Gary Sosnick Detroit © 2010

7.  After the Plaitza

After receiving a plaitza and then relaxing for several minutes, the polite steam bather bounds back into the steam room to lend a hand. So that is exactly what I did--I spelled a few other amateur parchiks who needed a break. I got mine, so now I worked. After everybody had theirs, we cleaned up the steam room, hosed down all the stray oak leaves, and left the steam room spotless for the next group of bathers. We spent about two hours in and out of the steam room (the usual amount of time) and were thoroughly clean, shaven, and hungry.

We returned to our lockers upstairs and were immediately greeted by the smell of grilling steaks. Al Tobacci, a burly bartender by day, sat at the #1 table playing solitaire and chain smoking Camels. Next to him sat the Naval Judge. The #1 table had top billing because it was closest to all the kitchen activity and had an unobstructed view to the television set and front door. The dining area was crowded but there were seats available at the #1 table. On behalf of my compatriots, I politely asked Al, "Do you mind if we sit here?" And Al looked at me and replied, "I don't give a f**k what the f**k you do," emphasizing the f-words. It was this laissez-faire attitude that we admired and prevailed at the bathhouse among at least half the crowd.

The Naval Judge, however, represented a different viewpoint. Dick Brown, in his own special eccentricity, strolled up to the table with an unlit hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his mouth. The Judge took one look at him and, believing it to be a marijuana cigarette, admonished Dick, "Brownie, I've sent guys up the river for less than that." I looked across the dining room and I could easily pick out a Mafia button man, a bookmaker, a Detroit councilman, and even Toledo Tony--a diverse crowd indeed.

The above photo displays the kind of art that made art lovers out of all of us. The mural depicts a typical Paris street scene complete with naked women posing in windows, a guy inside a manhole looking up a woman's dress, and a little kid urinating in the park (at the far right). This fine art, however, did not prevent the addition of photographs of horse race winners stuck along the mural's bottom edge. And of course, there was the need to plaster the deli case with all those Auto Club "Bring 'em back alive" stickers in every imaginable language, so as not to offend anyone.

Behind all this beautiful art stood Toots preparing our evening's fare, with Queenie the dog at his feet. And what a feast it was!

The one inch thick T-bone steak topped out the bathhouse menu, but at $15 per cut, it was a little rich for our blood. So we opted for the next best thing at half the price--the grilled, one inch thick chopped hamburger steak, filled with sautéed onions and green peppers, and covered with sautéed mushrooms! This royal burger also came with the famous bathhouse salad included in the price. At any other time, the huge bathhouse salad would have been a sufficient meal, but not tonight. Toots first arrived with a loaf of thickly sliced brown pumpernickel bread and about two dozen pats of pure butter. He next returned with two large bottles of Atlas Black Cherry Soda Pop and a pressurized bottle of New York Seltzer. By the time the salads arrived, most of the bread and butter had been consumed.

The classic Oakland salad was piled high in a deep, nine inch diameter wooden bowl, which always arrived at the table inside a duplicate bowl; and this was salad for one! There was nothing unusual about the salad greens, but it was the goat cheese (for $1 more) sitting on top that made the difference. The standard chick peas and tomatoes gave the salad additional color. Next, red wine vinegar was poured over the salad, the second wooden bowl was then placed like a lid above the first bowl, and then both bowls where held tightly together and shaken to thoroughly mix the vinegar. The cover bowl was then discarded and olive oil was added to the salad. We dug in. Just as we used the last pieces of pumpernickel to mop up the salad remains at the bottoms of our bowls, Toots arrived with our hamburger steaks, each sizzling on a pewter plate atop a wooden pallet, along with a second loaf of brown bread. Upon seeing this, our wide grins gave way to happy laughter.

As if this weren't enough, a few of us reached for the steak sauce and ketchup. Between bites of perfectly grilled hamburger, we continued to use the soft brown bread as a mop. About an hour and a half after first sitting down, we could barely get that last bite of food into our mouths. We were stuffed, satisfied, and very tired. Our eyelids grew heavy. We had earlier shvitzed (sweated), and now we had over-eaten (made pigs of ourselves). By the conclusion of our meal, most of the regulars had long since departed. Ricky asked rhetorically, "So who feels like going out and digging ditches right now?" There was only one thing left to do--have dessert. There were two types of desserts available. For the dietary conscious, Toots arrived with the usual dish of sliced pink grapefruit wedges, perfect for aiding the digestion of the preceeding heavyweight meal. For those in need of cold sugar, only Toots' famous chocolate sundae would do.

I always loved to see Toots stroll up to the table with a cereal bowl containing four heaping scoops of Stroh's French vanilla ice cream, smothered in Hershey's chocolate syrup. He would set the towering bowl of ice cream on the edge of the table, and then slide it forward directly in front of the now satiated diner. This heaping delight was gobbled up with a soup spoon; and then it was time to lie down for a while. We managed to stagger to the sleeping room for an hour of rest before closing time. Big mistake!

The sleeping room was a moonlit tile floored room located directly above the steam room, so lack of warmth was never a problem. There were about a dozen one-person metal frame spring beds, each with a thin mattress, clean sheets and a pillow. I was fast asleep within ten seconds of reclining. Closing time came and went unnoticed. Sometime during the night, I was startled awake by the sound of a loud clang. I opened my eyes and saw a large bodied person standing over me. It was Toots. He had just opened the damper in the steam room chimney which was located in the wall directly above the head of my bed. It was therefore, obviously, 4 A.M. and Toots was in the process of firing up the gas jets in the steam room oven in order to heat up the rocks for the day's use. I went back to sleep.

A couple of hours later, I awoke to the sound of the doorbell ringing and Queenie the dog barking to wake up Toots. It was the 6 A.M. bread delivery. I looked around the sleeping room in the early morning light and to my surprise I was alone except for Red, one of the regulars, who was sleeping on a cot in the corner, sawing wood. I got up, put on my bath robe, and walked across the bathhouse, through Toots' office, and outside onto the side porch (in the photo above). I deeply breathed-in the central Detroit morning air. I stretched and yawned loudly, and glanced northward up Oakland Avenue (picture below).

There was no heat to be had at this time of the day, so I merely showered, dressed, paid and thanked Toots, and left the bathhouse. As I got into my car, I noticed Doug Ryan, the masseur, who apparently had just arrived for the workday. He was affixing a bumper sticker to a sign in the bathhouse parking lot. He called over to me, "What'd ya keep Toots company all night?" I mumbled something to the affirmative and drove off down the street to catch a morning class.

Doug Ryan, bathhouse masseur and professional parchik, D-Day veteran who stormed Omaha Beach with the shrapnel to prove it, doing his civic duty by putting up a bumper sticker in the Oakland Health Club parking lot, to support councilman and regular, Jack Kelley, in the upcoming election. Kelley won easily.

Next Page: Changing the Rocks / Picking Leaves

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