Friday, April 21, 2006

Tokyo Sento Versus the Encinitas YMCA
The Japanese are generally very reserved, and so in the sento (or sauna) I visited in Tokyo, I sat and sweated in silence with my fellow sauna-goers, not least because I couldn’t speak Japanese, and if anyone spoke English, they hid it well.

I visited the Encinitas YMCA last week to recreate the sento experience and sweat out the jet lag. The dingy and under-lit wood-walled sauna at the Y is a closet-sized room just off the showers in the men’s locker-room. And o, sweet heavens, there was no piped-in Muzak! I sat in blissful silence for about 10 minutes---before being blindsided by Leonard Baxter.

Leonard entered, climbed to the top bench, and introduced himself. He appeared to be in his late 60s or early 70s. “I was watching the Masters on TV,” he told me. “I’m a golf pro.”

With what seemed to me to be a blatant lie, he immediately grabbed the conversational rudder and proceeded to steer the ship into the deep, uncharted waters of madness.

We talked about golf. Actually, Leonard talked while I listened and nodded. I don’t know shit about golf.

“I was the California Golden Gloves champ!” Leonard then declared, changing tack with a subtle non sequitur. “But I had to retire---you ever seen an old boxer? They’re practically retarded!”

“But I still got it, though. Once a boxer, always a boxer!” Leonard climbed to face me and assumed a boxer’s stance.

The sauna floor at the Encinitas Y is about two-feet square, so as a result, I had a rather intimate view, from about 6 inches away and at eye-level, of the helmeted nub of Leonard’s penis, which sprouted mushroom-like from a tuft of white pubic hair.

Any concerns I had over my sudden and unexpected proximity to Leonard’s antediluvian reproductive organs vanished, however, when he began to fire off a series of one-two punches that stopped just short of my face.

I did a fair-to-middling Spiderman impression and clambered backwards and upwards, as one does when confronted by a nude septuagenarian demonstrating his boxing prowess.

I put my hands up. “Yeah, yeah. Pretty good, man, pretty good.”

At that point, Leonard took in my tattoos and assumed I was a Self-Realization Fellowship devotee. Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship has been a fixture in Encinitas since at least the 1930s. Accordingly, Leonard pulled the pin on another non-sequitur hand-grenade and rolled it into the conversation.

“I did all that meditation shit back in the 60s!” he said, glancing up and down my arms. “I had a girlfriend at the time, this wild broad, she was into all that TM stuff. I can do samadhi if I take five long, deep breaths!” He pronounced it “sa-ma-dee.”

“Wow,” I said, “that’s incredible!”

“Yeah,” said Leonard, “it’s pretty easy.”

I stretched out on the top bench and feigned death.

Leonard was still standing, and began telling me how he felt about religion in general and the Old Testament specifically (he didn’t like either).

“Jonah!” he said.

“What a crock!” he said.

“You get eaten by a whale, you know what happens?” he said. “You die!”

He hopped from foot to foot and gesticulated wildly. Rivers of sweat streamed down his face and body. I couldn’t tell if the fluid spraying from his lips was frothy saliva---he was pretty worked up about the Old Testament---or if it was sweat that had run down his face.

The beauty of sauna polemics is that the heat will wilt even the staunchest zealot. But still, Leonard held on with the tenacity of the cockroach.

I thanked my lucky stars I’d spent time in Tokyo building up tolerance to the heat. Plus I figure that the sauna’s heat-level had been set to a temperature determined by the YMCA’s lawyers to be “safe,” and therefore I found that the room wasn’t close to the thermonuclear heat of a Japanese sento.

So my heart leapt when Leonard placed one hand on the sauna door handle: Here was a sure sign he was about to pull the ripcord! I wasn’t quite on the verge of blacking out, although I’d been pinned in the sauna for more than 45 minutes.

Leonard wasn’t quite done. “Some guy wrestling with an angel!” he said.

“You think anyone ever wrestled an angel? What a load of B.S.!”

And on that note, he opened the door and ducked off to the showers.

For the next 15 minutes, Leonard would walk over from his shower, all soaped up, open the sauna door, stick his head in, and let me know how he felt about various other stories in the Old Testament.

I waited another long 10 minutes before emerging.

When I did, Leonard Baxter was in the locker room, shaving and arguing with another man about Governor Arnold Shwarzenegger.

My total cost: the $10 day-use pass, 5 pounds of water weight, and a strange homesick longing for the tattooed and silent yakuza of my local Tokyo sento.