California Hot Tubbing: An Oral History of the Steam Egg | KCET
California Hot Tubbing: An Oral History of the Steam Egg
There is a set of Californians with home exercise rooms, home-spas, and backyard pools. There is a set of Californians belonging to fitness clubs. There is a set of Californians who frequent day spas, or Korean baths.
Then there are hot tubbers.
The catalog of hot tubbing, inscribed on the minds of East Coast transplants in the Golden State, is a rich file with several entries: the hand crafted redwood hot tubbers basking in the stars, connecting with the western air and sky; the plastic hot tubbers coupling with one another, baked with horny sunshine and coco-oil. There are swingers from Orange County, that rare bath house set, which the AIDS crisis dialed down. Communion, with bubbles.
My first night in California involved a backyard hot tub in Santa Cruz. In my memory, the air was moist with coastal fog, glistening with the scent of jasmine emanating from a sprawling vine nearby. They were all strangers to me, my hot tub companions, except for my friend who'd brought me there. I knew I'd arrived to the California of my mind.
From L.A., you could drive out to the wild natural hot springs of Deep Creek up near Hesperia. Farther still to Santa Barbara, or go all in for Remington Hot Springs. It lies east of Bakersfield in the deep wild canyon of the Kern.
But on a Tuesday night in Downtown L.A., now where I call home, communion, of the hot tub variety, happens in an egg. A steam egg.
For the past two winter and spring seasons, Michael Parker has offered his home-studio as a steam bath for friends, and friends-of-friends-of-friends. And while it's not a hot tub, the bath provides the cloistered intimacy and gregarious encounters which the legend of the California Hot Tub describes. It's a downtown warehouse lacking a door-bell, so you have to call up by cell phone to be greeted at the door by Parker, or Alyse Emdur, or Lisa Anne Auerbach, who shares the space. They'll let you in and walk with you up the long wooden steps to the second floor. They'll usher you into their unit, a vast artist loft, that's been on month-to-month lease for a decade. On the way, they'll tell you about the evening's deejay and Herb-J, the smell selector. The Herb-J stokes the steam boilers with scent, infusing the evening with vibes and experience.
The vibes vary:
Fresh mountain sage.
Citrus Zest and Salt.
Vitamins and Ginseng.
The steam bath is in the shape of a large (large) egg standing on three angled legs. It's covered in mirrors and sits in the middle of the room like an obelisk, another enigmatic icon. It is made from shaped, layered, and mortared architectural foam ran though with a steel armature. Dazzling in mirrors and odd of shape, you would never ever guess that you could crawl underneath its elevated bottom and enter into its womb to sweat in the company of up to seven other folks. So the egg sits there on the floor, a monument to the mantra of "what the hell is that?"
Then you make your encounter.
The steam is an improvised production. To the right of the egg is an array mounted on a rolling wooden platform. . It's made of four plastic water tanks with heaters rammed into them. The Herb-J will seed these tanks with their teas, tinctures, essential oils, twigs, or fragrant leaves. The water is warmed and steam is piped from the tanks through a copper tube and into a hole in the side of the egg. The hole spills its wet warm content into the womb within. "The Hole", as its called by those who know it, lies calf level if you are sitting on the circular bench ringing the egg; your feet resting on the footrest below. The Hole will burn you. So be sure to bring in a towel in case you happen to be the one whom, in a packed egg, ends up sitting on the Hot Seat.
The vapor hits you first and then you feel wet. As your body slowly heats up the steam commingles with what you come to believe is no longer condensed water, but sweat. And then there's just lots of it, and it's dripping everywhere, and it's really hot. Some nights the gathering at the egg is light and you won't find it crowded inside. Other nights it's packed and folks outside are vying for the opportunity to climb in and puzzle themselves between two strangers' wet legs. You sit, you talk about the steam, the smell, and the sound the deejay has selected to accompany it. The sound comes in from a set of speakers up there- the egg has fine acoustic properties. You can feel it. After ten to fifteen minutes you've had enough. You have to notify your fellow soakers, because they'll have to offer you a hand as you crouch down avoiding their crotches, knees, and feet when you exit out the bottom of the egg and emerge wet into the crowd grouped casually in the dim light surrounding the womb.
After a steam, a lot of people go to the Night Gallery up in Lincoln Heights. And some will put on their clothing later and climb into their cars. I hear they head over there and hang out in the gallery. It's designed just for that, a late night only casual sit around and chat kind of spot. There is good art on the walls. You may know or meet someone at Night Gallery. You may have a conversation with them about the art, you may sit there comfortably until the late hours clothed in dialog. At the egg, in bathing suit or naked, the steam envelopes you and you can't avoid the visceral body experience. At one steam, Herb-J Joel Kyack installed a waterfall to accompany his scent. It came out of the wall and tumbled into a pool. It served as cold plunge for eggizens to dive into after their sweat. Joel is an artist, I don't really know if this matters or not, especially after a hot steam.
In 1975 Bill Elder wrote the how to guide for homebuilt hand craft California hot tubs, called "Hot Tub." The book opens with this inscription: "?"Dedicated to warmth, trust & camaraderie in an overcrowded and suspicious world." For a set of Angelenos who may not have personal hot tubs, home saunas, or gym membership the Steam Egg is a great place to live the out this myth of California.
Like the music in the video? Check out our interview with Javelin, who composed the music!
Top Image: Photo by Michael Parker.
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