Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Osento, 1980-2008

So, the much-loved women's bathhouse on Valencia St is no more. Osento, I just found out, closed on July 31st, after a 28-year run.

I loved Osento. My very first lesbian date took place there, when a girl I'd met at a Queer Nation bar takeover (where a bunch of queers swarmed a het hook-up joint in North Beach) called and asked if I wanted to join her, her sister, and a bunch of their friends for a steam and soak. They were on their way there after dinner, and she thought I might want to come along. I was a little nervous--after all, we'd only talked once, and here she was inviting me to get naked and meet her family and friends. But I was 22, and game, and so I went. And I fell in love--not with her, although we did end up dating for the next 3 months, mostly to drive around Berkeley listening to the Indigo Girls--but with Osento.

It was a funky old Victorian that had been refashioned into a bath house. What had been the parlor now had lockers and a sink with a counter full of water glasses alongside a bowl of lemons, plus a little cutting board and knife so you could make your own glass of lemon water to sip on while you soaked. Behind one door was a tiled shower stocked with Dr. Bronner's liquid peppermint soap; behind the other was a blue-tiled room with a big, deep soaking pool. At night, the lights were soft and hazy, making everyone look straight out of an Ingres painting. And unlike the men's bathhouses, it really was a place for bathing. Although I heard stories of late-night sauna nookie, I never witnessed any; the rules were no sex ("not even with yourself"), and privacy was respected. But if you couldn't touch, you could look: it was a place to experience the myriad beauty of real women.

Whatever your orientation, the sheer variety was reassuring: everyone was different, and there was beauty to be found in every curve. Forget those dopey Dove soap ads; this was a place to see the tattooed rings of a double-women's-symbol inked as a pair of linked handcuffs; to see dreads, scars, huge breasts, no breasts, every kind of variation of taut skin, wrinkled skin, flared hips, skinny legs, women with extravagant curves and spare women straight up and down.

Outside in the garden, there was, originally, a rain barrel full of chilly water for post-sauna plunges (later replaced by a cold plunge pool). There were two round cedar saunas, one with a wooden bucket and ladle inside, for steam, the other dry. The wet sauna was the good one, hot and steamy, with an astringent san francisco smell of eucalyptus going deep into your lungs. Over the saunas was a wooden deck. At one point, an avocado tree grew right up through a hole in the deck, and I would stretch out naked in the sunshine and look up at the ripening avocados hanging down between the leaves, still amazed that I'd found a place in a city where something as exotic as avocados just grew on the trees.

Osento was open every day, from noon to midnight. Anytime you needed relaxation, solace, hot water up to your neck to fight the summer or winter chill, or just a peaceful place to be surrounded by naked women, it was there. The Valentine's Day I locked out of the house by mistake without a coat, feeling sad and sorry and single while everyone else was dining a deux, it was to Osento that I went to warm up my self-pitying self until my roommates got home. When P. and I lived in the same building across the street, we soaked there all the time. I've been with friends, with girlfriends, and by myself, and I always came out softer, cleaner, and happier than when I went in.

Owner Summer is giving up the business so she can retire upstate, to Clearlake, turning the building back into residential units so she can pay the mortgage. According to the Osento website, this is her only option; were another person to take over the business, they'd have to bring it up to current code. This, which would take many, many thousands of dollars in renovations, would by necessity mean turning it into a more upscale, expensive, pampering type of spa in order to make the money back.

During Osento's early days, Valencia St was full of women's businesses. There was Amelia's, a dyke bar where the Elbo Room is now. Artemis Cafe (which became Radio Valencia, now Beretta) and Valencia Rose had open mics, comedy and performances. Womyncrafts West, women's bookstore Old Wives' Tales, and more...the street, run down as it was, was a welcoming place for lesbians and feminists and women with and without a "y". Now, with the closing of Osento, the last of the old lesbian-feminist vibe of the street will finally fade.

Moving to SF in 1990, I didn't experience too much of the old Valencia St. Sure, Old Wives' Tales and Womyncrafts West were still there. My then-girlfriend Anne and I snuck out of a party at her house on Guerrero to go to the closing night of Amelia's. I felt way too young, and femme, to fit in with the old-school bardyke crowd there, but we felt we had to honor it, somehow, in acknowledgment of the days when bars like Maud's, Peg's Place, and Amelia's were the only places a lesbian could be out, and where butches weren't "mannish" but sexy women in their own right. I heard about Artemis from another girlfriend, who'd helped to run shows there.

What I did know was the second wave of dyke businesses that opened along the street, like the Lexington Club, a punky dyke bar just off Valencia, at 17th St, and Red Dora's Bearded Lady, a closet-sized cafe and performance space near the notoriously sketchy Valencia Gardens housing projects. Red Dora's was where Michelle Tea and Sini Anderson started Sister Spit, with their weekly writers squeezed up against the muffin counter reading to sweaty overflow crowds. It would get so hot in there that I remember asking the crowd one night if they'd mind if I stripped off my shirt and read just wearing a bra. And Leathertongue Video at 18th St (now denim store Self Edge), which got started at the kitchen table of a house I lived in on 22nd Street. It carried all kinds of kooky videos--the sort of place to have entire shelves dedicated to both Jodie Foster and Bruce LaBruce.

Things are different now, of course. Ellen and Portia's wedding at their $35-mil Beverly Hills mansion is People-magazine fodder (The outfits! The rings! The cake!). My friends are getting a little tired of getting married, in fact. Once-It Girl punkettes have partners, kids, and careers as midwives or yoga teachers. The stores on the street sell fancy coffee and $120 sneakers. I wish I could still go get wet and naked in the middle of day behind an ordinary door on Valencia Street, but times change.

Thank you, Summer, and all the ladies of Osento. It was a good time.


Thierry said...

When you're next in London, pop in and lets have a pie cook off. Thierry

esther said...

This is such a beautiful tribute.. makes me all nostalgic for a place I never went to. A little bit of a change from your usual effect on me - making me just damn hungry!

Anonymous said...

not only is this an amazing little article. i just learned so much about dyke san francisco, long before i moved here!

I too am so sad about osento. i loved that place.

thanks for this.

Audrey said...

No! I'm a lifelong New Yorker, and every trip to San Francisco, more than 15 times, has meant a visit to Osento with my girlfriends. I am heartbroken. At least I found out through a lovely tribute.

Anonymous said...

damn, louise. Now what?

I planned a vacation to Osanto this coming winter. Just myself.
Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap.

Stephanie J. Rosenbaum said...

Well, you could try Kabuki Hot Springs instead. It's in SF, near Fillmore/Geary. They have all-women days several times a week, and it's very clean, peaceful, and relaxing. Not the same hippie vibe, but still a good choice.

Anonymous said...

Try Imperial Day Spa at 1875 Geary Blvd. I like it a lot.

Anonymous said...

glad to find your comments.
heard from a friend the other day that osento is no more.
very sad news. it was a wonderful sanctuary that i cherished.
just glad i was fortunate enough to spend lots of time relaxing
there in the past. it was good for the body and soul.
i'll never forget you, osento.
many thanks and blessings.

Anonymous said...

Lovely tribute...I remember all the old dyke/womens businesses on Valencia back in the late 80s when I first visited SF.

Sorry to hear Osento is now gone...was planning a soak whilst I was here this week :-(

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing such a beautiful tribute to what was one of my favorite places to be in San Francisco!

After 8 years as a patron of Osento, I too was terribly sad to see it close its doors. I've made new friends there, soaked with old ones, and flirted with dates. I've processed exes and new relationships alike while sitting in that marvelous hottub with wonderful women around me...Kabuki is lovely, but since you're not allowed to talk there, it will just never fill the void left by the absence of Osento.

Thanks again for writing this!

martine said...

I use to be a regular at Osento and now have less time and haven't been in 6 months, my first time there was 10 years ago and I felt blessed that this place existed. I when there last night to find out that the place was closed ( I was hoping for a small renovation) and I am very sadden to find out that this is the end of Osento. I wish I had known and offered my services as an architect (pro bono) to keep this place open. I am sure with outreach, we could have kept the place open.
Thank you for writing this article. The place was a little heaven.

Old Crone said...

I knew Osento closed down from friends. I haven't been there in years, but as I was reading your post, I could see everything in my head so clearly. I could smell the sauna, and I remember that shower with the Dr. Bronners. I remember that cutting board, which sometimes held limes as well. I remember the mats with all the candles and the quiet room, and that outdoor shower.

Thank you for taking me back.

Kimberlee Ward said...

leaving for san francisco in the morning, so excited to take my partner to one of my favorite spas - in fact, one of my favorite places - in the city.

typed in "did osento close?" and happened upon your fabulous tribute. just like one of the earlier posts, i, too, could smell the dr. bonners, eucalyptus, and the lemons; i remembered the feeling of the warm sun and cool night air from the roof deck.

i am beyond sad, but feel lucky to have so many fond memories, and also lucky to have found out about its closure through such a lovely post.

Mariasha said...

Wow, that brings back memories and it's sad to see it close. I don't live in S.F. anymore, but I moved there in 1987 and for years I was a regular at Osento. So sad to hear I can't go back. I remember women rubbing salt all over themselves in the sauna and throwing water with menthol on the hot coals. And I used to like to do the cold dip in that wine barrel and just sit out in the courtyard under the avacado tree (was it an avacado tree?). There was always interesting, pleasant conversation and then there was the room in the back where you could nap or trade massages. And it was so cheap -- as I recall it was a sliding scale starting at like six dollars.
I used to meet friends there to relax! And yes, Amelia's and queer nation -- those were the days!

Ally Shaw said...

Wow, I can't believe I'm crying after reading this, and all the comments. I was transported back to Osento-- it was a safe, joyful place for me while I was healing. I still miss it. I lived in SF in the late 80s and this is what I remember!