Thursday, April 22, 2010


I completely forgot about Agnus until I saw the Williamsburg Public Bath House the other day walking down Bedford Ave, and remembered: I used to go to the bath house on the lower East Side, Tenth Street, wasn't it?  So this morning I went to take the baths, the steam, the dry heat, the freezing cold pool of the Russian and Turkish Bath House, built in 1892, the first of its kind in the East Village. Agnus, I was positive, wasn't there any longer, and sure enough new Russian women had taken her place. But they all remembered her, and well, who could forget Agnus? Not quite five-feet, wide as tall, short dark hair and probably a day's growth of beard and [warning: pornographic images forthwith] with the most expansive humongous breasts known to man. Here's how I remember Agnus: 

I'd go to the the baths at least once a month, paying a few kopeks (i.e. ridiculously cheap) for entrance and a massage. I'd start in the Russian room where women sat taking in the heat, at least 120 degrees, then they'd douse themselves with buckets of cold water. I'd work my way steadily from steam room to hot sauna, alternating with dipping into a pool as freezing cold as the Blue Hole of New Mexico. (Although pictures are forbidden, here's one I took from under my robe this morning, avoiding any naked ladies.)

  inside the bath house

After about a half hour of shvitzing, I'd have a massage with Agnus. She'd beat my body with a brush of oak leaves, called Platza, still used today. Agnus' center of gravity was located low to the ground, giving her the strength of a mud wrestler. She'd knead my sore muscles like a loaf of challah. At times I could feel her big floppy breasts bouncing up and down on my back but I thought nothing of it. Back then no one dressed for dinner, if you know what I mean. It's different now, the masseuses wear clothes and some of the patrons wear bathing suits. But for the most part everyone's still pretty relaxed. Eighties punk rockers and Agnus might be gone from the lower East Side scene but the bath house, and its loyal customers, remain. 

After my soak, I walked down Tenth St. through Tompkin's Square Park, from Ave A to B. Since last here, the needles have all been swept away and the homeless uprooted. In their place, young professionals, tulips and squirrels.

East coast black squirrels are very handsome, don't you think?

I finally made it to my lunch date with Cynthia...

 Cynthia at the Cafe Colonial on Houston

Cynthia is one of my oldest friends from our theatre days in New York, when she designed a gigantic lizard tail for a performance piece I did at the Theatre for the New City, which is still there! Cynthia went on to design costumes for big-time movie directors but has returned to working on a smaller scale. Maybe it's true, the more things change the more they stay the same. What does that mean exactly? One gets the feeling in New York, at least, that a fancy facade has been constructed over much of the city, obliterating wide swaths of the original blueprint, which is true, but if you look a little deeper, the authentic spirit of New York is still strong, pumping a creative force that is neither rich nor poor, old or new. Perhaps when you live here permanently, you know the truth of that more than someone like me just passing through.


  1. Hey, I loved your essay. I got the link from Kerry Madden's facebook page. I teach at UAB also. I used to live on 6th between A & B and reading this made me feel so much at home. 7th between A & B, on the downtown side of Tompkin's Sq Park, was where, one day in 1987, I tried parallel parking a station wagon that I had rented for the weekend so that I could deliver a couple of wedding cakes to New Jersey. It took me 15 minutes, as 2 Puerto Rican guys sat on the stoop watching me. I have severe performance anxiety, and so that didn't help at all. When finally I did get the car in the more than ample space, they applauded. Thanks for your story.

  2. Cliff....(will you see this I wonder?) Thanks so much for the comment. I used to have a friend on the other side of the park and was terrified to pass through, and to think, you lived there! I loved the fact that you rented a car to deliver wedding cakes to NJ; and now you're teaching at UAB, amazing!

  3. Love this piece, Charlotte, and the painting. Hidden New York.

  4. Hey Charlotte, I finally got here...really fun to read! and the spacing of the photos makes it sort of like a grownup kid's book. The drawing of Agnus (not Agnes?) is many drawings? Oh well, guess I'll have to read more of them to find out!
    Love, A.

  5. Hi Charlotte -
    i love the drawing of Agnus. I used to go to the men's Russian baths - maybe they were next door?
    Beautifully rendered memory - thanks.... and remember,you're my oldest friend in the world,with boobies.