Zoshchenko’s Bathhouse

Mikhail Zoshchenko, The Bathhouse. 1925


They say, citizens, that the public baths in America are excellent. There, for instance, a citizen goes to the bathhouse, takes off his clothes, puts them in a special box land goes happily off to wash. He has nothing to worry about–there’ll be no loss or theft, be won’t even take a check for his things.

Perhaps some uneasy American will say to the bath “Attendant, “Gutbye, please look after my things.”

And that’s all.

This American will wash, then return to the dressing room and his clean underclothes are handed to him washed and ironed. His undershirt, believe me, is whiter than snow. His drawers are repaired and patched! What a life!

Our baths aren’t so bad, either. But worse. However, you can get washed in them.

The only trouble with our baths is the checks. I went bathhouse last Saturday (after all, I can’t go to a for a bath). They handed me two checks. One underwear, the other for my coat and hat. Where is a naked man to put those checks? Honestly there’s no place for them. You have no pockets. All you have is a belly and legs. What a nuisance those checks are! You can’t tie them to your beard. Well, I tied a check to each leg so as not to lose them and went into the bath. Now the checks flop around my feet. It’s uncomfortable to walk with them. But walk you must. Then you must find yourself a bucket. How can you wash without a bucket? Can’t be done.

I look for a pail. I notice a citizen who’s washing himself in three buckets. He stands in one, soaps his head in another, and holds onto the third with his left hand so no one will swipe it.

I pulled the third pail toward me, trying to appropriate it, but the citizen wouldn’t let go of it.

“What’s the idea,” he said, “stealing other people’s buckets? If I smack you between the eyes with this bucket you won’t like it.”

I said, “This isn’t the czarist regime, that you can go around bashing people with buckets. What selfishness!”

I said. “Other people want to get washed, too. This isn’t a theater.”

But he turned his back to me and went on washing.

What’s the use of standing over his soul? I thought. He’ll be washing for three days on purpose.

I went further on.

An hour later I noticed a gaffer who had looked away and taken his band off his bucket. Maybe he had bent down for his soap, or just gone off into a daydream, I don’t know. Only I got his bucket.

Now I bad a pail, but there was no place to sit down. And to wash standing up, what kind of a wash is that? It’s no good at all.

Well, all right, I had to stand there and wash, holding my bucket in my hand.

And all around me-Heaven help us-there was a regular laundry. One fellow was washing his pants, another scrubbing his drawers, a third wringing out something else. And there was such a din from all that laundering that you don’t feel like washing. You can’t even hear where you’re rubbing the soap! It’s a mess!

To hell with them! I thought. I’ll finish washing at home.

I went back to the dressing room. They handed me my clothes in exchange for the check. Everything is mine, I see, except the pants.

“Citizens,” I said, “mine had a hole right here, and look where it is on these.”

“We’re not here to watch over holes. This isn’t a theater,” the attendant replied.

Well, all right. I put on the trousers and go to get my coat. They give me the coat … they demand the check. And I’ve left the check on my leg. Have to undress again. I take off the trousers … look for the check … it’s gone. The string is there on my leg, but the paper is gone. Washed away.

I offer the string to the attendant. He won’t take it.

“I can’t hand out coats for string,” he says. “Any citizen can cut up string. There wouldn’t be enough coats to go around. Wait until the customers have gone,” he says. “I’ll give you what’s left.”

“My dear friend,” I say, “what if they leave me a piece of junk? This isn’t a theater,” I say. “‘Give me the coat that fits this description. One pocket is torn, the other is missing. As for buttons, the upper one is there, and no one expects any lower ones to be left.”

He gave it to me after all. Didn’t even take the string. Suddenly I remembered: I bad forgotten my soap.

I went back in. They wouldn’t let me enter the washroom in my coat.

“Undress,” they say.

“Citizens, I can’t undress a third time. This isn’t a theater. At least let me have the price of the soap.

They won’t.

All right, they won’t. I leave without the soap.

The reader, perhaps, may be wondering what sort of bathhouse I am describing. Where is it? What’s the address?

What bathhouse? The usual sort, where the price of admission is ten kopecks.

Source: Mikhail Zoshchenko, Nervous People (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963), pp. 131-134.


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