The East Village: A City of Touch

Okay, so we were a little surprised to hear that Beyoncé gets her nails done in the East Village, but Brendan Bernhard might not have been. In his latest essay, he points out that ours is a neighborhood that caters to the body.

 touch - Susan Nail Ave ASusan Keyloun The nail paint at Susan Nail & Spa at 149 Avenue A.

It’s one of the things I love about the East Village (and miss when I’m gone): the amount of attention to which your body can be paid (if you’re willing to pay for it) on almost any street.

Take the venerable Russian & Turkish Baths on East Tenth Street between First Avenue and Avenue A (forever and ever the hottest place in the neighborhood in the literal sense), where in under twenty minutes, a lifetime’s worth of clogged pores can be brutalized into unleashing rivers of salt.

touch - baths IMG_0511Susan Keyloun

On weekdays after work the place can be as packed as a subway car, filled with the Ordinary and the Beautiful. You see boxers and dancers and models and performance artists and India-rubber yogis and other aristocrats of the physique, not excluding exhibitionists, dowsing themselves with ice-cold water in rooms ramped up to temperatures Satan would balk at. There are people who spend hours there almost every day of the year; after a decade or so, they start to look like steamed fish. In the afternoon it can be quite empty: I once shared the “Turkish Room” with a heat-loving rat.

Practically next door is Body Evolution, the spacious pilates and gyrotronics studio where torsos bend and sway gracefully, and – for a price – instructors will lengthen you and strengthen you on a variety of expensive contraptions and make you supple and lean and quite possibly ready to take on the world (if you take enough classes; if you spend enough money.)

touch - Kai Yue Chinese Tui-Na 249 E 10Susan Keyloun Kai Yue Chinese Tui-Na Salon at 249 East 10th Street

A little seedier is the slightly subterranean Asian massage parlor near the corner of First Avenue, where, when not busy probing knotted muscles, middle-aged Chinese masseuses can be seen slumped on a sofa in the “foyer” gossiping as they eat potent-smelling take-out, their voices like the clacking of dissonant castanets tuned to the scale of a sitar. Occasionally they pay a visit to the sidewalk for a smoke, and their shrewd, seen-it-all eyes size up potential customers in this newly troublesome economy cooked up by those peculiar Americans whose language they either don’t understand or pretend they are unable to.

That’s just one block, and I may have left something out. Others might mention the Arab and vegan restaurants, the variety of “health” drinks that can be procured – all in tribute to those unavoidable, often troublesome vessels we are forced to live inside, our bodies. As for our minds, there are therapists and psychiatrists to be found in the neighborhood, but they are not plentiful. Whether you want a tattoo or a facial, a manicure or a foot-rub, a hair-weave or a session with an acupuncturist, the East Village is wholeheartedly body-centric. For Freud & co., try the Upper East Side.

It seems like there are more mani/pedi salons in the neighborhood than there are banks, which takes some doing. Early in the evening, watch the young women – how Edward Hopper would have loved to paint them – stretch out dreamily on their vibrating thrones as equally youthful Asian women buff and shine their nails, kneel down like supplicants to apply the razor to the stubborn layers of hard dry skin on the soles of their milky feet. Gazing through the windows, one senses a slightly drugged atmosphere, the women’s eyes half-closed like those of somnolent cats, as if this were our century’s version of a clean, transparent, well-lighted opium den.

touch - Neighborhood Barbers 439 E 9thSusan Keyloun Neighborhood Barbers

Half a block away, men sit shoulder-to-shoulder at the Russian-run Neighborhood Barbers on Ninth Street, waiting their turn with the scissors and shears. A stack of magazines heavy on semi-naked girls keeps them occupied. The barber shop is cramped and harshly lit, the ambience unembarassedly masculine. I once saw a boyishly pretty girl having her hair cropped by the store’s maestro (who grinned in delight at this unexpected intrusion of even androgynous femininity), but only once.

More common is the sight of a vast naked back being shaved until it gleams white like the moon. The place is a factory for the ridding of hair: head hair, facial hair, ear hair, nose hair, eyebrow hair, chest hair, back hair, neck hair – just about anything that grows above the waist minus the arms and armpits, which are the territory of women.

Spend enough time in the East Village, and you come to think of it as its own independent province, a City of Touch. Here it all goes on at once: Ears are candled; sore backs kneaded; hair shampooed; scalps caressed; images and slogans inked into arms; aching feet coaxed into a semblance of springiness and life. All day long, Yogis lead the faithful in Oms and meditative chants. There are moments when a significant proportion of the neighborhood’s residents may be staring through their Third Eye rather than the other two.

New York is a harsh, abrasive city, thronged yet monadic, a non-stop assault on the nervous system, a fire engine to the left of you and a jack-hammer to the right. The influx of body-based businesses in the East Village and elsewhere has helped soften its contours and provide tiny oases where one can be, if not healed exactly, then becalmed and soothed.

I am reminded of French film director Anne Fontaine’s oddball comedy, “Augustin, King of Kung-Fu,” in which the shy and bumbling protagonist, who dreams of being a Kung-Fu champion but faints whenever he is touched, finds help for this peculiar affliction at the hands of a beautiful Chinese acupuncturist played by Maggie Cheung. She pierces him with so many needles he ends up looking like a latter-day Saint Sebastian laid out on a snow-white bed. But his expression is appropriately blissful.