Bathhouses, Berlin, and
The City & The City
Cultural Gutter | Nov. 23, 2017
There’s a place in New York’s East Village called the Russian & Turkish Baths. It’s a neighborhood institution that has been in operation for some 125 years, give or take. I’m not a regular, but every now and then a writer needs to shvitz, especially during the winter months. The bathhouse has two owners. They share the space but nothing else. They are completely separate companies running the same business out of the same place, but they have nothing to do with one another. If you buy a pass for a week one owner is working, you can’t use it the next week when the other owner is working. The clientele is slightly different as well, with one week being younger and hipper and more prone to DJ parties, while the other week is a little older, less up on what’s happening in Bushwick’s club scene.
This curious arrangement of two businesses occupying the same physical space without crossing over evolved over time as two partners, Boris Tuberman and David Shapiro, piled up years’ worth of small grievances against one another. Nothing major, just the sort of stuff that doesn’t mean much until you start to collate it and let it accumulate. Then something happened that cause a permanent rift. No one knows what, and Tuberman and Shapiro aren’t volunteering the information. Possibly it really was no one thing. Eventually, they decided to have nothing to do with one another while still sharing the bathhouse they’d partnered to buy in 1985.
Over two decades later, this curious arrangement still holds, and a unique though sometimes permeable identity exists for “Boris weeks” and “David weeks,” though David has retired and turned his half of the operation over to his son, Dmitry. David weeks are healthier, more modern. They have a computer, accept Groupon, and attract a primarily younger, more stylish crowd. They have parties, the sort of things that show up on Instagram. There is no computer during a Boris week, no Groupon, no juice cleanse counter. No one Instagrams their session. There’s not even a phone. Boris week clients tend to be older, heavier, more Eastern European. More back hair than facial hair. When I go, as a man who sort of exists between two worlds (I’m not particularly young at this point, nor particularly fit, but neither am I not those things), I go during a Boris shift. But I probably wouldn’t mind a David/Dmitry week (though I’ll skip the DJ’d parties). Hell, I go to Aire Ancient Baths, a palace of scented candles, “Buddha Bar” music, aromatherapy, tea, and fit, upscale people. I’m nothing if not adaptable as long as I get to soak and enjoy a massage.
Reading China Miéville’s 2009 novel The City & The City, all I could think about was the Russian & Turkish Baths.
The book is set in a fictional, vaguely eastern European city that seems to have a parallel universe problem. The city is, the reader quickly learns, two cities. Two complete and separate cities, with their own laws, styles, and population, that just happen to occupy the same physical space. On occasion, apparitions from one city will manifest in front of occupants of the other, but it is forbidden to openly acknowledge the appearance of these ghosts. Both cities have internalized avoiding the manifestations of the others to such a point that the actions are automatic and don’t even need to be acknowledged. Sure, there’s a problem with tourists becoming bewildered when one city breaches the other, but over the years they’ve learned how to deal with tourists who unwittingly transgress the law.
Without giving too much away, what initially seems to be a science fiction novel about parallel worlds is slowly revealed to be something else when a crime forces police from both cities to phase between their two existences and work together. Miéville wrote the book as a gift to his mother, who was a fan of police procedurals, but Miéville being the writer he is, it obviously wasn’t going to be a straightforward murder mystery. Inspired by human absurdities like East and West Berlin, The City & The City is a meditation on the illogic of national borders,divided neighbors, and bureaucracy. In the context of late 2017, it’s also easy to read into a prescient look at the perceived deep, uncrossable social and political divide that has arisen in the United States of Donald Trump, the Britain of Brexit, the continuing division of North and South Korea, and the rise of divisive tribalism and a religious-style zealotry that seems to be sweeping much of the world.
We occupy the same, but very different spaces. When I travel outside of New York City, even into upstate New York, it can be like stepping into a world that is familiar but also unrecognizable, where everyday assumptions I make about the people and place around me are upended. When I’m in a place where Fox News is on, I recognize the events about which they are talking, but their interpretation of those events is utterly foreign to me. Often times, the simplest solution is to avert my eyes and maneuver around these apparitions breaching my reality, my version of the city. Which, obviously, is an unhealthy way to go about the art of life, one that makes it easier for masses of people to be manipulated and exploited.
Part of why I enjoy travel is because it takes me beyond my cocoon, drops me in situations where I’m not insulated by the like-minded, the like-dressed, the people who share the same rhythm of daily existence as I do. It has made for some awkward moments, even some tense situations, perhaps a handful of genuinely threatening or dangerous confrontations. But by and large, it is an experience of easily finding common ground with people with whom I’m led to believe I share no common ground. It’s not that we agree or even get along — I make no apology about thinking I am right when it comes to certain issues, and I’m sure they don’t either — but we discover we can at least function alongside one another and, when party politics and affiliation is stripped away, perhaps share more sentiments than might have been obvious under layers of us-vs-them.
The two cities in The City & The City are not necessarily equals. One is doing better than the other. One has a freer system of government, a better economy. Again, the model might have been Berlin during the era of the Wall, but the parallel to modern America is striking. Trump made his bid for the Presidency by playing up a sense of grievance among certain portions of the population, playing to their bitterness, their sense of loss, their confusion over social changes. He didn’t give them hope, he didn’t deliver on promises, but he did give them an enemy, did deliver them someone to blame. And often, that’s all the rallying cry humans need. Pit middle and rural America against those coastal elites and eggheads and foreigners. It’s telling that, although technically a coastal elite himself, Trump was always on the outside looking in. He was considered too gauche, too crass, to uncultured to ever find acceptance among Manhattan’s high society circles. People with money and power and taste don’t need to constantly shout about how they have money and power and taste. Even on a microcosmic level, Trump was living in The City & The City.
It’s easy to erect cities and cities. Hell, each of our boroughs is a city and a city, and within those boroughs are cities and cities. I live far out in Brooklyn, where the slick, stylish neighborhood of Williamsburg is as derided and unknown as Midwood or Bensonhurst is in Williamsburg. Yet we all take the same train, the same train I sat on when I read The City & The City with other people drifting around me likely barely seen ghosts.
When they tore down the Berlin Wall, when the Iron Curtain collapsed, there was a moment of elation followed by a period of intense anxiety as the residents of the oppressed and impoverished East suddenly found themselves having to mix with the more prosperous, more worldly inhabitants of the West. I happened to be dating an exchange student from West Berlin at the time, and when the news filtered down that morning (Kentucky time), we on the school’s newspaper staff gathered around a television and watched a fuzzy live broadcast of what was going on. We’d never known anything but the Cold War, the Soviet Union, a divided Europe, the Berlin Wall. For us, it was a giddy time, but for her? She was as scared as she was thrilled. She would go home a few months later to a Berlin that was completely different than the one she left just a few months earlier, one full of ghosts from the east who were as ambivalent and hopeful as she was.
Germany stitched itself together, but even today they, like many countries, are in the midst of a growing social and political crisis that is splitting the country along different—but really the same—lines. Old, hateful, violent tribalism (or populism) is rumbling around again. As in The City & The City, the shattering of the veil doesn’t mark the end of the problem. It just means we enter a new phase. We humans dig these holes for ourselves over the span of generations. There’s no reason to assume climbing back out of them is an easy process.