The Russian Baths, on East 10th Street here in Manhattan, hasn’t lost much of its beautiful funkiness, despite it’s new marble front, and slightly better laundered towels. Get there early enough, and the men’s locker room is actually clean, but I don’t think a spa-like atmosphere of tidiness and comfort is the point of the Russian Baths; the point or a significant point is its grittiness, and it’s improvised atmosphere of now a massage, now a beet salad (the food and juice bar to the left as you enter is delicious, and offers rough hewn specialties, such as herring and chopped liver). And, of course, there’s the basement, with its dry sauna and wet sauna and pool and wet air that smells of eucalyptus and flesh. Once, in the steam, I saw Puerto Rican men drumming while Hasidic Jewish men listened quietly to the beat, dressed in yarmulkes and towels. In short, the baths retains it’s air of lackadaisical health while pulsating with a kind of ache: New Yorkers are different, and difference creates a feeling of isolation, and at the Russian Baths everyone is different together. But there are temporary balms for that ever present, cut off feeling. The baths offer little rooms, and secret corners to be alone in, the better to contemplate mortality, or the too much food, too much liquor the night before problem. Indeed, it was after ingesting too many different kinds of consumables recently that sent me cabbing over to E. 10th Street. I hadn’t been to the baths in a long while. And after showering and toweling and robing, I was very pleased to see the things I’d always loved about the place, including Russian men sporting towels-as-turbans walking around the basement, offering a platka (massage/beating with oak leaves soaked in a frothy bath) but I rarely want a platka; what I like best is looking and not looking in their round or slanted, young-old Russian eyes–what have they seen in Moscow, in Siberia?–as they flirt with men and women alike, peddling their expertise, which is their body–and yours. An atmosphere of bodies: I I first saw the baths in Deborah Turberville’s iconic 1975 Vogue fashion spread. She got the place right in that the attitudes her models struck–they stretch and preen and are emotionally tough, or closed off; they’re not engaged in anything but their own self-consciousness–mirrored life as it was lived in a dirtier New York. Turbeville’s girls will never get clean. Their souls have been sullied. Ten years or so later, Nan Goldin shot a lingerie story for the late, lamented “V” Magazine (a fashion supplement that came out once a month or so in the Village Voice, and was edited by the brilliant Mary Peacock, who had put the legendary “Rags” together in the nineteen-seventies) in the same locale, but already the world was changing. While Goldin was trying to contrast the fineness of the lingerie with the fucked surroundings, it was the introduction of such luxury items into a downtown fashion story that should have told us something about where fashion was going, and thus New York. Goldin’s models are dead in their contrived, disaffected moment of being. Only one model in that story undercuts Goldin’s literalness: a beautifully pregnant Rebecca, whom all boys, gay and straight, cruised as she ambled along in the East Village, pre-during-and post pregnancy. One marveled at her beautiful features–the large nose, the mouth that didn’t break out into a please love me smile–because Rebecca was New York, which is to say herself. And it’s important, still, to find the freaks; they let you know how different life is, and should be. During my trip to the baths, I met a middle-aged Russian man who sat outside the various saunas, near the pool. He looked sad, mournful. He’d had an operation he said, and showed me the scar on his belly. He had to lose weight. Then, shyly, like a con man who was used to hiding something but who had to reveal a little of himself a little in order to get what he needed, the Russian man with the scar and sad eyes asked me to scrub his head with his brush as hard as possible. The bristles were bent from frequent use. I took the brush. I felt as though I’d been dropped down the dark well of someone’s need, a need I did not share. But I brushed his shaved head just the same, because it was his heart’s desire. Harder, please, harder, and harder. But I could only go so far. I was a disappointment, as all desire is: it’s never satisfied. And as I was leaving the basement, and the bodies, and the sometimes articulated want one can find there, I saw the same Russian man asking a slightly bewildered but ultimately accommodating young man to pull his fingers as hard as possible. No one looked on with any great interest. This was New York.