Gary Sosnick Detroit © 2010

4.  Upon Entering

The above photo shows 65-year-old Toots Johnson standing in his office. I am standing on the other side of a half-door snapping the picture. Toots has just buzzed me in. This is the first sight you see upon entering the bathhouse. A painting of Charles Meltzer, the founder of this bathhouse, hangs on the wall over Toots' left shoulder. The large door directly behind Toots leads to the club's side porch/patio. Over Toots' right shoulder are the lockboxes for your valuables.

As I walked into the health club just about near dinner time, I was enveloped with the unmistakable aroma of sautéed mushrooms and onions, and grilling steaks. I dropped my valuables into the metal box that Toots held open for me and waited as he returned the lockbox and handed me the key. With an oak leaf plaitza broom in one hand, and a duffel with clean clothes in the other, I made my way to the changing area, past tables of patrons who were either eating dinner or drinking whiskey or vodka. The diners stopped for a moment and all eyes fell upon the one valuable thing I carried--the plaitza broom; in this case, a gigantic specimen handmade by Toots.

My own appetite would have to wait in check for at least the two hours I would spend downstairs in the steam room and pool area. As I undressed at a locker, I could see everybody at the tables, just about taste what they were eating, and my mouth watered. Clarence Mathis, Toots' teenaged assistant and waiter who began working at the bathhouse at age 11 and who went by the name of Duck or Ducky, was scurrying about making sure that all these men wearing toga sheets had everything they needed. The plates of food were enormous but there was always room for a bottle of seltzer, or more ice for the scotch, or the customary hot tea served in a water glass instead of a cup atop a saucer. The sooner I got downstairs, the sooner I would be back up to partake in an after steam meal.

Okay, here's what you are
looking at in the picture at right. You are now inside the bath house, looking back at the door that leads to the stairway and then outside to the street. You can see the one-way window. To the left in this very small hallway is Toots' office where you pay your dough when leaving. To the right is Harry Meltzer's private office. I am taking this picture from the dining area. Above the door frame is a painting of a naked lady, complete, as legend has it, with Purple Gang bullet holes. That strange machine on the wall to the right of the doorway is a gum machine selling individually wrapped pieces for 5 cents each. To the left of the opened door is the kitchen. And to the right of the gum machine is the television set sitting atop a table (not in picture). This is the corner of a large rectangular room with the freestanding lockers at the other end.

On this particular evening, when we walked into the bath house, we saw Mike O'Hara sitting at the number one table by the door, covered in a bath house sheet. He was watching the national news on network TV and nursing a beer (Pabst Blue Ribbon). He didn't look too thrilled. I snapped his photo. "You're not done, are you?" I asked. "Nope. Just taking a break," was his usual reply.

Father Michael O'Hara, a saint if there ever was one. Worked tirelessly among the poor in Detroit's urban Catholic parishes. He was a fixture at Oakland, but his soul was cleansed long before he walked in the door. It goes without saying that he was the nicest person you could ever meet. He always preferred to work first, and was the last one to take a rub each day. Only after he worked to make sure everyone had theirs, would he consent to going up for a plaitza. He recently ascended to heaven leaving a void impossible to fill.

Whenever I look at this photograph, I am struck with pangs of total worthlessness. Mike did more for humanity's sake than I could ever hope to achieve. Mike was in the trenches on a daily basis and I like to think that the bath house served him well as a sanctuary of a different type.

In the above photo, you can see the typical health club cigarette machine with newspapers piled above. Behind Mike is a free standing set of shelves with ashtrays on the top shelf; vinegar, oil, salt, pepper and sugar on the next shelf; salad dressings and steak condiments on the next shelf; and silverware below that. The black and white tile floor covered every inch of Oakland's main floor.

From my permanent locker at the bathhouse, I gathered everything I would need for the next few hours downstairs and placed most of the items in a plastic bucket. The assemblage included: bath shoes, towels, bathrobe, Ivory soap, plaitza broom, Dr. Bronner's peppermint castile liquid soap, loofah, scrub brush, razor blade and shaving cream, toothbrush and toothpaste, and shampoo. With both hands full, I acknowledged Doug Ryan, the bathhouse's masseur who was busy giving someone a rubdown, and descended a flight of stairs. One by one, my fellow buddies would eventually trickle in.

Next Page: The Pool Area

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