Didn’t they give you a luffa?”
Tim, the manager of the spa at the Buckstaff Bathhouse in Hot Springs, Arkansas, is concerned. I am sitting in a comfy black leather chair in the men’s locker room — a splendid double-decked, blue-and-brass fantasia of lockers punctuated by a grand central stairway, a facility of such striking symmetry it could be the set of a Wes Anderson movie.
I’m here for the same menu of services that has been offered at Buckstaff for 111 years: A top-to-bottom, inside-and-out once-over that promises to restore my vigor and bolster my health. At about $80, it sounds like an unbeatable bargain.
But the balance of Tim’s universe is slightly off at this moment. It’s the luffa thing. I was supposed to get one when I checked in with the nice women at the front desk, a team that is apparently so steeped in precision they never, ever, forget to give a guest his luffa.
“You’re sure …” he persists.
I show him my empty hands, and Tim is forced to accept this aberration. He shows me to a dressing cubicle, with three metal lockers, and pulls the blue-and-white striped privacy curtain across.
“You can put your clothes in one of the lockers and put the key around your wrist,” he says. “I’ll go see if I can find you a luffa.”
I have to smile at the irony of the privacy curtain, because I am at this moment contemplating my most consequential decision of the day: Will I proceed with donning the bathing suit I’ve brought along, or will I engage in the time-honored tradition of this century-old spa and go forth into its white marble halls stark naked?
The world was a different place in 1912, when the Buckstaff Bathhouse opened along Hot Springs’ Bath House Row. If I were standing on this very spot 111 years ago, I would be surrounded by men wearing nothing but their handlebar mustaches, standing around speculating about the Kaiser’s plans, and perhaps engaging in a barbershop quartet rendition of “Come, Josephine, in My Flying Machine.”
I’ll not burden you with much detail as to why I’m choosing to go with the trunks. I actually came in here steeling myself for a nude adventure. In my relatively fit early years, I wouldn’t have thought twice. But I’m 67 now, and perhaps I spent too many formative years rushing through the crowded locker rooms at Jones Beach and Asbury Park and Bear Mountain, averting my eyes from the elderly gents who seemed so weirdly comfortable standing around, bodies sagging in the most alarming places, chatting idly about what’s up with Mickey Mantle, and do you think JFK has a chance against Nixon. I swore to my little self I would never join the ranks of those gravity- and weight-denying fellows, and I finally decide I’m not about to start now.
Tim escorts me out to the spa’s main room, an enormous space with a 20-foot ceiling and marble walls that reach all the way up. In the center is a fleet of blue cushioned cots; around the perimeter are lines of marble cubicles, about 12 of them, each home to an enormous 80-gallon ceramic-and-cast-iron clawfoot tub.
“This is Dave,” Tim says, introducing me to a healthy-looking fellow, seemingly about my age, in khakis and a white polo shirt. “He’ll be your spa attendant.”
It’s a little odd to hear the word spa attached to this sprawling space that, aesthetically at least, has more in common with a Walmart than Canyon Ranch. I was not expecting ferns and incense, but neither was I prepared for the stark utilitarian nature of this fluorescent-lit expanse. I find myself humming “White Room” by Cream — “where the shadows run from themselves.”
Again, I need to remind myself, I am here as something of a time traveler. In 1912, Hot Springs was not simply a vacation destination. This place was, in fact, something just short of a hospital. People came from around the nation to soak in the hot, soothing waters, to absorb the healing minerals, to relieve conditions modern medicine had not yet come close to easing.
Dave ushers me to one of those cubicles and invites me to slide into the tub. The water, a few inches deep, is already warm. He turns a spigot and in pours truly hot water, straight from the local earth, fed by gravity from the bowels of Hot Springs Mountain, located directly behind this building. Clear as a prism, the water that now embraces me fell from the sky some 4,000 years ago, then seeped through the mountain’s rocky crevices, heated to about 142 degrees in what amounts to a natural pressure cooker. A dial thermometer, manufactured by the long-defunct hydrotherapy company Ille Electric of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, registers my bath water at around 102 degrees.
Flicking a switch, Dave engages the water jet, a cylindrical blue device that resembles a tiny Evinrude outboard motor.
“Ten minutes,” Dave says.
He hands me my luffa. “Most of the guys use it as a pillow.”
Then he is gone, leaving me to contemplate the marble wall and the tips of my toes resting at the other end of the tub. Beyond my cubicle, I hear other jets in other tubs containing other men, churning away.
This is easily the largest bath tub I’ve ever sat in; I am practically swimming in it. For a moment, I am a little kid again, in my family’s big old cast-iron tub, sloshing around with the rim up around my eyes.
The traditional bathhouse treatment involves not settling in and letting the world slip by, but embarking on a station-to-station journey from one apparatus to the next. Having fetched me from my bath, Dave is now leading me toward a row of open booths containing more porcelain vessels, little brothers of the big tubs but more like large kitchen sinks, set on the floor.
“Sitz bath!” says Dave with what seems unwarranted enthusiasm. He takes my hand, helps ease me in butt-first — and leaves me there. Traditionally, this mini-soak is supposed to ease hemorrhoids and promote prostate and kidney health. Mentioned less often is the historical fact that the sitz bath is one of the chief reasons Chicago gangsters like Al Capone and Baby Face Nelson used to make the pilgrimage to Hot Springs. Soaking his nether regions in the supposedly therapeutic waters — into which judicious amounts of mercury were mixed — Capone hoped to reverse the ravages of the incurable syphilis that was swarming through his body.
It is hard to imagine a more humbling position than hunching, knees nearly to your chin, in four inches of hot water. You’ll see lots of historic images of men soaking in whirlpool tubs, sweating in saunas, and wincing through rigorous massages, but you will never, ever see photos of those same men indelicately squatting like fleshy frogs.
Every once in a while the knees of another client pass by. Reluctantly, but reflexively, I glance upward and see an equally embarrassed face looking down, like a big city pedestrian passing an unfortunate wretch, down on his luck, without even a proper pair of pants.
My mind wanders 111 years hence. Looking back from the 2200s, what present-day “healthy” practices will mystify our descendants? Peloton? Pickleball?
I’m desperate for something to look at. Something to read. But all that’s within sight are two signs, for unknown reasons posted right next to each other, bearing the same words: “10 Minute Limit in Sitz Bath.”
Dave’s khakis come into view. “All right!” he says, extending a hand. “Time for the steam room.” He pulls me from the sitz bath like a boatman hauling in a monkfish.
In the classic Victorian bathhouse scheme, the steam room is not the tile-lined, mist-filled chamber where movie mobsters meet to plot gang wars or the Sex and the City women dish gossip while barely staying wrapped in their towels. Dave gestures me into a contraption that is absolutely the stuff of 1950s sitcom dreams: The metal-doored, hole-in-the top steam cabinet, the thing you would imagine Lucy Ricardo or Ralph Kramden getting trapped in.
I sit on the wooden bench. Dave proceeds to seal me inside with the grand clanging of metal flaps. My head protruding from the top, I imagine I resemble a half-human, half-robot hybrid. Dave wraps my neck in a towel to prevent the soaking hot air — heated solely by the spring water — from escaping.
“We’re trying to bring your body temperature up to about 114 degrees,” he tells me, settling onto a bench barely within view. “The idea is to kill off any germs and viruses that might be susceptible to that kind of heat.”
If I were casting a movie about a bathhouse attendant, I would hire Dave the moment he came into the room. Steely-eyed and built like a retired high school gym teacher, he’s been pulling guys out of sitz baths here since the 1980s. And he seems to love his job, which makes the inevitable humblings of a day at the spa a lot more fun than they would ordinarily be.
If this were a Tex Avery cartoon, at the end of 10 minutes Dave would open the steam box and reveal my body shrunken and shriveled to the size of a large dried apricot. But as the lid is lifted and the relatively cool air wafts around my body, I feel unexpectedly invigorated.
Then I stand up and feel a slight wave of lightheadedness. That’s not unusual, and the next phase of my treatment will address that. Dave has me lie down on one of those blue cushioned cots and proceeds to wrap me in a thick, cool sheet. Comfortably papoosed, I’m told I’ll be lying like this for the next 15 minutes.
“Most of the guys go to sleep about now,” Dave tells me. “I’ll wake you when time’s up.”
But I don’t want to go to sleep. As interesting as all this is, I’m pretty sure this is going to be my one-and-only traditional spa experience. Like Aerosmith, I don’t want to close my eyes, ’cuz I don’t want to miss a thing. Despite creeping drowsiness, I virtually pry my eyelids open, taking in the patch of peeling ceiling paint and listening to the echoing sounds of gurgling whirlpool tubs, bodies plopping down into sitz baths, and flip-flops flapping against feet.
I think I was snoring when Dave began to unwrap me, like Lord Carnarvon tending to the mummy of King Tut.
“Okay!” he says. “That’s it for me. I’m gonna hand you over to Zan for your massage.”
From the wide-open spaces of the main room I am led to a warren of smaller ones. In one I find Zan waiting by a massage table. The surroundings are a jarring contrast to my previous massage experiences: I’ve been rubbed down to the sound of sitars on cruise ships and in an open-air cabana with a view of the volcanic cone of Bora Bora. Those locales are to this room what Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is to a Winn-Dixie, but from the moment he lays hands on me it’s clear Zan means business in ways those fancy masseuses and masseurs never did.
A longtime sports massage therapist in Phoenix, Arizona, Zan came to Hot Springs to visit his girlfriend’s family and decided to stay. After a few relatively gentle preliminaries, Zan is soon folding my arms and legs into positions I’m pretty sure they have not assumed since I was swimming around in my mother’s womb.
Zan has me roll over onto my stomach. I stare at the floor, my face a cameo framed in a terry-cloth-padded oval. Like everything else here, the tile pattern below is strictly utilitarian; white and black with a squared-off flourish near the wall. As Zan punishes my upper back for its sins of inactivity, from another chamber I hear echoes of Hank Thompson wailing a long-ago song of countrified sorrow: “The only sanctuary I seek/Is on tap, in the can or in the bottle/Oh bartender bring it to me.” At the time this place was built, country music had barely descended from the hills and hollows of the Arkansas Ozarks. Now the air echoes with it as millionaires sing of battered pickup trucks they’ve never driven and shoeless childhoods that never were. As weird as this place may be, at least it’s stubbornly real.
My time is up. Zan leaves me as I slowly lift myself to a sitting position, my feet dangling off the table. I swing them lazily, wondering for a brief moment if, when I try to stand on them, they might just flop under me like overcooked fusilli.
I pad my way back to the locker room, past the grand tubs, past the humble sitz baths. Again, I try to imagine this place teeming with millionaires and gangsters, tended to by an army of attentive bath drawers, sheet wrappers, and body masseurs. I stop for a moment and listen for the voices of those naked men, echoing ever so faintly within these marble walls.
It wasn’t a better world, nor a simpler one. Just different.
“Hey!” It’s Dave, chasing after me. “Don’t forget your luffa!”
I weigh the spongy mitt in my hand. It comes home with me and now sits in my shower. And I still don’t know what it’s for.
Bill Newcott is a three-time International Regional Magazine Association Writer of the Year (2020-2022) and movie critic for The Saturday Evening Post.
This article appears in the March/April 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now