1993 Pulitzer nominee Fables

Steam Rises between Rider’s Tub, Rub

Mirthology column, 1st run Thursday 18 June 1992 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

By Ben S. Pollock
Copyright 1992 Ben S. Pollock

Dowel Jones the stick horse has been stabled at my house, the Bengalow, for some time now. He rode here from California some years ago, carrying my imaginary college roommate … but that’s another tale. Suffice it to say that Dowel had cabin fever and needed a long ride.

“It’ll clean your spark plugs,” I told the low-tech Dowel but was referring to my spoiled preference for cars with their stereos and air conditioning. I loaded my bags onto the hobby horse’s hardwood torso, mounted and headed to Hot Springs National Park.

“I’ve done almost everything in Spa City,” I told my broomstick companion as he trotted down the grassy highway shoulder as dawn began to overtake the night. “Watched the races, ate at the restaurants and climbed some hills, but always by motor and never visiting any spas. Let’s splurge on baths and massages. I’ll write it up for a column and write off the weekend.”

Dowel snorted.

“Dowel, want to check out the fillies at the Oaklawn track?” The toy pony showed his teeth at me. Anything but puns for he of the blue-and-white head and red-yarn mane.

By arriving at the bathhouse before it opened, 6:30 a.m., we got in without waiting. After paying about $25 a head, the clerk gave me a lock box for my valuables and strapped its key on my wrist. I went through the humans’ door and Dowel trotted under the sign “Animals and Miscellaneous.”

“Welcome, sir,” said a tall young man in white T-shirt and dungarees. “Here’s your dressing room. Take off your clothes then open the curtain, and I’ll have a sheet to wrap you in.”

The area looked like a locker room, except that it was clean and had no odor. Keeping in shape on my own has kept me out of such places since high school.

He led me through the “pack room” to one of seven tubs along the wall, each separated by a marble partition. He filled the tub while monitoring its temperature, 100 degrees. He took my sheet, and I sat down slowly: The heat took some getting used to.

He briefly swabbed down my limbs with a washcloth, turned on the whirlpool and left for 20 minutes, giving me time to think.

Not that many years ago, such mineral therapy was believed therapeutic for many ailments. Now it’s a luxury.

Only a few decades ago, water did not run in virtually every residence. Public baths and showers were commonplace.

Men didn’t often shave at home with safety razors, either. They visited the barber several times a week for his straight blade and leather strop. When was the last time you trusted somebody putting a knife to your throat?

Men and women visited the baths, putting themselves in the hands of smiling attendants when most vulnerable, buck naked. Is it any wonder that Jews in Nazi-dominated Europe naively queued up for showers in what they thought were labor camps after long train rides in old cattle cars?

The water whooshed around my legs.

On the other hand, we moderns have gained virtually complete privacy, but with it anonymity and distrust. We’re safer that way, but we have to work at loving those outside our families, congregations or neighborhoods.

The attendant startled me. It was time to get vaporized. Next to each tub was a metal box the size of a booth shower. It had a horizontal hinged partition halfway up with a hole for the head and a stool beneath.

I sat on the towel-covered seat and decided against the “head-out,” five minute steam treatment in favor of two minutes with my head inside the sweltering cube. My sinuses could use the cleaning.

Knowing I had only 120 seconds is what kept claustrophobia at bay, but not, somehow, boredom. Neck-stretching exercises passed the time. The steam burned my hands or feet if I moved them.

From there the attendant draped me in a fresh white sheet and led me to the nearest of the nine white tables in the middle of the pack room. He wrapped a steaming-hot moist towel around my neck as I lay on the cushioned vinyl, then tucked the sheet tightly around me.

I couldn’t move. I had to trust a stranger while soaking the shroud in sweat, thinking about lost values and almost-forgotten vulnerabilities.

Twenty minutes later he led me to a too-brief, cooling shower. From there I got yet another fresh white sheet and headed for the “cooling room” and its six white vinyl tables under four slow-moving ceiling fans.

After 10 minutes a heavy-set gray-haired man called to me from the rubdown room. He used warm, scentless lotion from unlabeled squirt bottles, washing off excess with rubbing alcohol as he finished a side or limb.

The massage was anticlimactic, having expected to have been left in a floating state the rest of the day. Yet I have to admit that I had no aches for the next three days.

I got to the deposit-box counter before Dowel, fetched my wallet and headed back to show my gratitude to the attendant with two dollars and three for the masseur.

Dowel was waiting for me at the outer door.

“Five dollars seemed about right to tip,” I said to the horse. “What did you give yours?”

“Splinters,” he whinnied.


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