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Bathhouse Quilts:

Confessions of a Towel Hag

Edited by Gordon Bowness

It started in a cage. That's what we called it, “the cage”, the hub of my workplace, The Barracks, a very old-school denim and leather bathhouse that stood at 56 Widmer Street in Toronto until 2005. I was fortunate to work there in the late 1990's – fortunate, like it's fortunate we have chemotherapy. Like chemotherapy, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

The repetitiveness of being a bathhouse attendant (or “towel hag” as my dear friend, Robert so lovingly named us) was soul-destroying. I had legs like Catherine Zeta-Jones from running up and down those ancient stairs and the lungs of a Cape Breton coal miner from the cigarette smoke and various toxic inhalants that hung in the air. As they checked in, each regular customer – and believe me, they were almost all regulars – would ask for a specific room. If it was occupied they would begin a countdown of favourite rooms. By the time they would get to the seventh or eight option I'd be ready to reach through the bars of the cage and throttle them.

The Bum Washer. Swampy. Lacey With The Golden Smile. Thing One and Thing Two. Where's Waldo? We had names for all the regulars. Some came twice a day. Their patterns became so predictable. It was like working on an assembly line, only you could smoke... oh, and have sex with the customers on occasion (discreetly, of course). Hey, the manager's office didn't have a queen-size bed in it because he worked late.

The 12-hour shifts seemed endless, every one a life sentence. So to pass the time I made paper cutouts. Dozens and dozens of them. Customers kept asking me if I'd gone starkers. “Packet of lube please. What's that? Paper dolls, eh? Ha, ha, this place has finally got to you, eh? Ha, ha.” Or, “Someone's shit in the sauna. Oh, paper dolls I see. Finally lost it, eh? Ha, ha.” As time slipped away I snipped away – legions of little men, flying penises, shooting stars, crowned princes with dangling wieners, angels dancing with devils, a kaleidoscope of faeries and phalli. All unfolding and interconnected.

Those lacy little patterns were my salvation. It was all about the patterns. Consider the hundreds of times I ran up and down the stairs of the Barracks like a rat on a rope, the whole time trying not to slap the customers and not to think about how much my life sucked.

Believe it or not, I'm an advocate of bathhouses. Baths are truly magical places. I met some of my closest friends there, including my husband. I've had truly ecstatic experiences with a multitude of men. I had poetry read to me while a man was being fisted in the next room. I played pool with my best friend, the two of us wearing only boots and jockstraps. I watched many stunning sunrises while downing endless cups of bad coffee. And I had a fungus grow on my shoulders from the Barracks' crumbling basement ceiling that leaked water from the douche shower above. Ah, memories.

So, a decade after I checked in my last customer, I decided to transform some of my cutouts into something that speaks of communion and commemoration. After all, they helped me transform myself. So I turned them into quilts – not the traditional pieced together variety, but quilts divided into cubicles, like a bathhouse.