Savoring time in a sauna
Gathering Story Series
Monday, April 12, 2010
Section: Local News Page: B1

The Schvitz Inc.'s front door was locked.

Katerina Czerwiec pulled at it, rapped the blind-covered window and peered in the mail slot, before speaking fast, impatient-sounding Russian into her cell phone. Sunday nights are reserved for women. It was supposed to be open.

Czerwiec's barrage included "banya." Russian for sauna.

This 55-year-old former private men's club and sauna on Kenmore Avenue, with its cold saltwater pool, showers, kitchen and dining room, is named "schvitz" after the Yiddish word for sweat. Yet the original old patrons -- Jews and Italians -- don't come as much.

Now many of the 40 or so who come speak Russian and were born in Russia or the former Soviet republics. In recent years, owners say, regulars have ranged from Buffalo Sabres hockey players to lawyers, doctors and taxi drivers. It costs modern schvitzers $25 for a five-hour privilege of hanging out, sweating, swimming, eating and sipping mugs of tea brewed in the kitchen pot.

Once Czerwiec, a college student, didn't go for a while and she didn't feel right: "I can't concentrate. I can't study." Her skin itched. "It was letting me know, 'Hello. Come on. It's time to go to sauna,' " she said.

Back home, saunas, plain and fancy, are everywhere, in houses and separate buildings, said Czerwiec, 26, who used to live in St. Petersburg and Belarus.

This one is big by her standards. Yet many Buffalonians drive by the flat goldish-orange brick building just east of Starin Avenue oblivious to it and its simple sign, too small to read from the road.

Inside, the quiet place has some elegance. A pale green tiled pool, marble showers, tiers of wooden benches in the sauna with a 200-degree rock oven. The place seems forgotten. Or like a secret.

Faded color photographs of the old days are in the dining room: Grinning men with sideburns and big 1970s glasses, playing cards at tables, heads just above water in the pool.

The corner phone booths in the dining hall, where the bookies used to make calls, are gone. So is the late mafia boss Stefano Magaddino and the naked man who soaped clients with a hot-water soaked oak leaf bundle.

Some old names have memorial wall plaques. Owners of a pool company, a jewelry store, a bread bakery, a Broadway market food broker and this etched tribute to one man's prowess at winning at gin without letting his opponent score: "Losing is one thing. Blitzing is another."

The men who rescued The Schvitz in the 1990s say they haven't made a profit since they bought it several years after founder Manley Kaufman died.

"We didn't want it to close," said Lenny Silver. Drinking seltzer from cold mugs kept stashed in the freezer, they talked about why they, and others, love this place.

"They want to get away from their wives," said Brian Schectman, who inherited his late father Harold's share.

"They come here and they kibbitz," said Hy Shuman, using the Yiddish word for "chat." At 83, he remembers the 1940s when saunas and public bathing places were all over the city -- from the Statler Hotel to one at William and Hickory streets.

Silver likes its multiple parts. People sauna, shower, swim, eat. Beds, now neatly made in the sleeping room, used to be full of snoozing men, tired from the sauna. A small "rubbing" room still holds a table for a Russian masseur who comes, on request, for $50 an hour.

When Silver started coming in the 1950s, he was a young promoter of recording artists Andy Williams and the Everly Brothers. His favorite thing was the food. Big salads, french fries and steaks cooked in the kitchen, where caretaker Isaak Kiselev still grills meat people bring and cooks his own mix of potatoes and onions.

For Silver, who owns the Record Theatre stores, the schvitz is good for business. He brought "Doc" Severinsen in the 1990s when Silver was producing his records toward the end of the bandleader's reign with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show." Another musician and conductor Silver signed marveled. "He was like, 'Wow I got to be naked and make deals.' " Tanned with thick, snow white hair, Silver, in jeans and running shoes, seems younger than 83. He lifted his big gold rimmed aviator sunglasses for a closer look before he locked up and drove off in a black Mercedes convertible. "No wrinkles yet," he said happily. "All from the schvitz."

By Sunday afternoon, as Czerwiec stood outside the door, the parking lot was almost empty.

When Kiselev sleepily opened up, Czerwiec stopped at the lockers and slipped through the double-glass doors to the sauna. The University at Buffalo finance major, who can only afford this every other week, wanted her money's worth.

Within about an hour, others had come. They were cooling off in the benches by the windows and having animated conversations in Russian.

Anna Shafir looked at the pool that was too icy cold for her. When she was a girl in Moldova, her father liked a frigid river swim after the sauna.

Cold closes the skin pores that the heat opens, said Rena Bagiryan. She was from Baku, Azerbaijan. "That's why I know everything," she said.

She thought a dip was best as a last stop. It wasn't time yet.

They kept talking. This was a good place for Shafir to get her mind off everyday life. "There's nobody bugging you. No kids around," she said.

A half hour later and Bagiryan was ready to go back to the heat. "OK, now I like to have a broom." In the sauna, a fragrant "broom" bundle of leafy birch and oak branches, thought to improve circulation, was lifted from a bucket of hot water.

As it made thwapping taps against skin, the women talked some more. It's too bad, said Bagiryan, that it's so hard to get Americans to try new things. Her daughter won't come.

It was almost 9. Czerwiec had to go. She didn't want to miss "Desperate Housewives."

The schvitz had worked in its usual, amazing way. She had conversation with women she knew. She was tired and relaxed. Her scrubbed skin was soft. She felt good and clean.

"That's the satisfaction," she said. "Mental and physical."