apparently, it smells so good in here (it actually does) because they’ve “strategically removed all windows.” They purchased 500 gallons of Tide because “the dog has sensitive skin.” The resident dogs, who reportedly wear Louis Vuitton collars, aren’t here tonight, but the dog motif is completed by the several statues that, though uncoordinated in their aesthetics, were somehow harmonious. Such must be the place’s theme.
I put my coins and clothing into one of the washers at the end of the aisle next to the palm-leaf topped staff bodega, before trying my hand at the other machines. The automated voice of the Theatre of Magic pinball machine, one of five still standing, tells me “I have the magic,” and I proceed to lose on all three tries in mere seconds. Fuck Theatre of Magic. Determined to redeem myself, I try Medieval Madness next, and do markedly better. I knock down a wall and unlock a drawbridge. The plaster figure of the castle spasms and lights up, to the irritation of the man pairing his socks nearby. So yeah, fuck Theatre of Magic. I play the rest of the machines and call it quits after cringing at the creepy display art of a Wild West themed machine.
Peter Rose, Sunshine Laundry’s owner, is the brain behind these innovations. With the bar he’s installing comes yet another creative, albeit more intoxicating, preoccupation for patrons waiting for their laundry, in case it wasn’t enough of a trip already. Rose seems to find the empire he’s built sufficient—he doesn’t drink.