Despite its proximity, I hadn’t been to Manhattan’s venerable Russian and Turkish Baths in a while. I wasn’t quite old enough to be a regular, but my back had seized up this morning before my alarm went off and I wanted to take the cure while I could still take the stairs. Dingy as ever. The changing rooms are segregated by a plywood wall, leaving men with a narrow, L-shaped allotment crammed with cots, benches and lockers.
There’s a thick scattering of lightly-shellacked rubbery throw rugs underfoot, presumably traction for a rainy day. They’re pretty scuffed up, circumference of a manhole cover and thick as two packs of cards. I can’t say unremarkable, as each is a cluster of human body parts way below scale, with eyes-nose-mouth, hands and genitals most prominent. There are a few freaked expressions but most just look forlorn. Hard not to be stepping on at least one at any given time.
Several signs in the modest space admonish, “Don’t kick the pods!”
One ruddy alter kocker with patchy hair grafts is making a concerted effort to limit his steps to the small gaps between the pods, “I’m truly too old for this shit!”, he opines in a Boris Badenov “moose and squirrel” accent.
“Which shit?” Alter cocker #2 asks, rousted from his nap pallet but still shrouded by the towel over his head.
“I mean people getting freeze-dried to save a few bucks and they don’t even bother with decent storage.”
“Physio-transformative therapy. I think it’s pretty damn clever!”
“You want to be a paving stone for a week at a time? Or longer?”
“Hell no! But it benefits other people.”
“How gracious of you!”
“What are Barry’s kids supposed to do with his mind so far gone? They have a right to a vacation and he has a right to security. They tried bide-a-wee for elders and it was gruesome.”
“They’ll reconstitute him when they get back. Get a nice, nourishing bowl of kasha into him with a vodka double and maybe his mind will be kick-started back into a good place.”
“Would it hurt to park them on a shelf?”
“Let them show off a bit,” A#2 retorts, pointing to the “Don’t Worry, They’re Fine” sign over the door.
“They brought out one guy with a pretty fair abrasion from getting frisbeed.”
“Them’s the pioneers. Top-shelf first-aid and instant conversation piece.”
These dudes may be frail mid-60s or robust mid-90s, some kind of Eastern European but I can’t pretend to place it. We’ll say Russia or a former satellite. War is an even more brutal boundary shredder than gentrifying realtors. I finally catch an in, “Excuse me, I don’t mind but I just want to be sure. You’re shitting me, right?”
AC#1 hands me a pod. It just about returns my gaze, “So, who’s going in for this again?”
“Anyone who has to fall through the cracks for just a bit. Or drop someone else through them. Harried caregivers of kids with autism or parents with dementia.”
AC#2 chimes in, “Anyone who would tend to make a vacation a drag. Or those scraping together the down payment for a new apartment and not keen on sleeping in the park.”
“Or needing to remind an errant spouse or child that you own them. “
“There wouldn’t be a family discount?” I venture.
AC#2 pounces,” Naturally, it’s conducted as a family exercise. As you gain responsibilities in life, you see how many ways this can truly be a boon.”
“Maybe a little extra penance for Lent or a special jolt for those no longer getting off from rubber bondage gear.” AC#1 adds.
AC#2 perseveres, “Freeze drying gives a fair segment of the BDSM community the rush they maybe didn’t know they needed. Moreover, there’s anecdotal evidence of people losing stammers, irritable bowel disease or several pounds. The process is also a good time out for colicky infants and it seems to have a salubrious effect on them”
I take the bait, “Behavior modification maybe?”
“Let’s call it a reboot. You don’t look familiar. First time here?”
“Naw, but just the occasional tune-up.”
“I’m Sergei. This old fella is Viktor.”
“The pods just cluster there, quietly sitting out the conversation. They have an iridescent ammolite sheen thick enough to repel fairly extraordinary wear and tear. Sergei has caught me looking and has a breathless account of the process, one that seems well-rehearsed, “Truly ingenious the way bones and organs can be fully dehydrated then reconstituted with mucus, blood, saliva, tears, bile ducts all completely replenished. They’re getting back all their own liquids with a nutrient boost. Just like gestation, but in half an hour.
“There’s a rehydration center right next door to us here. The folks here on the platza oak leaf beatings circuit promote it as a total workout. However much truth there is to that, a promotional poster displayed at the clinic—and nowhere else—invites patients to bound up the stairs to Russian &Turkish when they get reconstituted to present their receipts for half off on the hearty borscht with meat dumplings accompanied by an imperial pint of the joint’s 17 proof brown lager plus a free schvitz to smooth out the kinks. There’s also a pierogi platter for restored families of three or more. This should be an event that people anticipate with glee.”
“Don’t forget to tell him about the gag reflex”
“The way that most everything getting past your tongue will make you gag violently, even if you gargle with Biotene twice a day. It eases up eventually, like long Covid.”
“First I’ve heard of that. What’s your source?”
“Use your internet machine!”
“That’s purely anecdotal.”
“And you’ll risk it?”
“Not me! I’m just happy to be around for all the exciting developments.”
“Not quite FOMO?”
“Naw, like space travel. Happy for those who get that itch scratched but I’ll drink my Tang on my balcony. You’ve got to keep up with developments at our age.”
A jaunty tune is barely muffled by Sergei’s tote bag and he excuses himself to take the call a few steps away.
At first, only his side of the exchange is audible to us. He does the flapping jaw gesture with one hand while indignantly repeating, “No, noooo, nope, never.”
He’s now on speaker, “You live eight blocks away and I hardly ever see you. What makes you think I’d be in trouble without your supervision?”
A young woman pleads, “We deserve to go on vacation like normal people. You can’t be trusted to take your pills, keep appointments, rein in your wilder impulses, feed yourself properly…”
“That’s all stuff you keep harping on by phone or text. You don’t even see me every 17 days.”
“I won’t have enough bars much of the time and I’d be scared stiff. We’re just going to freeze dry you, not even three weeks. C’mon I got the idea from you. No way I can leave in peace unless I know you’re safe.”
“You can barely even work the cell phone by yourself! You’ve got no choice in the matter. I can’t believe you’re being difficult.”
Viktor and I shouldn’t be cracking up over this. We manage to keep the volume down.
“I can come with you.”
“Vay cay tion!”
“Fine. I’ll stay with Arkady.”
“Nix on that. He’s splitting the cost with me.”
“This conversation’s over.”
Viktor leans in, “They can’t do it against your will, right?”
“I was feeling extravagant one day a few years back and gave both kids power of attorney.”
“They’re fairly pleasant youngsters, but I wouldn’t say they rate that much trust.”
“Alright, if this ends up happening, Pete and I will have Ludmilla call us when you come to claim your beer.” He can’t very well balk, so he nods.
“We’ll take you to that new Georgian place on St. Marks & 1st. It has silky smooth whipped pork and mushroom pierogis. Real easy on the throat.”
My back howls angrily at the inattention I’ve lavished on it, so I share my deets and step out into the steam.