Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Platza Torture Method

I'm a certified massage therapist and like serious deep tissue. I even used to go to a shiatsu guy who liked to work near the top of my pain threshold and I dug it. He'd say, I want to work you between 8 and 10. I'd often quietly plead "11!" But I came out feeling like I'd been taken apart and put together anew. I needed time to regenerate (which I did by sitting in my car for half an hour before being able to drive), but it was GREAT. All to say, I can take some pain. But the Platza Oak Leaf treatment at the Russian Baths on E. 10th St. is a form of torture.

I'd always wanted to go to the Russian baths. I'd heard of it for years, but never made the time to go when I lived in NYC - the way I never went to the top of the Empire State Building because I could always do it next week.

Now I live in LA and I just turned 40, so while visiting this past week, I treated myself to a birthday treatment. I'd asked for the special treatment when I came in - hearing it was pretty unique in the States. They said I should spend 15 min in the steam room (temp? 132F) and they'd come get me. I change in the nasty ass locker room and put on their standard issue black cotton one size fits all shorts. I see 3 men lying on wooden cots in the dressing room. They are dead to the world. I should see this as a warning sign, but I just head down into the dungeon anyway. I see this place has still got unfinished stone, brick and earthen walls as I descend the stairs. It's been here 116 years! I love the history of it. My grandfather might have actually come to this very place.

I hit the old school steam room with wood benches first. It's hot, but good. The smell of eucalyptus is strong. I go to the mid level. There are half a dozen guys in there. Mostly older, mostly fat. They're all orthodox Jews. There are a few good looking ripped guys with tats. I'm assuming they're gay. I don't really belong here. I move to the top level. I want to open all my pores in preparation for my treatment. I need a good exfoliating. I can take the heat...for about two minutes, then it's getting to be a bit much, so I lie down. Then I see someone pull a handle which set down a bath of water from a shower above the door. I try it. It's cold. But good and I can stop it at will.

Then I try the aroma therapy room with tiled benches, but the scent is so weak it's nearly undiscernible. Then I switch to the Swedish dry sauna at 108F (yawn). I realize now that I've lost my key. It opens not just my locker, but the safety deposit box with my wallet and phone. I need to find it. I can't worry about this now, but I check upstairs. No one's found it and returned it.

25 min after I began they say it'll be another 15. Fine. 10 minutes pass and then they say they're ready and then without a word, the guy who'd been talking with me passes me to another person who doesn't introduce himself. I go into the radiant heat Russian room (literally 200 F) and without asking if I'm ready to begin, he dumps a 5 gallon jug of freezing cold water over my head. I SCREAM like a little girl for the 10 men watching me who're all sitting on tiered benches hanging out.

No name Ruskie points to a place to lie down for all to see. I put my head 3 inches from another guy's feet who's getting the same treatment. That's all the room there is. My feet are 1 inch from the marble wall. WHICH DID I MENTION IS RADIATING AT 200F. I keep trying to move my feet away from the wall, but I can't move forward because there are feet there.

He then puts a slightly cooler cloth over my entire head. I feel like I can't breath so I try to pull it up a little to breath better.

"Put hand back!"
Yes, Frau Bl├╝cher! I do as told.

Now here's the thing. I was expecting the leaf treatment to be the main thing. I wanted skin removed violently and frankly I thought that would be the painful part. Almost like a whipping - I figured the therapeutic aspect was to bring blood to the surface and help refresh the fascia like Asian cupping techniques, except Russian style. In fact, it was a very light drubbing. Didn't hurt at all - similar to a two handed Swedish tapotement (rhythmic tapping). I actually wished it was much harder.

Then he starts grabbing at my shoulders like Swedish massage practiced by a Cossack. I'm having some trouble breathing now. Then he digs into my back. More Swedish like. Fine. It's gruff and without skill or grace, but fine.

The he puts his knee in my crotch and elbows my back like deep-tissue. I moan. Not in pleasure. To let him know it hurts. It's rushed, but OK. I'm trying to slow my breath and get through it. But the heat is getting to me. Then he double hands my spine at T1, 3 & 5, trying to crack me like a chiropractor. He gets two cracks out of three. Then a scrub and more oak whacking and then he does some pseudo Thai massage manipulation. Leg, up then down. First bent knee. Then straight. Other leg, then both together. I groan more to indicate it's not fun. He couldn't care less.

I'm instructed to flip over. I struggle to. But it's hard. I've just been beaten up. Eventually I make it 180.

Now on my back, he throws the towel over my face again. I free my I can suck in the nearly boiling air. Now I'm groaning every time he touches me. He sands me down with some pumice. Followed by the easiest thing in this process - the unremarkable oak leafs for which the treatment is named. Then thumbs dig into my shoulder which hurt still today. This was not massage, this was like being groped by a gorilla. All the while, I can't not suck air and continue to sear my lungs. More rinsing and...
He meant flip over, but I'm done. I want to get up to leave, but I don't have the strength. So I stumble through a flip. He begins the whole treatment over again and I start mumbling, "I can't..."

No response.
"I don't... Please... Uhg..."
He doesn't stop. I'm about to pass out. I can't take it.

He grabs my neck, gives traction, twists my neck in a crazy string of a crack. A vicious adjustment. Then the same thing on the other side.

I beg for mercy.
"Don't feel well. Gonna be sick. Please. Stop. I have to stop."
He keeps going.
"I'm gonna vomit. Please. No more. Please."
He doesn't stop. I take the towel off my head and throw it down.
"I'm gonna be sick!"
Luckily, I planned ahead and hadn't had anything to eat in 5 hours, so I had nothing to vomit.
"You OK?"
"No. We must stop."
I try to stand. I can't. He helps me up. We were only halfway through.

I want to just leave the room for cooler air. He makes me stay there, as he guessed it. The 5 gallon bucket of freezing water and dumps it on me.
"GHAAHGH!" I weep.
The water goes into my mouth. I want to drink it, but instead choke on it feeling like I'm drowning while standing,

Finally he helps me out of the room like the walking wounded. I don't care if people think I'm a wuss. I just want to lie down. Now outside the room, the air feels like it's no longer attacking me. I can breathe again.

I shuffle about 10 feet - right by the cold pool.
"Get in." he instructs.
"Can't," I mutter.
I kneel on the tile. I can't stand. People stare.

He helps me up. I walk down the stairs. The water is ice. I'm going into shock. I may collapse and drown. I hope someone here knows CPR. *I* know CPR, but that's no help right now. I somehow climb out.

He nearly carries me into a private room.
"You OK now?"
"No," I whisper.
"You lie now. Scrub now?"
"Only $90." The asshole's trying to sell me now.
"What? No. Just let me lie here."
"How much you tip?"
Are you serious? You nearly killed me without so much as introducing yourself and now you demand I TELL you my tip. I say I'll do it later upstairs. He insists I tell him now.
"Four dollars," I mouth almost inaudible.
He seems displeased since he immediately left, but I calculate that was about 15%, which is 15% more than he deserved. I mean, when I give massage, people come away feeling like royalty. I just felt abused.

And I lie there in that liminal state between consciousness and the other world, trying to stay awake as though I have a concussion and if I sleep I'll fall into a coma. Half an hour passes before I have the strength to stand. Looking at the clock I realize I only lasted 10 minutes in there.

I go upstairs, get a flashlight from the front desk. Scan the floor of the steam room and find my key.

I shower and try the Russian room once more to see if it's really that bad. I can only count to 10 before I dump a 5 gallon bucket over my own head as people are constantly doing. But at least I expect it now.

I exit and shower as the lights flicker, warning us the girls are coming. It's minutes before 5pm when it goes co-ed on Thursday and everyone has to cover up their privates. Most of the men just leave. There are a lot of Orthodox Jews and Hassids rushing out.

I'm not going to run out quite yet. Everywhere I go, I'm still dragging myself.

I weigh myself on a glorious old-school scale and find though I drank 1.5 liters of water since I arrived, I still lost 3 pounds from all the sweating.

I very slowly change into my clothes. I go up front and order Blini with caviar for $8. It comes quick and I take it to the roof deck - a quiet calm peaceful refuge with nasty industrial cabana type sheds lining one side - used for private massage (and local Russian whores so I've heard).

There's room for 20, but there's just one guy lying with his face covered.

It sit down with my blini and stare at the large, bright orange caviar. Not the good stuff. But what do I know from caviar? I eat. Food is good. More water too.

So quiet and cool.

Another man comes to the deck. He lights what seems to be a blue lit vaporizer right in public. After a few puffs I realize it's pipe tobacco, not the sticky green. Too bad. I would have loved a puff right then, but I wouldn't have been able to walk home if I had.

As it was, I was feeling better in 20 minutes and wandered out into the beautiful fall sunset ready for my 2 for 1 drinks at The Sidewalk Cafe as I quietly sat and read my Village Voice while I people watched and eavesdropped.

New York can be a great place sometimes, but the Platza treatment is pure torture. Beware.

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