#312 In which our hero celebrates a birthday with a roomful of sweaty naked men. Part 2.
Part 1 here.
We filed inside the building and were immediately ushered up a staircase. At the top we took a sharp turn to a short hallway that was lined on one side with towels and sheets.
Now, when I read the emails about taking “2 towels and 1 sheet” I had assumed they would be big, fluffy white towels… the kind you’d expect to find at a spa. These were not those sort of towels. These towels which, to be fair, where white-ish, mostly, had clearly been worn and washed hundreds of times. They were thin and threadbare, ragged at the edges. And the sheet… I hadn’t really given it much thought, but I think in the back of my head I expected them to really be some soft of robe or toga thing… but no; these were old bed sheets in a variety of colors that were also fraying at the edges. I suppressed a laugh and grabbed my allotment of towels and sheet.
In fact, for the first hour or so, I was very careful about maintaining a poker face. There was an almost palpable vibe that this was an old-school sort of place run by old-school sorts of people… the kind of people who settle their issues with brass knuckles and lead pipes in dark alleys. I was honestly concerned that if I screwed something up (like grabbing two sheets and one towel, say) that I would be “escorted” out of the building. I was clearly an outsider being given a glimpse inside of something old and cherished. I really didn’t feel any safety in numbers even though there were a lot more of us than there were of the people who worked there.
After grabbing our towels and sheets we moved into a sort of locker room to change. This was a large single room lined with traditional lockers. In the center of the room were about 20 cots. But they were most like narrow beds covered in a white sheet, like what you would lay on for a massage. At first I thought these were the cots for the before mentioned optional message, but they were all pushed together, with no room to get between them. A masseuse wouldn’t even be able to reach you if you were on any of the cots except the ones on the edge. It was very confusing. Also, the lights in this room were turned low... at the time I assumed it was to give us a measure of privacy.
We all stripped down and put on our towels. There was a little dining room outside the locker room where we deposited the food and booze we had all brought. We awkwardly mingled there for a moment, waiting to be told what to do next. Those in the know directed us down a different stairway to the steam room.
I have to stress again that this place wasn’t a spa or gym or even the YMCA. You could have mistaken any of the rooms as the living room of a rundown apartment building.
So we go down the stairway into the steam room area in the basement of the building. Walking through the doorway was exactly like entering the set of “Hostel” or “Saw.”
It was a dank, humid cement room, with three exposed showers jutting out of the wall directly opposite the entrance way; a cement slab to the right as you entered (I suspect this is where the “platza” occurred) behind which was a small, shallow pool; and to the left as you entered was a rather imposing wooden door labeled, “STEAM ROOM.”
There was also a single urinal set into the wall near the door. Apparently, if you needed to pee you only had to walk out of the steam room (naked), take a leak, then return. No need to be hassled with the bother of putting on your towel again.
I was still carrying my second towel and sheet, so I stashed them in a corner and went into the steam room.
It was a pretty big room, bigger than I expected. Probably about 25x20 feet. Set into one wall was an enormous furnace with two huge cast iron doors. Opposite that was five wooden risers. And, of course, lots of sweaty naked men.
The place was already crowded by the time I got in, and the first three risers were just about full. No problem, I thought. I’ll just grab a seat up on the top, where it’s empty.
It’s funny how quickly you forget simple things like “heat rises” when there’s no real practical application. But in a sealed steam room it became practical in a big fucking hurry.
It was definitely hot when I entered, but by the time I got to the top row, I felt like I was on the surface of the sun. “Holy shit,” I remarked, and a couple guys around me laughed. I retreated to the bottom row. “Yeah,” a guy said, “You want to work your way up to the top.”
It was immediately apparent which of us had been to a schvitz before, and those who hadn’t. The schvitz virgins like me wrapped our towels around our waists and sat on them that way (remembering that the first rule was “You MUST sit on a towel in the steam room!”). But those who had been there before? They walked around with their balls swinging freely. Guys stood up having conversations, walked around the room, went out to cool off for a second, then returned… all naked as could be. I mean, it’s human nature to look toward a door when it opens, and I did so at least a dozen times and was greeted by a great view of some guy’s junk each and every time.
But the longer I was in the steam room, the more I started to enjoy it (the heat, not looking at other men's junk). An attendant would chuck a bucket of water into the furnace every once an awhile, keeping the temperature up. I sat and chatted with some of the guys I had hoped to get to know better, and it was very pleasant.
After a bit I moved up a couple of feet, and the heat was fairly intense. I took a cue from the others around me and moved out of the steam room (towel firmly around my waist) to the shower room. There were a couple of old guys hanging around the pool, so I approached them. “You guys look like you know what’s going on,” I said. “This pool… should I wade in or just jump all the way in?” They smiled and me and said that they couldn’t jump in since they were both cardiac patients… but I was free to do so if I wanted.
What the hell.
I jumped in and ducked my head under the water (it was only about four feet deep). The water was ice cold. I immediately got back out and… it felt great. I had been so hot, and the shock of the water was so cold that now I felt almost equalized. It was amazingly refreshing. Now, I wouldn’t want to swim a couple laps or anything, that would have sunk my core temperature to an uncomfortable level.
I returned to the steam room and hung out some more, chatting, laughing. I jumped into the pool twice more and eventually made my way to the top row. It was intense, but not unbearable like it had been when I first arrived.
At some point I toweled off and went back to the dining room to see what was happening up there. There was a great selection of cheeses and cured meats, plus these amazing pickled vegetables provided by the schvitz. I drank some bourbon (The Scientist would have been proud), eat and chatted with some of the guys. Remember that we’re all still sitting around in nothing but towels.
One of the organizers came into the room and says, “Hey guys, if you’re done with the steam, it’s good etiquette to change to your sheets.” This struck me as incredibly funny. Seriously guys, let’s not look like jerks here. If you’re gotten your fill of sitting around naked with other sweaty men then get rid of those damp towels and put something decent on… like the raggedy old bed sheets you picked up on the way in.
So I dumped my towel and went to fetch my sheet, which I had stashed in the locker room. When I went to get it I discovered the reason for all the cots and the low lighting… there were about a dozen guys in the locker room taking a nap! I had heard something about sleeping after the steam, but didn’t realize that there was a designated nap room. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of the nap and it was really appealing… but honestly, I didn’t want to chance missing out on any of the weirdness of the evening by snoozing. That said, a nap would have really felt great after the relaxing heat of the steam room.
Once everyone was done with the steaming themselves, the room filled up with guys in sheets. When the concept of sitting around in sheets was first introduced, I really thought it was going to be like wearing a toga. I thought someone would instruct us in the proper way of wrapping the sheet; perhaps some ancient eastern European method that has been lost to the general population… but no. I just wrapped it around my waist, just like I did the towel. And so did everyone else.
We all sat at a long table and noshed on the meats, cheese and vegetables for a while. The staff passed out glasses—which is to say, cheap plastic glasses like the ones you serve juice in to your kids—and we started drinking red wine. We also did several shots of vodka, which is a tradition of the schvitz, I’m told.
Keep in mind that we’re all naked from the waist up while this is happening. I was surprised at how quickly it became not weird. There’s a room full of guys, and we’re ALL wearing sheets, so very quickly it was no longer a thing.
Finally, a waiter came around to take our orders. But that’s overstating it, really. The schvitz is a package deal that includes a salad and steak. No appetizers (other than those you bring yourself), no side dishes. So the guy didn't so much take our order as much as stop at each of use individually and ask, “How doya want your steak cooked?”
Plates and silverware were placed in front of us, and they were of the same ilk as the wine glasses—cheap plastic plates, one paper napkin and a fork and knife. It was incredibly low-rent, but also, in some odd fashion, really added to the experience.
And I mean that. There was something about the utter lack of pretension—cheap towels, used bed sheets, plastic plates—that made you focus on the real reason for the evening. It wasn’t to be impressed by sparkling clean facilities or fine crystal stemware or decadent gourmet food… the real reason that we had all gathered together was to share stories, make fun of each other, laugh, and enjoy an evening with a bunch of like-minded friends.
It was the quintessential male experience that you just don’t see in this day and age.
We ended the evening with big-ass steaks (where they great steaks? No, not so much. But they were BIG), more drinking, more conversation and finally cigars. I’m not a smoker by any stretch, but I indulged in a cigar. If I had it to do all over again I think I’d skip the cigar part; my mouth tasted like shit for most of the next day.
Oh, and there was a cake. Half for my birthday, half to celebrate the retirement of another one of the other guys.
The evening finally wound to a close. We got dressed and headed back out to our cars. The entire ride back we all talked about how awesome the evening had been, and how we’d all like to do it again. There are already semi-concrete plans to repeat the night next year.
So that’s how I spent my 43rd birthday. Definitely the oddest birthday celebration I’ve ever had. And, in many ways, the best.