Hot and steamy

It's midnight inside a dimly lit banquet room on Detroit's east side. The place is like any low-frills dining space — cheap carpeting, plain walls and rounded booths on the room's edges, with padded seats and small tables.

But this one is different: People are having sex with each other in the booths. In full view of everyone else in the room.

It's Saturday night at the Schvitz in Detroit, and this is couples' night, which really means swingers night, when men and women come to have public sex and sometimes swap partners with others as strangers watch the action.

The air's thick and musty from the steam bath downstairs. Loud moans peal out from a porno flick cranked up in a movie room, mixing with breathing sounds rising from massage booths and unseen areas. Some couples sip booze at a table to gain courage before joining the group in the big room upstairs, while others sit back to watch the scene unfold.

THE SCHVITZ, located on Oakland Avenue near Clay, is a Jekyll and Hyde of a place. Though it's been notorious over the years for rumors of orgies held here, on most days it's simply a spot for older men who enjoy the Old World tradition of the steam, a place with a rich history long before the lurid stories spread. Built in 1930, it was the hangout of the notorious Purple Gang, the Detroit-based Jewish mobsters who made a fortune bootlegging alcohol from Canada to Detroit during Prohibition. They were famously violent, blamed for several hundred grisly and very public murders in the city.

The bathhouse they adopted was modeled on steam rooms that local immigrants like them had patronized back in Eastern European ghettos. Though there were several smaller bathhouses in this part of the west side, which for a time was a Jewish neighborhood centered on Oakland Avenue, this was the grandest of them. Now it's the last one left.

It began as the Oakland Health Club, back when health clubs consisted of such things as steam baths, liquor and big meals. "This place doesn't have any sort of exercise equipment," says Ronnie Smith, 73. He's been taking steams here for nearly a half-century. "Never did in all the years I've been coming here." It was eventually renamed the Schvitz, after the Yiddish word for "sweat."

The roots of its Russian-style steam room go back centuries, back to the days before indoor plumbing.

"They started using bath houses because they didn't have personal showers," says Daniel Vayse, who manages the Schvitz. "In Russia, lot of people they build small house like steam room just from wood; it's for two, three people, and they mostly use in wintertime, so when they hot they go outside and they jump in the ice water or they roll in the snow."

Vayse, 64, came to Detroit from Russia in 1980, and was hired at the bathhouse soon after. A former track and field athlete for the Soviets in St. Petersburg, he's stocky and soft-spoken with a thick Russian accent, and spends his days bustling around the building, taking care of innumerable tasks.

The steam room he runs has bleacher-style wood seats along two walls. The higher the seat, the hotter the heat, which is created by a gas oven holding several tons of superheated rocks taken from the bottom of a river. Steam is made by pouring water on top of them.

"It's amazing," says Nick Bahaweg, 68, toweling off after a schvitz. "Your body goes through some kind of instant response to it when you come in here. Within five minutes you start to perspire, and after about seven minutes you feel the oils and the salt come out through the pores, and that lasts you a good 20 minutes, a half-hour. It's a very, very relaxing thing."

Central to the experience is the plaetza, spelled several ways but always consisting of a massage one schvitzer gives another using a bouquet of oak leaves that have been soaked in a bucket of warm water, softening them and causing them to give off a tea-like odor as the recipient is rubbed from head to toe with it.

The steam is followed by its opposite, a jump into a cold-water swimming pool that snaps the pores shut. "You almost feel like you're neutered," Bahaweg says. "The minute that you jump in there your nuts disappear. Really. It's cold."

The Schvitz also has massage tables, a dining area, hot tubs and a movie room with a projector and screen. In the old days it even had sleeping quarters for members who got kicked out of their homes or had to hide from the law.

But you'd never know any of that by looking at the building. The exterior has no signs. Its windows are bricked in with cinderblocks. The whole structure is painted gray. It's drab and boring, as if to avoid drawing curiosity. The front door is always locked, and the only way inside is for someone at the front desk to buzz you in after getting a look at you.

It looks like an old-time men's club inside. Several garish, old-fashioned paintings of nude women languishing on satin sheets hang on the dark-wood walls. There's a 60-year-old African gray parrot named Nemo who sometimes squawks vulgarities from his cage at the dining room's edge. Small metal lockers hold belongings, and thick leather couches hold lounging schvitzers.

Framed newspaper accounts and photos of the Purple Gang line the front hallway and the dining room walls. The white-tiled basement, which houses the pool and the steam room, is the same as when it was built, with the founding year "1930" spelled out in black inset tiles.

Weekdays draw the die-hards, the regulars with a strict routine. "Wednesday and Thursdays we have the purists," says Eric Austin, 56. His family's been schvitzing here since the beginning. He even had a couple of uncles in the Purple Gang. "I'd never hear the truth about it, just kind of sideway stories because my mother was embarrassed."

He swears by the therapeutic benefits of a steam for the sick and injured. "We had a friend that we literally carried downstairs so he could get the heat," Austin says. "There's all kinds of miracle stories about people supposed to get surgery on their backs, get some heat and they don't go through with the surgery. It's a healthy thing because it opens up all of your pores and it gets your circulation going, gets rid of poisons in you."

BUT THE SCHVITZ is quite different on Friday and Saturday evenings, the nights referred to obliquely as "couples' night." It began so men could bring their wives to share in the steam experience. It evolved into an orgy.

"I was here when they first started," Smith says. "We had no clue. I came about three months after they started with my wife and we all brought bathing suits. We didn't know what the hell was going on. It was quite funny. We walked into the steam room and nobody's got clothes on." This was nearly three decades ago. Little has changed.

Though the employees here know what goes on, they turn a blind eye to it. What happens here, they say, is between consenting adults. There is no sex for sale, as a TV station found out in a fruitless undercover investigation a few years back, and the Schvitz itself does nothing to promote or facilitate these parties. The participants decide everything — raw or safe sex, swap or stick with the one you brought tonight, watch or participate.

One schvitzer, a middle-aged suburbanite who, like most everyone involved in it didn't want his name used, remembers the first time he went to couples' night. He and a girlfriend went into the movie room and sat in a chair at the front. "Another couple came and sat down in the La-Z-Boy by us, and as soon as they sat down immediately the girl got down on her knees and started giving him a blow job like it was nothing," he says. "And I'd never seen anything like that in my life. And then I turn and look around me and the whole room is having sex. This was the craziest thing I'd ever seen."

The rules of couples' night are simple: only pairs of men and women allowed. No membership is required, just a $70 per-couple entrance fee. Bring your own booze. Out by 2 a.m. No photos whatsoever. Otherwise, almost anything goes.

The one thing not allowed is privacy. If people choose to play, it must be in public. "We don't have private places," Vayse says. "That's one thing we don't have. We don't want to have something illegal, so whatever, everything in public, and everybody can see what's going on. It's up to them, but what they do there nobody cares. As long as nobody complains, I really don't have problem with it."

The night usually starts in the steam room or a hot tub, then moves to the dining room, where people drink and mingle as in a bar — except, in this bar, everybody will get laid tonight.

There are several places to do so — the massage tables, the steam room, the movie room with pornos blaring at high volume. The most popular spot, though, is the upstairs dining area, known as the Party Room.

Late on a wintry Saturday night, the first sight inside the Party Room door is a thin, blond, thirtysomething woman kneeling on the floor, giving blow jobs to two men standing on either side of her, concentrating on one, then the other, then back again. The fourth of this group, like others in the room, is watching.

At the next booth, an older couple screws on a padded seat. In a dark corner, a naked couple contort to a slightly different position. There's something sexual going on in every booth all around the room. Some people simply watch quietly or fondle each other in the dim light.

Back in the dining room downstairs, 57-year-old George sits in a loose white robe at a table, drinking pop and whiskey with his companion, 58-year-old LaNatasha. They characterize themselves as "childhood sweethearts" who'd known each other for decades. Her husband isn't there, and is not aware that she is. Such is the nature of couples' night.

"I come for sauna and massage and watch the hot-ass men walk by," she says, swaying tipsily. She's ready to party.

"This is one of the well-kept secrets in Detroit," says George. He mentions other swingers' venues in Detroit, but says most serve merely as meeting points from which couples must go elsewhere to hook up. "I don't know if you know anything about 'The Lifestyle,' but this is one of the few places in Detroit that's on-site."

Most nights the couples are middle-aged; a few are old, a handful are younger.

"It's mostly older people, just like me," George says. "I came into it late. What I realized now, I was living a pretty sheltered life. I got married at 18, stayed married 20 years." After a divorce, he heard about couples' nights from a friend at work, and has been a regular ever since.

Orgy etiquette is in effect here. "It's the same as anywhere else — no means no," says George, a retired bus driver. "Like if somebody's having sex and you say, 'Can I watch?' and they say no, I say 'Have a good time,' and move on. Just like it would be outside, except you might be naked."

The crowd is usually diverse — fit and fat, black and white, spouses and strangers. Some couples come to reignite dormant sex lives, live out exhibitionist fantasies or to add third parties to the mix without going further than being watched. Most, though, keep to themselves, getting their thrill out of watching and being watched, as shapes of bodies blur in the faint light.

DAYS LATER, the halls and rooms of the Schvitz are roamed by older naked men, joined by a growing contingent of younger Russians thrilled to find a steam room like those back home. No women tonight.

For these guys, the Schvitz will always be about the steam room and the camaraderie. Couples' night will be little more than the subject of whispers and jokes.

"Even with all this craziness over the years, there's always been a common thread of guys coming down, wanting to relax and enjoy the steam," says 49-year-old Alan Havis. "Ultimately, it comes down to the steam."

He sat in the dining room one weeknight as a small group of middle-aged and elderly men, fresh from the steam room and wrapped in white robes or towels, ate big meals like steak and French fries. "My dad has been coming down for like 50 years, and I've been coming down almost 30 years, and my father's uncle used to come down here a long time ago," Havis says. "It was a place to really bond. And it still gives me a chance every week to spend some time with my dad. It's really something that I cherish." His 85-year-old dad sits upright on a nearby couch, towel on his head, dozing. Havis patiently waits for him to awaken.

"It's just a place where you can go and relax and no one's looking over your shoulder, no one's judging you," Havis adds. "It's so opposite of what goes on outside."

And if the bonding time and companionship isn't enough, there's always couples' night, where marriages get tested, inhibitions are challenged, and secret fantasies are indulged.

Or as Vayse puts it, "Well, they can hump here, yes."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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