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Taking A Trip Through One of the Chicago's Ethnic Bathhouses

By David Murray

JUNE 19, 2000:  The son of the late owner of these baths says members of almost every ethnic group comes through this bathhouse. Orthodox Jews, Russians, Turks, Italians--even Jesse Jackson. "He comes here all the time, and so does his son," the guy confides.

The place is multi-ethnic all right. It's mucho ethnic. It's macho ethnic. It's overwhelmingly ethnic. The men are ethnic, the talk is ethnic, the air is ethnic. The tile floors are ethnic. The management is embarrassed to admit, lest the late owner roll in his grave, that they're refurbishing the place; they shouldn't worry, though, because the refurbishing is ethnic.

But, I'm not ethnic. A blond, skinny, non-English, non-German, non-Irish guy who has to remind himself not to cross his legs like a girl and worships no God because we didn't have one in my suburban Ohio childhood home, I felt very much out of place walking into the Division Street Baths at 8:30 on a Sunday morning.

At first, my alien status gets me a discount.

The young man in the front of the place--I would later learn he is the grandson of the late owner--charges me half-price for the day after I tell him it's my first time. As I trade him $10 for a bar of soap and towels and a locker key, he describes the facilities as a list of nouns: We've got a hot room, a shower room, a hot bath and a cold bath, a massage room, a restaurant and a full bar.

He's as warm as he can be; in fact, he seems to struggle against a desire to give me more than this cursory orientation. Perhaps he would tell me how to use each part of the bathhouse and in what order. Or should he risk insulting me? I could have made things much easier on both of us had I admitted that I was here to experience the place for a story.

But I didn't want to let on that I was a reporter. They might give me special treatment and spoil the purity of the experience. But also, I'm ashamed to ask the young man what to do. How does a woman barge into a men's room and then ask the ruffled fellows, "How do I use this here urinal?" It seems fair to me: You knowingly go where you don't belong, you're on your own. And I knew what I was getting myself into; I had been in the bathhouse once before.

During a slightly drunken Sunday afternoon last winter, a friend and I wandered into the place and got a tour. Our guide explained to us that this was the last bathhouse of its kind, not to be confused with gay bathhouses (like the one in Boys Town). We were shown the hot room and told its oven was the last on the North Side fueled by red-hot rock slabs. And we were walked through the shower room, where men lay naked on their backs being rubbed hard and close by other men. Though everyone was naked and we wore leather jackets, no one seemed to take notice.

My friend and I tottered back out onto Division Street and into the present age, gasping and shouting "Holy shit" repeatedly until we had turned the place in our minds from strange reality to freakish dream.

Towels and soap and locker key in hand, I stop in the hallway to read old newspaper articles about the bathhouse. The stories talk about the origin of the bathhouses in the old country, and their relation to the free bathhouses the city opened in Chicago at the turn of the century, to see that unwashed immigrants washed themselves.

The articles establish that many famous patrons, among them John Belushi, Mike Ditka and Saul Bellow, have frequented the Division Street bathhouse. One piece even quotes Bellow's book "Humbolt's Gift," which describes this very bathhouse: "And down in the super-heated subcellars these Slavonic cavemen and wood demons with hanging laps of fat and legs of stone and lichen boil themselves and splash water on their heads by the bucket. There may be no village in the Carpathians where such practices still prevail."

As I sit undressing in the locker room, I do not want to walk down those stairs naked and alone and without even the rubber sandals all the men in the locker room are wearing. But I make my way. I take a shower in the main room--a stall-less shower room with spigots lining the walls, the two 10' x 10' pools (hot and cold) in opposite corners, one open urinal and two massage tables in the center. The bare essentials: stainless steel bath fittings, tile walls, plaster ceilings with black mildew. Not dirty, not clean.

I take a long time showering, trying to get an idea of what to do next, how to carry myself. With purpose and calm, naked men mill from this facility to that; most of the traffic goes in and out of the hot room. After my shower I make my way in and sit my bare buttocks down on a dark wooden bench with ten or fifteen other men, some speaking English, others speaking a Slavic-sounding language, all of it echoing eerily together against the tile walls.

Within a couple of moments, a fat old man whose hanging lap of fat has overtaken his genitals and covered them like a fleshy loin cloth, tells me to go get one of my two towels to sit on so I don't sit directly on the bench--a hygiene standard, apparently. Scurrying back into the shower room to get my towel and I return, relieved to be officially branded a newcomer. "Use the other towel to wipe yourself off," he commands, pausing, then pointing to a 50-ish comrade and adding with a belly laugh, "I had to teach that to this guy thirty years ago."

The comrade doesn't smile; I don't believe everyone in this bathhouse appreciates my presence. There are a great number of suspicious looks, and even a few dirty ones. Perhaps I'm unknowingly committing faux pas after faux pas. But if I know the Ukrainian Village--and I've lived here as a yuppie for a couple of years now--the old ethnic guys just don't appreciate us blondies encroaching on their territory.

Despite the tension, I'm relieved to have it acknowledged that, in this hot room, I'm just a boy among men--a boy with thirty years behind me, perhaps, but thirty years' worth of things to learn about bathhouses and how to behave in them. I sit baking on the bench, watching the other men do what you do in a bathhouse. To make more steam, they toss water into the oven using a studied, rapid underhand motion. They mix up buckets of soap, dip bunches of oak leaves in, and then smack and rub themselves until their skin turns red. They pour buckets of cold water fed by constantly flowing spigots on their heads to cool down. Not one of them gasps, as I do after trying to pour a little of the water on my legs.

A pair of men wash one another with big sponges. One lays down on the bench and the other unhurriedly, gently, covers every square inch of his friend's body with soap. Meanwhile, two other men sit in serious conversation in the corner. One, a mean-looking character with dark circles under his eyes and a hook nose, is deeply troubled about something, and does almost all of the talking, as the other, the friendly fat old man who steered me right, listens with great solemnity. This conversation lasts more than an hour in heat so intense I feel my skin burning.

Not knowing what to do with myself and still not feeling right asking anyone for instructions, I spend an hour back-and-forthing--from the hot room when it got too hot to the cold pool, from the cold pool when it got too cold to the hot pool. In the hot pool--the most bearable of any of these tortures--I watch the masseur work a fellow over on the nearer of the two tables. The patron, who has an incomprehensible word tattooed in large letters on his left breast, seems entirely impassive about the procedure, as if he receives this treatment every day. And perhaps he does. But in all the boxing matches, sex scenes and Prince concerts I've ever seen, I'd never witnessed so much rubbing, scraping, pushing, squeezing and slapping. In fact, I've never seen a massage, and I've never had one.

There in the hot pool, I contemplate whether to actually go through the massage experience or if it's enough just to watch it. Just then, the masseur looks up from his work and inquires, with the aid of very few English words, if I'd like "half" a massage for $20. Yes, I would, I say. He nods and digs his hands pretty far into his subject's rear-end. Damn it. I trudge back into the hot room to contemplate which parts of my body I'm most sensitive about this big man seeing so close, and touching. And how my WASPy friends will react to this story.

It's not as if I have a lot of moral backup on this mission. My announcement that I'm going to a bathhouse brings all number of prudes out of the woodwork. Two of my best pals decline to accompany me despite my promise to pay. "Man, I just don't do naked," says one. An attractive woman at the office reacts to my assignment by confessing that she'd been seen in something as skimpy as a bathing suit only twice in the last ten years--and both times in Mexico. And a gay fellow I know couldn't be made to believe there's no hanky-panky at this bathhouse. He keeps asking me if I'm worried about getting an erection. Of course I tell him I'm worried about no such thing, and then masturbate before going to the bathhouse, just in case.

As I wait in the hot room for the masseur to call me back into the shower room, he surprises me by accompanying his patron into the hot room for a less personal, more vigorous version of the soapy-sponge rubdown that the two men gave each other earlier. (The masseur looks at me out of the corner of his eye every ten seconds, probably thinking I'm planning an escape; inexplicably, I'm not.) When he's done soaping and rinsing his customer, the masseur pours a bucket of cold water on his own head, shakes himself off, and motions me back in into the shower room, and onto the massage table in the middle of big room.

Soon I'm in oil and experiencing this fellow's hands as an abstract force field working my muscles, it seems from the inside rather than the outside. My feet, my ankles, my calves, my thighs, my ass, my sides, my rib cage--he squeezed my rib cage hard--my back, my arms, my hands, my fingers, my neck, my scalp and back down and up again. He rolls me over and does the same thing, this time working on my head and temples and below my ears and under my jaw.

At one point, he becomes engaged in an indecipherable conversation with another patron, and as they talk he absent-mindedly massages my right foot. My massaged mind oozes all over the place and I've got to fight to stay aware of the moment.

"OK," the masseur said at the end. "You want... " I don't understand what he's actually saying, but I don't need to. Yes, I want that sinful sponge bath for another $10. He leads me into the hot room and I lay down on one of the benches, in front of largely the same nude tribunal that had pronounced me a bathhouse baby not an hour before.

Deep into every crevasse went the big sponge and all the suds. Hard on my back, hard on my belly, on my balls and my thighs. He's rubbing hard to scrape off all the massage oil; I honestly don't know why he's pounding on my back, pressing my head into his chest, and pouring cold buckets of water that make me hyperventilate to the stoic tribunal's certain delight.

Having attained such a concrete feel for the place by 11am, I feel justified in taking my last shower and heading upstairs to the bar for a beer and a sandwich. "How do you feel now?" grins my new ethnic papa, the one with the lap of fat who had given me the advice about the towel. "Great!" I tell him. I mean it.

Over a bottle of Corona and a really good plate of grilled cheese, I watch six or seven half-dressed men cool down from their morning in hell.

A Sunday morning variety show plays on the big-screen television; the Channel 7 hostess and an effeminate flower arranger talk about creating nice bouquets. A couple of these giant men focus their placid, cleansed gazes on the TV show; they laugh at the commercials.

A card game breaks out between two others; blackjack, for $5 a game. Each man goes on long losing streaks, but wads of twenties and fifties assure everyone they had more where that came from.

One guy tells the whole group of us that his daughter is in the hospital ready to give birth. She called her father at 6 in the morning to give a status report. "She said, 'Go to the bathhouse, I'm not progressing, don't worry.'"

The masseur comes up looking for the $30 I owe him--I'd told him I'd pay "upstairs," as where exactly did he expect me to keep my money, up my nose? I give him two twenties and tell him to keep the change.

As I sit back down to finish my beer, my papa is just leaving. He touches me on the shoulder. "Be good, son," he says.

On my way out the door, the sweet grandson smiles at me and asks sort of sheepishly, "Was it what you expected?" God only knows what he thought I'd expected.

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