In the winter months of my youth, my grandfather would take me to the steam bath.
“Good for the health,” he’d say, sucking in a lungful of scalding air. We’d know maximum health had been achieved when, babbling incoherently in a fever-headed dream, I’d need to be thrown over his shoulder and dragged out.
Over the years, out of lonesomeness for my grandfather and a desire for heat in the winter, I’ve sought out the schvitz — places where, after a sweat, dressed only in sheets and towels, one can sit around tables in a dining room off a locker-room and eat. Whereas eating bare-chested at home by yourself might make you feel as though you’ve simply given up on life, eating bare-chested in a room full of other bare-chested men makes you feel like you’re dining on Mount Olympus.
There was one place where I recall sitting among strange old men, passing around big silver bowls of salad — “garbage salad” the menu posted to the wall called it. It was the kind of name old men gave to things. For it was a world governed entirely by testosterone. Oh, I’m not talking about the chest pounding, loud-mouthed testosterone that gets so much press these days. I’m talking about the other kind of maleness, the gentler, more utilitarian maleness. The unselfconsciously-picking-the-teeth-with-a-playing-card-to-get-out-the-last-stringy-bits-of-roast-beef kind of maleness. In a world of only old men, a havarti with sprouts on oat bread would be called a “foot sandwich.” There’s simply too much work to be done and no time to invent clever names.
“Give me two feet and a side of garbage,” they might say after a 15-hour day of raking farm soil with their fingers.
There was one family-operated bathhouse I’d frequent where the Russians and their capacity for heat were the stuff of legend.
“Wait until the Russians come,” the old men would whisper among themselves.
“Those Russians are masochists,” said a greying fire hydrant named Seymour.
“Where’s the enjoyment in breathing 180 degree heat?” demanded a water buffalo of a man named Yussy. “It has to do damage to the bronchial passage.”
There was one Saturday afternoon when it suddenly felt as though all the facts of my life were leading up to the moment when I’d pass out in a scorching room full of naked Russians.
“What might I do to prepare for their arrival?” I asked a man in a water-drenched fishing hat.
“Go home, turn on the oven, and stick your head in,” he said.
I’d imagine them descending the stairs, those Russians, single file, slapping each other on the back, rolling hot coals between their fingers, each one manning a different thermostat, passing buckets of water down the line like they’re sandbagging a dam. You couldn’t touch your own skin for fear of leaving finger-sized welts.
I never got to meet those fabled Russians and that’s probably all for the good. Now on winter weekends, when I’m looking for a touch of summer’s warmth, I head to a greenhouse. The sight of cacti in the wintry north is as close to a heat-induced hallucination as I’d like to get.