The Intrepid Women series follows brave women who venture into the traditionally male dominated domains that have long been sources of entertainment for men in law and finance, but where women rarely tread. Previous excursions include steak houses and cigar bars.
For years, one of my Russian friends has been telling me about the Russian bathhouse in my neighborhood. I live in the Financial District of New York City, and apparently there is a secret den of tough love Eastern European style relaxation, right around the corner from Wall Street.
Walking down Fulton Street, it doesn’t look like much. Blink and you’ll miss it. The little white and blue sign reads Spa 88, and is sandwiched between a bodega and a fast food restaurant. I thought it was probably a discount nail salon as I walked past it every day.
Oh, was I wrong.
As soon as I walked into Spa 88 last Friday night, an austere Russian woman demanded that I put my wallet in a safe deposit box, and handed me a key to a locker. I headed down a set of stairs and into an underground post-Soviet oasis. I quickly pulled on my bathing suit, and locked up my belongings to check out the warren of little saunas, pools of various temperatures and grottos in which people, swam, drank and dined (at the same time).
My first view was of about a dozen or so half-naked men (some old, some young, some fit, some fat, but mostly Russian and mostly hairy) lounging about on beach chairs with towels wrapped around their waists, eating whole smoked fish and drinking both vodka and beer. There were a few women here and there. Many appeared to be attending to the men, with a clear inverse relationship observed between the overweight older men and the young blonde surgically enhanced girls.
There didn’t seem to be too many groups of women there that were unattached to men, but nobody seemed to mind us. It helped that my friend spoke Russian. She ordered us some beers, vodka and fried fish (apparently, smoked fish has to be ordered in advance, and signifies that you are “hooked up” in the bath house scene).
While we waited for our snacks to arrive at the underground beach cavern, we decided to hit up the sauna for the first time. As soon as we opened the door, the waves of heat hit us. As an amateur, I sat on the bottom of the three levels, but my friend went all the way up to the top. She advised me to cover my head with a turban, ostensibly to keep my hair from bursting into flames. It was much hotter than any other watered down Western sauna that I had ever been in, and I was sweating buckets. Good, I thought, this will cleanse my pores. I took a deep breath, and the air singed my lungs.
Just as I was getting used to the heat, a shirtless sweaty man came into the room with a medieval looking iron instrument and used it to open a trap door and pour some water onto the hot rocks that created steam. I looked around and noticed that, although wearing nothing more than a bathing suit or a towel, most of the men were wearing heavy wool caps with earflaps. My friend explained that these were to protect theirs heads, and help them sweat more. They also gave off a unique musty wet dog smell.
I was feeling a little lightheaded, so my friend suggested that we go outside and “refresh” ourselves. So, we left the hot box and walked right into a row of showers. I turned on a metal lever covered in rubber that had no visible temperature controls. It appeared as I imagined the switch on an electric chair might look. I threw the switch and felt the shock.
I got hit with a blast of freezing cold water and my heart stopped. After it started beating again, I felt great, in a light-headed, woozy, had a few too many drinks kind of way, despite the fact that I had yet to get started on the vodka. Still, I think I felt invigorated.
We took a short break on the fake beach, and munched on a fried fish, an item that I had never considered eating while wearing a bathing suit before. Then, we headed back into another sauna, hotter than the one before.
In this one, the pleasingly herbal medicinal smell of eucalyptus wafted through the superheated air. Feeling brave, I took a seat on the second tier and looked around. An older man was laying face up on the third tier on the bench. His eyes were closed and he was smiling in anticipation. A shirtless young man came in carrying what looked like a pair of pom-poms made from leaves. He proceeded to whisk the pom poms over the older man’s body is efficient circles, first slowly, but gathering speed and force, until he reached a crescendo and the leaves were flying as he briskly flogged the man, who made happy little grunting sounds.
I couldn’t believe that we were all witnessing this vaguely pornographic spectacle. I said to my friend, “I feel a little dirty.” She suggested that we jump in the “shock pool.”
So, we exited the sauna and jumped into an ice cold plunge pool. It certainly felt below freezing, though it was not ice covered. I couldn’t catch a breath for a few seconds after my head broke the surface. But again, I felt an almost euphoric feeling after my head cleared.
Having had just about enough of the extreme temperatures, we decided to go for a swim. We headed upstairs to another pool, this one an entirely reasonable temperature, and frolicked in the pool for a while with some other people, before hitting the over-size Jacuzzi.
On the way back to the restaurant, we passed many different rooms, including one for playing pool, one for smoking, and several that had a club like vibe, with low neon lights flickering over the patrons, whom I should note, were all still only wearing towels or bathing suits. I noticed that this was one of the last places left in Manhattan where you could smoke inside.
We headed to the restaurant, where our meal was ready. We proceeded to feast on more fried fish, potatoes, and real Russian vodka (apparently, the brands we normally consume here in the US are “fake.”) As is the custom, we chased our shots of ice-cold vodka with a bite of brown bread or pickled vegetable. The whole fried fish was delicious, and paired well with the copious amounts of Russian beer that we were served. I dimly thought that perhaps I should drink some water, in order to avoid dehydrating.
Sated, exhausted, and thoroughly boiled, frozen and steamed, we were ready to head home. As I put back on my street clothes and dried my hair, I thought that the whole experience had been surreal. But for Friday night relaxation and a complete cultural immersion without leaving Manhattan, this place can’t be beat.
If you want to try your own Russian bath house experience, you can check it out at:
Wall Street Bath and Spa
88 Fulton Street
New York, NY
Open Monday –Friday, 11:00 am to 11:00 pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 9:00 am to 11:00 pm.
$32.50 for adult admission