It was the chatter chatter chatter of Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Spanish.
It was the eat eat eat of the herring, pelmini, pierogi and chilled vodka shots.
It was the schvitz, dunk, schvitz, dunk, heading from blistering Russian dry or Turkish wet steam rooms into a 41-degree plunge pool that had to be skimmed once in a while for stray leaves that had stuck to the Russian men when they beat each other with bundles of tree branch in the steam.
The windowless building on Cicero had indications of what went on inside, of course. Letters near the top of the single story declared “SAUNA… BANIA… SCHVITZ.” But other than that, the Chicago Sweatlodge is featureless from the outside, another awning over another door in Portage Park.
Inside the door, past the young guys handing towels, keys, sandals, a short restaurant area where men ate in none but towels. Past that, chairs where men watched March Madness or endless soccer promos for a match hours away.
The signs and instructions dropped F-bombs with precision. The instructions for the near frosted plunge pool led with the phrase “Man Up!”
But they also had ferns lining the walls, photographs and descriptions of traditional steams from the Navajo, Japanese, Turks, Finns, Irish and a dozen cultures in between.
It was comfortable but classy. It was, simply put, nice.
I don’t know how to write this without sounding like a review. The review of the Chicago Sweatlodge at 3500 N. Cicero, hours from would be: Go. It’s fun.
But I don’t write reviews. I don’t tell you about where you should go to spend your shekels. I write about human moments in a dehumanizing city.
Of those, there were many.
Tattoo-clad old Polish men laughing and telling stories. A group of young friends pushing and shoving and cajoling in what I think was Ukrainian. Friends telling tales over heaping plates of food from a half-dozen countries. A father and son silently sipping beers, each thinking about how far they had come.
I’m sure there was some fronting and push-shove angriness, the showing off that groups of men muster. I’m sure a few chests were pumped out and stomachs sucked in. Laws of probability dictate.
But I didn’t see that. I just saw men taking a break from having to be men, the exhausting process of having to show the world you’re better, stronger, smarter, that you kick more ass, fuck more women, down more shots and have cogent things to say about the world economy the whole time.
We could be friendly there. We could be social or just talk to our buddies. We could relax, stretch, get a massage and a heap of food or just sit and sweat alone.
I have my moments, my little human tidbits amid the hustle, my little leaves floating on the water. I’ll keep these memories for me.
I’ll leave you instead with the chatter chatter chatter of Spanish, Ukrainian, English, Russian, Pole. I’ll leave you with the scent of steam and Epsom filling the air.
And I’ll leave you with a room full of men who, for a few competition-free hours, didn’t have to show the world how much more ass-kicking and clever they were than all the others.
We didn’t have to be men there. We got to be.