Godliness and memory on East 10th Street
A visit, in verse, to the Russian & Turkish Baths
BY STEPHEN WOLF
Surely there is nothing we take more for granted (save our precious lives and the very air we breathe) than our abundant, life-sustaining, purified water. The fresh water that once flowed and sparkled on Manhattan Island was quickly spoiled by white people doing and putting nearly everything in it (the aboriginals who had lived here for seven thousand years earlier never had that problem). Soon the water shortage turned so severe we drank warm beer, not coffee or tea, at breakfast.
While the Vanderbilt’s up at Fifth and 53rd or the Schwab Mansion on West End may each have had 25 water closets, dozens of families downtown shared but one — and it stood outside in the small plot behind the walk-up.
A little more than a century ago, beds stood on legs high enough to place beneath them porcelain chamber pots — for tenement laws didn’t require landlords to provide running water on all floors until 1901. Stop for a moment and imagine that; no running water in the walk-up (the tenement’s outhouse outside).
Canal Street was called Canal Street because slaves once emptied buckets of human waste into a canal which ran from the Hudson to the East River. Along with the daily quarter million tons of horse manure and tens of thousands of gallons of urine hitting the streets of Manhattan each day, the City and most of its citizens were so malodorous, legend has it, that sailors could smell New York City three days out at sea.
But in 1849 something remarkable, restorative, and humanizing opened at 141 Mott Street: a public bath house. A bath (generally we showered) cost a nickel, and though open only in the summer, 60,000 of us went there each year before it closed when the Civil War began.
For decades, social reformers and a civic-minded press urged the city to open free public baths. The most vigorous proponent for these necessities was Simon Baruch, father of Bernard, who erected the first People’s Public Baths in 1891. Within only a few more years, there were sixty-two of them — nearly all on the Lower East Side (where more than half were owned and overwhelmingly used by Jews seeking to uphold religious and social traditions of bathing). There were nights for men only, nights only for women, and family nights; and while revitalizing the human spirit it also improved the health of each newly bathed New Yorker. Afterwards, we felt refreshed and renewed.
Inevitably, as New York City builds on (but too often buries) our past, nearly all of these bathhouses have been lost to time. But one of the oldest and best-known in its day still remains at 268 E. 10th Street, between First Avenue and Avenue A. The Russian & Turkish Baths opened in 1892; and though the exterior has been modernized, inside remains much as it always had: simple, functional, unglamorous, both timeless and ephemeral. And while there are photographs that preserve for us the look of it, the experience of bathing there was captured and retained thirty years ago by a then-young poetry student at NYU.
“Outside, it’s any tenement on East Tenth Street,” wrote Julia Kasdorf in her poem “Ladies’ Night at the Turkish and Russian Baths”:
at the head of the stairs I drop my watch,
keys, wallet into a slender metal box
and take a robe of thin cotton sheeting.
Past the case of smoked fish, I pull off
my clothes among napping strangers and descend
marble steps stained with a century’s grit.
“Ordinary,” Julia said of it, “as gritty as the neighborhood.” And this was thirty years ago, when the city struggled through some of its worst times. There with two other young women, also poets; and she was touched by the tenderness, the openness she found amid all those naked women, especially the old ones:
She runs weary eyes down my form,
then closes them.
Along the plunge pool, supple women stroke
green mud on their cheekbones and stretch
their legs between plastic palms,
She then imagines what so many imagine on the Lower East Side:
this place…filled with immigrants
from cold-water flats…
breathing steam for hours…
sweating out the soot of New York…
In this woman’s world, a young poet felt “safe. It was a place, it seemed to me, where bodies were sheltered and held and healed,” the poet said of it. “Pores opened, minds quieted. Time and space expanded to gather people into a sense of luminous connection.”
as I feel in the hot cave where women drape
between streaming spigots. Some murmur,
most are silent, except when one
grabs a bucket and dumps it onto her chest
with a groan. Our eyes meet and we grin,
grateful to show and view the real shapes
And when the baths conclude, after the Swedish Shower, after the ice cold pool or a redwood sauna, a Turkish room or an Aromatherapy room, “our hair wrapped up in towels,” the young women climbed the stairs:
to a roof that faces the back
of Ninth Street where strangers pass by lit
windows, cooking dinner, opening letters.
We stretch out there on cots, and beside me
tears slide like sweat into the turban
of a stunning young woman. Whatever
the reason, I feel bound to her weeping,
eyes locked on our city’s sky
aglow with all that lies beneath it.
The Baths are still with us and flourishing — though for varied, modernized purposes. Julia Kasdorf’s poem we have forever; but eventually the young poet, her doctorate complete, settled at Pennsylvania State University (an associate professor of English and Women’s Studies, director of the Masters Fine Arts program). There’s a snapshot of her and her friends in summer dresses outside the Baths. It’s early evening, the light golden; and three graduate students are in love with the city and their own possibilities, “clueless,” Julia told me, “and unconsciously beautiful.”
Julia still has the photograph, but lucky for us she wrote the poem for the same reason the girls took the snap shot: “To capture something,” Julia said, “so that I would not forget.”
Julia Kasdorf’s poem “Ladies Night at the Turkish and Russian Baths” appears in her collection “Eve’s Striptease” — released by University of Pittsburgh Press, as well as “I Speak of the City: Poems of New York,” edited by Stephen Wolf, published by Columbia University Press.