• Mike Sula
  • Xорошая еда, the pickle plate at Red Square Lounge

I regret never having visited the original Division Street Russian Baths, which closed three years ago. Still, it’s possible to summon up some swells of vicarious nostalgia by reading what Algren, Bellow, and Neil Steinberg have had to say about it.

Here’s Bellow in Humboldt’s Gift:

“The patrons of the Russian Bath are cast in an antique form. They have swelling buttocks and fatty breasts as yellow as buttermilk. They stand on thick pillar legs affected with a sort of creeping verdigris or blue-cheese mottling of the ankles. After steaming, these old fellows eat enormous snacks of bread and salt herring or large ovals of salami and dripping skirt-steak and they drink schnapps. They could knock down walls with their hard stout old-fashioned bellies. Things are very elementary here. You feel that these people are almost conscious of obsolescence, of a line of evolution abandoned by nature and culture. So down in the super-heated subcellars all these Slavonic cavemen and wood demons with hanging laps of fat and legs of stone and lichen boil themselves and splash ice water on their heads by the bucket. Upstairs, on the television screen in the locker room, little dudes and grinning broads make smart talk or leap up and down. They are unheeded. . . . There may be no village in the Carpathians where such practices still prevail.”

The old fellows in their woolen banya caps have returned to the newly remodeled bathhouse, now called Red Square. They shout at each other in Russian in the eucalyptus-perfumed Turkish sauna, scrubbing each other down, and beating the holy hell out of each other with birch branches. If you’re the kind of person who’s afraid to get naked in front of strangers and a scene like that doesn’t chill you out, there’s no hope for you. Nobody cares about your belly fat, your junk, or your greening yakuza tattoos.*