Michael James : Doing the Whirlpool at the Paradise

Whirlpool at the Paradise, Chicago, 2003. Photo by Michael James from his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.

Pictures from the Long Haul:
When the water was flowing at
Chicago’s Paradise bathhouse

I’ve been in lots of whirlpools, steams, saunas, and mineral baths: a palatial bath house in Leningrad, a funkier setup in Donetsk, a treasure of a place in Oaxaca, hot tubs in California and Utah, and a hot sea water and seaweed bath in Ireland.

By Michael James | The Rag Blog | May 14, 2013

[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about — and inspired by — those images. This photo will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.]

I like water in all its forms — liquid, steam, and ice. I’m sure my affinity for the H20 began for me in my mom’s womb, and developed over the years in bathtubs, showers, Long Island Sound, the pool at my hometown Westport YMCA, the Saugatuck River at the Y’s Camp Mahackeno, more pools, more rivers, more oceans, and certainly the Great Lake Michigan.

I am a big fan of aqua therapy. That started in the sauna and whirlpool at Chicago’s Lincoln Belmont YMCA. What a discovery back in the early 70’s when I started checking out — sneaking into — the Y’s Men’s Club that was off-limits to the regular low-rent-paying-members like myself. A whirlpool. A sauna. Forceful showers.

This developing affinity for water and heat has taken me many places, or going many places has led me to take the waters. There have been fun times in rushing rivers, waterfalls, warm and cold pools at hotels, motels, and aqua joints throughout the world: hot springs at Harbin in California, by the side of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, and up in the mountains of Oregon, as well as a hot mineral bath at the Stroppel Hotel in Midland, South Dakota, and an intense sweat lodge on the Menominee Reservation in Keshena, Wisconsin.

I’ve been in lots of whirlpools, steams, saunas, and mineral baths: a palatial bath house in Leningrad, a funkier setup in Donetsk, a treasure of a place in Oaxaca, hot tubs in California and Utah, and a hot sea water and seaweed bath in Ireland. I’ve enjoyed New York’s 12th Street Bath House where my friend Phil Shinnick (Olympic long jumper) took me, and the elaborate Queen’s Spa Castel that my son Jesse turned me on to, now a must-go when visiting family in New York.

Home here in Chicago, I was there before they were gone — the Finish and Luxor bath houses, and the old Division Street Russian Baths. The McGaw YMCA in Evanston has a fine steam: it let’s you control the steam and heat. I’ve yet to check out the Sweat Lodge or newly reopened Division Street Baths now called Red Square.

In days gone by there were times I hit the Paradise (aka the Korean Bathhouse) at Montrose and Richmond on an almost daily basis. It has long been my home base aqua facility, especially so when I get there before 7 a.m. to be first in before the jets, steam, showers, and heat erupt and the water begins to flow.

On early mornings you might find guys of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities, including cops, lawyers, dealers, businessmen, roofers, barbers, radicals, old guys, and young guys. And later in the day, over the last few years, there are more gay guys too.

The owner was Mr. Cho, a former martial arts hot shot, and a fine man. A falling out with his brother-in-law led him in his 80s to move to Arizona, where he opened a new place, but died shortly thereafter. Before he left there were rumors of the bathhouse closing, of new owners or new management coming in. We clientes have long been in limbo as to when the ceiling (and its leaks during torrential downpours) would be fixed, the tiles repaired, and various surfaces adorned with new paint.

The Paradise has always had the strongest jets of any whirlpool in my searching out of such facilities. It has been a number of years now since I drove my son Cadien to Bell School, which is close to the Paradise, making daily visits easy. Now I don’t go as often, but do tend to go on Sunday mornings or on days when I really need a soak.

On a recent Sunday I headed over early in the morning. The parking lot was empty. The doors were locked. The garbage dumpsters were full. And signs on both doors read: “Under new management. We apologize for any inconvenience, but there will be ‘REMODELING.'”

There was a phone number on the sign. I just called it and talked briefly with a Korean woman, telling her I’ve been going to the Paradise for years and that I hoped it would be open soon. She said, “I hope so.” We will see. My sense is that aqua therapy in many forms is on the rise. There will be many new and varied versions of such special places. I hope that along with them that the Paradise will endure.

[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago’s Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at michael@heartlandcafe.com. Find more articles by Michael James on The Rag Blog.]

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