The Public Bath

About six months after I moved to Madrid, New Mexico, I was walking down the main street one day when I ran into Jody. She's a cowgirl/survivalist/artist — a fairly normal job description for people in this eccentric neck of the high desert. Jody complimented me on the renovation of St. Anne's, a 110-year-old deconsecrated adobe church I was in the process of adapting for use as a home. I couldn't recall her ever having visited. "Oh sure, darling," she drawled, "I always stop by for a bath when no one's around. Two weekends ago... I guess you was in New York City... I go on up there and Gypsy and Little Pete are in line ahead of me. Here. Me and Pete chipped in for the hot water cost and Gypsy's gonna drop off some sage bundles she says you need for restless spirits flying around your belfry. Bye now!"

I stood staring slack-jawed at the crumpled bill and loose change lying in the palm of my hand. Now I knew why I never seemed to be able to get rid of the tub ring.

I'll admit the bath is rather extraordinary, even in a place as unique as Madrid. Located about 25 miles southeast of Santa Fe on the west flank of the Ortiz Mountains, Madrid was a coal town that became a ghost town. Today it boasts some galleries and shops; its population of 250 or so consists mainly of artists and outlaws.

On a hillside above the town sits St. Anne's. It's basically one huge room with a choir loft. Off the altar (now the master bedroom) is the vestry (now the kitchen). The bathroom is actually a greenhouse that was added on to the vestry. It has a sloped ceiling of glass panels. The tub itself is a six-foot-long claw foot. Because the town has no streetlights to obscure the night sky, one can recline in the tub and spend an entire evening staring at constellations and shooting stars. After my conversation with Jody, I made it known that the erstwhile public bath was closed. I transformed what had been a free-and-easy church into a monastery for one.

Then Mrs. Ramirez came to town. I was refinishing the floors one morning when a big van pulled up and three or four generations piled out. A middle-aged man helped an elderly woman up the steps of the church. "Are you the priest?" she asked me.

I told her no. I said that I was renovating the church, but stopped short of telling her it was now a private residence. Since I'd emptied the place for the floor work, I offered a tour. Inside she walked around slowly, exclaiming, "Madre de Dios, que linda!" in a small voice.

At the altar, she motioned for me. "Here," she said, pointing to the steps, "is where I was baptized and my brothers were baptized and many of my cousins. And here, in 1937, is where I married."

I conversed with her son and his family on the church's front porch, leaving his mother alone to say a prayer. A few minutes later she joined us and laid her hand on my arm. "It's good you're taking care of it. When I grew up here the miners were very poor. Many people had nothing... except this church."

How could I help but be moved by Mrs. Ramirez? She made me realize that I hadn't bought a house that looks like a church; I bought a church that serves as my house. A church can be deconsecrated, but it remains a symbol for the community, its memories and aspirations.

And so I closed the monastery and reopened the bath. Now, however, visitors must supply their own towels and soap, scrub the tub after finishing and leave something in trade for the hot water. I saw Jody not long ago and asked her if she was planning to come over. "Naw," she shrugged. "Nobody likes all the rules. It was more fun when we had to sneak in."

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