The Turkish Bath
The memory is simultaneously blurred and seared in my mind. I was seven years old, built like a pond newt, and altogether startled to be spending a Sunday afternoon in 1964 with my dad--who, as a rule, devoted his weekends to solo breakfasts at the Horn & Hardart, marathon poker games at his friends' houses, horse racing at Aqueduct and, after he got home, the Million Dollar Movie on television. For whatever reason, however, he decided that he and I should bond on this particular Sunday. He mentioned the Turkish Bath, which meant nothing to me, but he promised that there would be an indoor swimming pool, and afterwards, if I wanted, a hot dog with spicy brown mustard, so I pulled on a pair of swimming trunks and a tee shirt and followed him downstairs. Six blocks later--parking was tough in Flushing--we came to the grimy white Plymouth he was driving that year.
The bath house was located in lower Manhattan. I remember a long drive with the sun in my eyes; it must have been around two o'clock when we set out, and we hit patches of traffic. My dad was smoking Camel cigarettes the entire trip, filling the space above the dashboard with a noxious haze, but that seemed normal enough. Then, as we rode across the Brooklyn Bridge, I remember a sudden glimpse of the bleached spires of the Woolworth Building. Now that was a sight, a castle fortress that jabbed violently into the cloudless blue sky. What must the view be like from that peak! Once we reached the city, I recall alternating waves of shadow and light bathing the front seat of the car. Then came more driving, very bumpy, more shadow now than light. Then at last we arrived at an underground parking garage, left the car and walked for two blocks.
I don't remember the facade of the bath house itself, only that it didn't look like the kind of place that would have a swimming pool. But I had no reason to think things amiss--or at least no reason until my dad led me through a black metal door, and then down a long echoing hallway and into a dingy gray locker room that smelled of old man sweat and cooked cabbage, where he told me, in a matter of fact tone, as he unbuttoned his trousers, to take off my bathing suit. To which I replied, and this, I am certain, is an exact quote, "Nooooooooooooooooooooo!"
He ignored me, but a moment later he thrust a single white towel in my direction, which I pulled at once around my waist, and I determined not to remove it until we were back once again in the locker room, and I could replace it once again with my bathing suit.
"C'mon," he said, looming naked in front of me. "Let's the two of us have a good sweat."
How do I describe what came next? Let me begin with the facts, raw and unembellished. What came next was an elevator ride to the sauna and baths on an upper floor. The elevator was roughly six feet wide by six feet deep. There were perhaps a dozen men, middle aged and older, crowded into that space. They were all naked.
I was four feet tall.
The sensations of that elevator ride! If I could douse my brain with rubbing alcohol, if I could disinfect the recollection, even at a distance of four decades, I would. Oh, I would in an instant! The undulating cloud of cigar smoke. The baritone laughter from above. The moles and scars. The tufted gray hair. The dimpled, creased and puckered flesh. The crevices.
Whiffs of bowel wherever I turned.
The elevator doors parted, and we stepped out to a smoggy universe of sweating Semites. My dad led me by the left hand into dry heat rooms and wet heat rooms, rooms with cracked wooden benches that glistened with film, rooms with hissing, steaming black rocks, rooms with checkerboard tile floors whose central drains were half stopped with furry, seething, coagulating clogs of . . . well, if yuck were a noun, that would be what the drains were clogged with. With my right hand, as we moved from room to room, I clung to the white towel cinched around my waist.
I remember my dad grinning down at me and saying. "No one cares about your pee pee, Mark."
Oh, but I did.
We came, in due time, to the swimming pool. It wasn't much, no larger than an average backyard pool, and no deeper than five feet--I gauged this by the fact that the main activity seemed to be arguing rather than swimming. There was a rotating cluster of old men standing in the center of the pool, smoking cigars and cigarettes, thrusting fingers into one another's soggy-haired chests, debating whether Willie Mays was faster than Mickey Mantle in his prime, whether Joe Louis was tougher than Jack Dempsey in his prime, and whether Sandy Koufax was the greatest Jewish athlete who'd ever lived. The last topic was the most contentious. Several argued for Hank Greenberg, and a lone voice kept bringing up Marty Glickman, whom I did not know at the time but later learned was a world class sprinter and All-American football player.
Poolside was where my dad and I spent the next hour. He claimed a lounge chair and began to read the Sunday edition of the Daily News; I don't know how he acquired it, whether he'd found it on the chair or borrowed it from a passerby. Once he was distracted, however, I hunkered down. Literally. I squatted on the tile floor, positioned parallel to his head, in a kind of diminished catcher's crouch, still clutching the towel around my waist, averting my eyes from the enormity of his nakedness. (Ham, I would later discover, was cursed in perpetuity for a lack of such courtesy towards his father, Noah.) I can recall vividly the burning in my calves and ankles, but I would not relinquish the position. My dad said to me at one point, "Why don't you go for a swim, for God's sake! Look, there are other boys in the pool!"
Yes, I had noticed them. There were two red-headed boys, probably brothers, wrestling and splashing shamelessly at the shallow end of the pool. The younger one looked roughly my age; the other perhaps two years older. I was in awe of their lack of self-consciousness. Several times, the older allowed the younger to climb onto his shoulders and ride him from one side of the pool to the other. The younger would whoop and yell to call attention to his sudden stature--never mind that his wiener was poking into the back of his brother's head well above the waterline.
"I don't feel like it," I said to my father.
He sighed loudly. "Then suit yourself."
Several minutes later, a short, bald, pot-bellied guy with tufted gray hair on his shoulders and back walked over to us. "Hey, Mac," he said, "Can you spare part of the paper?"
"Sure thing," my father said. He separated out the sports section and handed it up to the guy.
"You done with it?"
My father nodded.
"What do you think about Koufax?"
"Hell of a pitcher," my father said. "Wish he was still in Brooklyn."
The guy looked down at me. "Maybe you got the next Koufax right there. You play ball, kid?"
I looked straight into his eyes. "Sometimes."
"I like the outfield."
"You a runner?"
I nodded. "Yeah."
"You better hope your dick don't get too long."
He and my dad laughed uproariously. I tried to smile at him but felt my face burning.
"He's hanging on to that towel," my dad said.
"He's a funny kid."
"C'mon, kid, loosen up." The guy took a step towards me with his right arm out; I knew at once he intended to snatch the towel from my waist. I frog-jumped several feet to my right and avoided him. He lunged again, but I dodged him and hid behind another lounge chair. He began to laugh again. "You are a quick son-of-a-gun, aren't you?"
I managed to smile at him.
"Like a jack rabbit, eh?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Maybe you'll be the next Marty Glickman."
I held my position behind the lounge chair, but I liked the sound of that. I still had no idea who Marty Glickman was except that he was a great athlete, and that he was quick like a jack rabbit . . . and that he and I, come to think of it, had the same initials.
"Maybe," I said.
He smiled knowingly. "You just keep running."
"I will," I said, with conviction.
He turned and walked away. I kept an eye on him until he turned the corner at the end of the pool, and then I exhaled. I glanced from side to side. My dad continued to read his newspaper. The cluster of men in the center of pool continued their conversation. The two red-headed boys continued wrestling and splashing. No one was paying the slightest attention to me. For the first time since I'd arrived, I felt a measure of relief.
With one hand still on the towel at my waist, I pushed the lounge chair I'd ducked behind next to my father's. Then I climbed up onto it. My eyes were still darting from side to side in case the hairy bald guy made another move in my direction. But he'd settled into a lounge chair on the far side of the pool and was occupied with the sports section.
Paradoxically, the fact that the hairy bald guy had tried and failed to take away my towel made me feel more secure--as though I'd defended my turf. I was too fast for him. He could no more take away my towel than he could Marty Glickman's towel. I sensed the slightest hint of a smile come across my face. As I eased back on the lounge chair, suddenly, I let go of the towel. It was still draped across my waist, but now my hands were free. For several moments, I only sat there, beside my dad. Then, at once, my dad reached over and handed me the comics section from the newspaper. He did this without a word. I took it from him from him and began to read.
It would be glorious to report that, once I'd finished with the comics, I took another look around, screwed my courage to the sticking place and let the towel slip to the floor . . . that I rose up as Nature had made me, strode to the shallow end of the pool and cannon-balled into the ongoing red-headed fracas. But of course that didn't happen. My dad and I sat there for another fifteen minutes, reading the paper, and then he tapped me on the shoulder and told me it was time for dinner.
It would also be glorious to report that the Turkish Bath became a regular retreat for us, a genuine father-son experience. But it turned out to be a one time deal. I'm sure he felt as though he'd tortured me--which, in a sense, he had.
I remember looking up at him a half hour later, as we ate hot dogs with spicy brown mustard in a Jewish delicatessen, rating him against the collection of naked guys I'd seen that afternoon, and thinking, "I could've done worse for a father."
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