How to get naked in New York...and other stories

What can I say? He brought me flip flops. And as I sat ‘shvitzing’, dripping gently in a steaming room full of strangers, I could only be grateful.

So far our trip to New York had taken us out of the city and across to Long Island's gently clawed peninsula with its bucolic landscapes, vineyards and beaches. After a three hour trip on the Hampton Jitney coach to the North Fork we landed at pretty harbour village Greenport, a hop across the water from summer colony the Hamptons. On an excursion we boarded a North Ferry to Shelter Island, where we bicycled around its clapboard housed coastline in the vain hope of seeing Marilyn Manson swinging on a porch chair (he's rumoured to own a house here). We also missed new hipster hangout, the re-vamped 60s motel Sunset Beach brought to the island courtesy of legendary Chateau Marmont owner, Andre Balazs. But to console ourselves we indulged our sea-air enhanced appetite back on the mainland at Noah's and the North Fork Oyster Company. A singularly surreal moment dropped when, during a moonlit stroll along the jetty we came across a ghostly lone fisherman, lowering a line down into the inky water. Through an electric larynx at his throat he explained that he dipped nightly for squid which he sold to restaurants, and gestured to a bucket of the squirming creatures as proof.

 Dusk, Greenport

Dusk, Greenport

On our return to the Big Apple we pounded pavements and experienced The Frick Collection, an eye-watering display of paintings and fine furniture that resides in one of the city's most prestigious addresses — 1 East 70th St. Built for the industrialist Henry Clay Frick when most of the houses on Fifth Avenue above 59th were still private mansions, the building not only boasts gardens and an indoor courtyard, but an enviable list of old masters. Constable rubs shoulders with Monet, Rubens, Rembrandt and Stubbs. Titian's Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap and Vermeer's Mistress and Maid glow forth in their ethereal beauty.

But now, having enjoyed a skinful of refined grandeur we wanted grit — and not the kind of grit you hope not to find in a North Fork oyster. Our search had taken us to the Lower East Side — once a hub for Jewish culture where tenements housed immigrant populations of Irish, Italians, Polish — and to the brownstone steps of the Russian and Turkish Baths.

Serving NY residents since 1892, the Baths is something of an institution. Upon entering you pay and are handed a towel and wraparound toga-style robe which you may choose to wear. I hadn't come equipped with a swimsuit so had no choice but to don said robe along with my bra and an over-sized pair of elasticated gym shorts. Leaving the changing room you go downstairs and open a door into what feels like the early 1900s - except on this occasion a semi-naked woman was regaling her companion with a story about her breast augmentation. A narrow, white-tiled communal area features the Ice Cold Pool where the bravest of the brave plunge themselves following a turn in the Russian Sauna. This Russian hothouse roasts an ovenful of rocks overnight to give out an intense, radiant heat throughout the day. Ours was a co-ed session, so people meandered between the saunas and steam rooms hanging out in perfect ease, alone, or with friends.

We'd wandered into the eucalyptus scented Turkish Room when he approached — Nik*, our very own Russian masseuse. Like a sleek, toned be-towelled wolf sniffing out our fresh touristy flesh, he followed us in and produced his killer stroke — “You need flip flops right? You want a massage?” We tried to stutter a reply, but within seconds he had left and returned, flip flops in hand. “You want a massage? Last cubicle on the right, take a shower first”. Two native New Yorkers, regulars, smiled and tried to reassure us — “I have him for massages - he's good..!”

The Russian & Turkish Baths is not a luxury spa but a banya with attitude

The next thing I knew I was lying face down on a massage couch. Warm water from a hose sluiced me all over then the scrubbing began, the age-old scrubbing of Dead Sea salt onto skin to exfoliate dead cells. At this point I felt lucid and frankly intrigued. The briskness abated, then another hose down and an application of silky Dead Sea mud. I'd started to realise that Nik approached his task in an efficient, thorough manner, and that it was liberating to be naked and sloughed off by someone who couldn't care whether I was male, female or the Queen of Sheba. As the mud dried I relaxed and let my mind drift, allowing myself a grin as I listened to the conversation in the next door cubicle. My boyfriend who had undertaken a simultaneous treatment in a show of solidarity was engaged in a stilted, awkward exchange with Nik, who it turned out, was a sports coach. “So..," he asked my prostrate, defenceless man, “You work out?”

Gradually the stresses un-stressed, the kinks un-kinked and the muscles that New York had knitted into its own special pattern relaxed.

Mud rinsed, the massage began, with assured hands sweeping over, under and through. The hands were not shy, seeking out tension in a persistent, sensual and downright uncomfortable manner. But gradually the stresses un-stressed, the kinks un-kinked and the muscles that New York had knitted into its own special pattern relaxed. After a final slathering of almond oil I was told to sit on the edge of the bed as he leaned close and whispered, “Put on your robe and pay on the way out. That was the special, plus 20% tip.” Dazed and naked, but for a towel across my thighs and head I couldn't speak but just nodded. Was this how Stallone's Balboa felt in Rocky IV during his bout with Russian opponent, Ivan Drago? Back in the spa we spent a little longer in the Sauna watching clients enjoy ‘Jewish acupuncture’. Platza Oak Leaf treatment translates as being thrashed with a broom made of fresh oak leaves soaked in olive oil soap. Let's be clear about this - the Russian & Turkish Baths is not a luxury spa but a banya with attitude.

 Downtown, NY

Downtown, NY

Upstairs we dressed, paid, and emerged onto the New York street. Not much could be said about the almost-intimate encounter downstairs we'd almost shared, or its $325 price tag. But it hung heavy between us. Poorer but squeakingly clean, we looked at each other and nodded sheepishly — “Back over to SoHo for a cocktail?”

(*Not real name)

© 2013 Debra O'Sullivan

 photo:  Scott Davies

photo: Scott Davies

 Johannes Vermeer, Mistress and Maid

Johannes Vermeer, Mistress and Maid