Nostalgia in New York: A Trip To The Russian Baths

New York is a city easily crippled by nostalgia, which can shut us off from its never ending vibrancy. For every jackass trying to impress you with his iPad, there are ten trying to show you their vinyl collections. For every tourist walking safely through Times Square, there are a hundred locals lamenting the loss of the peep shows that used to pepper the sidewalks. For every new development on Coney Island, there’s a rally to save a local bar. This, in general, is a good thing. For any dynamic city it is useful to have a voice reminding us that there’s a reason certain institutions have been around since before we were born. But it can also be a blinding devotion to a notion of a New York that most of us never knew.

I wasn’t really thinking of this as I made my way to the Russian and Turkish Baths on East 10th Street, two doors down from where I grew up. I was always wary of the place as a teen, both fascinated and terrified of the men in clay masks yelling on their cell phones on its stoop, their robes dangerously loose around their hips. But a free Friday somehow called me to their doors, and I set off to get myself a platzah. Established in 1892, the place now seems reluctantly coed—you get the feeling they did it just for the possibility of seeing women walk around in their bikinis. But despite the newfound equality, this place is old. The place looks like it hasn’t changed in a century. Orthodox Jewish men sweat for hours, their peyot straightening with the steam. English might as well be a third language.

As a young woman I got the feeling I was offered massages and scrubs with much more vigor than any of my overwhelmingly male counterparts, even though I had already signed up for a treatment of being lathered and beaten by oak leaves in a suffocatingly hot room before being doused with buckets of cold water. While waiting on this scrub I sat at the edge of the pool, taking in everything about the basement spa. That’s when I first made eye contact with Dan.

“You coming in? I’m gettin’ it nice and hot,” he said, motioning to the aromatherapy steam room with the bucket of water it took him both hands to carry. I smiled and stayed silent, not giving him a response until the third time he passed, when I assured him I would as soon as I was done with the scrubbing. He sat and chatted with me for a bit, and as it continued I found a ball of excitement growing in my chest. He had grown up in Queens, now lives in Forest Hills, and pronounces it “farest” just like I do. He had been coming to the Baths for years and seemed to know everyone by name. And as he told me about Anna and how she is the best masseuse he has ever met. In a world of “transplants” and hipsters, I had scored old New York gold.

We picked up the conversation again in the steam room after my scrub, sitting on a bench as the World’s Hairiest Man stretched out across from us. We compared our favorite Greek restaurants in Astoria, talked about what it was like growing up on the block, and the best parks in the city. Soon, I realized I hadn’t actually introduced myself to this man, so we exchanged names.

“Jaya, huh? That’s Hindi, right?”

I have to admit I was shocked. Yes, Queens is the most diverse county in America, but for him to peg the name as specifically Hindi is something I’m not sure anyone without Indian blood has managed to do. “Yeah, how did you know?”

“Oh, well I’m a Buddhist. I teach yoga and Buddhism out in Forest Hills.”

As he began telling me about his upcoming trip to India for a prayer meeting, I noticed the red string necklace he was wearing. And I was angry. How could this be? How could Dan with the Queens accent and the Russian friends and the pizza knowledge be a Buddhist? I felt robbed. I felt like the New York I wanted to believe in was officially gone, because if I couldn’t find it in the Russian Baths I couldn’t find it anywhere. I excused myself as he was in the middle of reciting some prayers, went back to the locker room, and left.

I walked past my old apartment building, past the young parents who took over the neighborhood, past the new bubble tea place that used to be…well, I can’t remember what it used to be. Past the block’s fifth hair salon, this one taking the place of what used to be a great Cuban sandwich place. I got the outrage I see directed at the new. Down with change! Old New York forever!

I regaled my boyfriend with the story later that night, still baffled and indignant over what I had experienced. “Can you believe it? I mean, how did he know my name?!” “Well, he does live in Queens. It’s pretty diverse. And besides, it’s New York,” he argued. “It is New York!” I thought. “It’s a city with its own personality. With its own voice. It’s not a city where everyone is jumping on the goddamn Buddhist bandwagon!”

But what is New York? That Cuban sandwich place used to be a different store. I used to babysit for a guy who worked at one of the hair salons, and he was really nice. And the Russian Baths would not have survived this long if they hadn’t changed. They became coed, they opened a café, they built a sun deck and advertised to younger people. The only constant in New York is change, and as much as people can complain about that, it is what makes this city as great as it is. So the next time I go to the Russian Baths I will don my bikini, get a massage from a guy with tattoos, go get Japanese noodles for lunch and think to myself, “Only in New York.”