In Detroit, the business known simply as the Schvitz has rather a scandalous reputation, not because of its daytime life as a traditional (built c. 1930) Russian baths for the old men who still believe in that sort of thing, but for its weekend incarnation as a swingers’ club. Google a little and you’ll find multiple stories about it, but John Carlisle’s piece from 2009 is comprehensive, covering both sides of the place, which in shorthand is basically a bit of old Detroit that hasn’t yet been corrupted by new Detroit. (Although it’s surely coming. I hear schvitzing is popular among the paleo crowd.)
It’s a men’s club in its day job and a swinger’s club on the weekends, and as I have neither a penis nor the inclination to have public sex with strangers, I figured I’d never see the inside of the place. Until I recently learned that a woman I know on a sort of tertiary basis — she used to own a restaurant I enjoyed — was hosting a public, women-only brunch there, on the first Sunday of every month. Bring a dish to share, a bottle if you like, plus $25, and you too can sit on the same steam-room benches the Purple Gang once occupied. Of course I went.
I tried to get some friends to go, but one was busy and the other said she was too hungover.
“Are you kidding me?” I replied. “That’s what schvitzing was INVENTED for.” The Russians spend half their time swilling vodka, and the other half moaning and sweating it out in steam rooms. But it was a barfy kind of hangover, so she got a pass. I ended up making vague plans to touch base with a woman I met three days ago. Nothing like being naked in a steam room to get acquainted with a new friend.
I packed a bag with a robe, towel and my shower stuff from my swimming bag, and considered whether to bring a bathing suit. Finally decided nope. Saunas and steam were meant to be experienced in one’s birthday suit, and I am too old to be shy about my body. I bought a cold bottle of champagne and got on the freeway.
Maybe 30 women were already there when I arrived, and maybe 30 more came after, making for a nice take for the Schvitz on what would be a dead day. Everybody was already in a robe, pouring mimosas and gabbing around the food. I dropped off my contribution (the rest of the pumpkin muffins I made for breakfast), put the wine on the bar table and got undressed. The thought of filling up on eggs before a steam sounded nauseating, so I popped the cork and poured a glass of bubbly, then headed downstairs in my robe.
What a place. The word “dank” applies, but then you realize dank is sort of the point. The Schvitz dates from an era when daily bathing wasn’t a custom, and communal bathing was an important part of social life. No one was worried about waffle-knit spa robes or essential oils; the idea was to open the pores with steam, close them with a plunge into the cold pool, repeat as needed. It’s dimly lit, probably as clean as a place 85 years old can be, and it gets the damn job done.
I never did make it all the way into the cold pool, just a little splashing. The water was 54 degrees. Maybe next time.
The old Russian guys who run the place have seen every incarnation of the human form that it’s possible to see (especially on swingers’ night), but still, when the steam-room door opened and one walked through to the laundry room, eyes averted, the conversation stopped briefly. Even the women in bikinis seemed a bit taken aback, but it’s hard to imagine a less sexy place than this; I honestly don’t see how the swingers manage, but maybe the atmosphere is part of the taboo.
This happened a couple of times — the walkthrough, always with eyes turned to the wall without the benches. I relaxed into the heat even more, until I realized two glasses of champagne were going directly to my head
I went upstairs and found a crock pot with Italian wedding soup in it. I had a bowl, had a muffin and two big glasses of water, then headed back down to the steam. By now, almost every bench was full, maybe 40 women in there, almost all at least topless, a fair number nude, yakking up a storm, everybody having a great time. The door opened, and the Russian guy came in again. This time he saw the hostess on the bench and walked right over to ask her something, then turned away to throw some cold water on the stones for more steam. There was some squealing, and he threw in another bucket before turning to ask if that was enough. One guy, 80 tits, everybody pouring sweat, cheering for steam.
I’ve felt less safe in doctors offices. What a great way spend an afternoon. As I left, I told the other Russian guy, Dosvidanya. Most people think it simply means “goodbye,” but it literally translates to “until we meet again.” We will. This is going on my calendar for the rest of the year.
Now it’s Sunday afternoon and I have to Truth-Squad the Democratic debate tonight. This means I’m missing my Sunday-night cable shows, but that’s why God sent us streaming. And since I no longer have cable, that means I have to find it online, and that, too, is why God sent us streaming.
So, mellow as I am post-steam, I have little to add in the way of bloggage. Or maybe not; let’s see what I can scrounge up…
This is a few days old, and serves as an answer to last weekend’s “Trump is all Obama’s fault,” which went around for a couple of days, but ran out of air fast, mainly because it was preposterous. I’m always tickled by Matt Taibbi’s turns of phrase:
(Karl) Rove correctly guessed that a generation of watching TV and Hollywood movies left huge blocs of Americans convinced that people who read books, looked at paintings and cared about spelling were either serial killers or scheming to steal bearer bonds from the Nakatomi building. (Even knowing what a bearer bond is was villainous).
Gotta love a good reference to the Nakatomi building.
Nancy Reagan is dead. I wasn’t a fan, but not a hater, either. Like many people I once found irritating, she grew on me after she left the spotlight. I’d look at her in her later years and think, frail. She was a truly birdlike woman, so thin she looked like she’d blow away in a stiff breeze. Ah, well — we’re all going to the same place, so let’s let her mourners mourn.
Finally, a companion headline to the one I posted Friday. I just love it:
Have a great week, all.