Here’s the thing to know about Sam Zeiger—the curly-haired, fifty-something hippie who owns the last sensory deprivation tank in New York: he’s not going to murder you. At least he didn’t murder me. Unless he did, and blogging forever is just one brand of newfangled, bespoke afterlife torments you can qualify for now (versus pushing a rock up a hill or getting your liver pecked out by birds).
Still, even if it’s sort of embarrassing to cop to having made an appointment for an hour of isolation, you should still tell someone where you’re going and where dude lives. The fear of getting murdered can be a distraction and when you’re floating naked in some man’s house, distractions are dead weight.
Blue Light Floatation, Sam’s operation, is near Steel Gym and across the street from TekServe and the school for blind people on West 23rd Street. He’s easy to find because Sam has dynamite SEO and whatever version of “sensory deprivation” and “isolation blah blah” you’re auto-completed for in New York, you can find him in the top 3. To set something up, you ring him or email, and he almost always gets back to you within the hour. Sometimes he’s booked several weeks in advance and other times, he has a cancellation and you will find yourself in his apartment (yup, YOU WILL BE NUDE IN HIS HOME) within 48 hours. This is what happened the first time I went and it’s the only reason I didn’t flake: I didn’t have time to talk myself out of going.
Couple other things to keep in mind: Don’t drink coffee beforehand, and don’t pre-game with a heavy meal. If you skip breakfast and lunch because you’re saving yourself for a post-float Hill Country Chicken x Shake Shack x Eately gelato bar combo, you’ll likely be disappointed. I ended up crushing whatever garbage I had at home (Wheat Thins + gummy teeth) because I felt bananas after and couldn’t deal with the crowds.
You’re also asked to bring cash or a personal check (LOL personal check) because Sam doesn’t take credit cards, which feels annoying since even the most irritating/bad-mood-making restaurants in Brooklyn mostly all take credit cards now and he could just get a reader thing on his phone but whatever, Sam can do what he wants since he’s cornered the market. And besides, the old timey-ness of the means of consideration makes it feel weirdly official in a New Age-y way.
Blue Light is not a spa—if you arrive early, there’s no whirlpool bath or spigoted decanter with cucumber/sage water. There’s no micro-waffle bathrobe that you shimmy in and out of while you enjoy the ancillary amenities. Instead, you wait downstairs with the doorman on a bench and, if it’s the weekend, you can watch rich people who live in rock-climbing clothes file in and out with their breadbox-sized dogs. You can also watch 90s-looking juiceheads in kicky little singlets and vertically striped or color-blocked bike shorts mill around the gym down the street. If you wait outside, there are also the saddos flitting in and out of TekServe in various states of crisis but it’s best to avert one’s gaze because nobody needs to invite that kind of hideous, contagious juju into their eyeballs. Disgusting.
Sam’s place is on the fourth floor. I didn’t love that since it’s a number that signifies death to all of Asia but I got over it and took the elevator up anyway. When you walk in, you’ll slyly crane your neck to see the entire apartment because you want to know what a 1BR in this building looks like. You never actually see a whole quadrant of the apartment, so you’ll never get the full lay of the land, but do know that Sam built his tank and the adjoining infrared sauna (!) a decade before his building went co-op so there was no board-approval dramz (obviously this is one of the first things I ask).
There are drywall partitions and the unit is railroaded, so both you and Sam get a little privacy. You will feel crazy vulnerable when you’re told to shower, but you deal, because at least you know that all the grimy humans that went before you all had to shower too. There’s a hook with a hanger on the bathroom door for your clothes and purse, and a little mat in the hall for your shoes. You ball up your underpants as tiny as they’ll go and pop them in your purse along with your bra. Then you wash your hair with some shampoo you’ve only seen at the health food store and you use that brown Dr. Bronner’s stuff on your body that only comes in huge bottles that should totally have a pump top but doesn’t.
After your shower, you wrap yourself in one of two towels that Sam’s left out for you and tiptoe just across the hall to the little room with the tank. The room is big for a walk-in closet, tiny for a bathroom, clean and painted white. Other than the tank, there’s a filtration system that’s about the size of a hot water heater, and just enough floor space for you to get in and out of the tank without crashing into anything complicated. There are no windows (YOU WILL BE FINE!) and above the tank, on the wall, there’s a little sconce with a soft bulb that points up and away from your eyes.
Okay. This is when you realize you had a picture in your mind about an isolation tank, so you’re going to be simultaneously bummed out and fully relieved that the tank isn’t one of them lock-down joints from “Fringe.” This one basically looks like a huge bathtub, enclosed behind an upright sliding shower door that’s black and features a handsome wooden handle. There is no lid. The darkness is your lid, just as it’s always been. (JK JK, I don’t even know what that means!) This is good, because you don’t have to worry about suffocating on your own carbon dioxide because you don’t experience that thing where your breath breathes back at you because you’re panting and watching the intruder from inside your closet that is so very small. :(
The water—”water”—is set at exactly body temp, so don’t expect that tingly sensation of sliding into a hot tub. And remember that it’s saline solution, so don’t get it on your face. It’s not that tricky, since you’ll slide in so that you’re on your back. So your eyes, nose and mouth are completely exposed and floating, as well as your toes, the tops of your thighs and a half-bagel of your belly (or full bagel depending on the day).
There’s enough room in the tank that when you float in the middle, you’re not touching any wall. If you do lazily pong into one side or another, the slightest nudge of a finger will set you straight. You do not need to know how to swim because the one thousand pounds of dissolved salt will help you out and you don’t need lessons to get in a bouncy castle. Unless you DO need lessons and that’s OK because you’re probably blessed with some other capability like “doing math” or dogs liking you.
Want to know something really embarrassing? The whole reason why I decided to make the appointment in the first place is because I’d read this article about how this Strikeforce MMA guy won his matches (battles?) by incorporating 90-minute isolation bids into his training to increase focus and I chose to buy into it because I had a deadline and was in the weeds. I’m not ridiculous; it was a fiction deadline (I am convinced that this would not work for non-fiction), and I had trouble toggling back and forth from my regular assignments and the comic-book script that was messing with me and so I was willing/desperate enough to chuck money at the problem.
I point out my back-story only because I think it helps to have a selfish incentive for being a joiner. It’s not like skepticism or suspicion clogs your heart or the pure energy conduits of your psyche or, whatever, but at the very least be “X Files: The Movie” about it and WANT to believe. I can’t imagine how devastatingly dull it would be to wait out a desultory 60 minutes while rolling your eyes.
Allow your brain to drift somewhere productive just in case they’re onto something or the plan is so crazy that it just might work. I’m sure each float is as very special and unique as a snowflake, but for me, the experience wasn’t life-changing like how in Office Space Ron Livingston gets perma-hypnotized in some rad, freed realm but it did sort of remind me of the hypnosis scene in that the Kevin Bacon classic, Stir of Echoes, where dude imagines himself in a movie theater. If you haven’t seen the movie, floating is kind of like backing into a dark room where the light from under the door gets further and further away and then your foot hits a box of crap you’d forgotten you’d left there.
You’ll feel like you’re doing it wrong basically the entire time. I’d been deep in a procrastinatory “30 Rock” binge-watch so all I could do was make up “things that Tracy Jordan would say” in that nonsensical, wavy way, like how when you’re about to fall asleep and you can read writing on a sign or in a book because they’re real words and not bogus captcha words but none of it make sense together (read: LEGIT Tracy Jordan dialogue).
The cool part is right when you’re worried and annoyed that your thoughts are conveyer-belting only the most inane non-helpful stuff, you get pissy at how loud everything is because your heartbeat becomes deafening. And that’s good! Look, I know there is no right and wrong way to do this but if you love grades and tests as much as I do, know this—if you get aggy at your own pulse—THAT is you doing it right. It’s like getting at least a B if not an A minus. The little shakes you get right before you fall asleep also happen to you.
In the tub there are two silver-dollar-sized buttons by your left hand. The one closest to you is a dummy button because it’s deactivated since it’s intended for music and Sam thinks that’s bunk. The other is for illumination. When your hour is up, Sam pumps in some quiet muzak and you switch the light on. You will feel CRAZY so take a second to get it together enough to stand. And make sure that you take a second to wring out your hair so all that intensely salty water doesn’t get into your eyes or mouth. You’ll walk back to the bathroom to shower but you’ll barely remember it, and you’ll put your clothes back on and be grateful that you are often too lazy to wear anything binding like jeans because those tiny ankle holes are such chores. Don’t forget to carefully Q-Tip out the solution in and around your ears because when that stuff dries up, it gets crusty and visible in a gross way.
You head out to Sam’s living room where you pay him and have a cup of tea. He then leaves you alone for a minute or two so that you can reflect and he can check in on the tank and do some light cleaning. You look around because now is the time to clock any red flags like Nazi memorabilia/cannibalism books/”Family Guy” posters but all you see is artistic little petrified wood geegaws from Sam’s travels, some incredible framed graphite sketches that he drew himself (you can tell because he’s signed them), and a Kleenex box with a knitted robin’s egg blue “Blue Light Floatation” cover on it.
Sam is awesome. His disposition is serene but he’s OCD so everything in his apartment is immaculately clean and everything has its place. He’s unassuming and is so relieved when you’re not an inconsiderate blockhead that you’ll have a decent chinwag and he’ll talk about how some of his other visitors will bring friends or kids who he’s expected to blink at as if his home is a train station. I don’t know what the literature is on getting high before floating but even if you’ve scored medical-grade sativa or THC tincture, I’d absolutely take a spin without the bells and whistles. And even though Sam sounds/vibes a bit like a younger Bob Ross and seems mad chill, I’m pretty sure there is no secret string of words that invokes him to produce Smiles, Bath Salts, Krokodil, Scopolamine or whatever because this is not that type of operation. It’s like that one reptile farm off the interstate where, despite high school rumors, “change for a fifty,” doesn’t score squat but two twenties and a talking to.
To be all the way real, I didn’t auto-workshop anything big in terms of my writing project while I was floating but because I’m patient and kind to myself and maybe forgot to, I didn’t beat myself up about it and was rewarded with a nugget of something else that I will sit on for a spell to see if it turns into something real. All told, it was worth the $80 (I have NO idea if you’re supposed to tip and did not) that I’d usually spend on a low-rent walk-ins-welcome ethnic massage and a drink.
I’d do it again and would probably get into it. I didn’t try the sauna but I think you get more bang for your buck to float. I don’t expect that you’ll mull your quandaries into sharp relief every time or have that thing where you pick up the thread exactly where you left it, the way LSD is on TV, but it’s a decent afternoon reset. Especially if your eyeballs hurt from so much screen staring and there are just too many people people people all around you always all the time, oh God the people.
If nothing else, I’d do it for the way it made my skin feel now that it’s winter and the dry heat from my baseboards gives me shin dandruff. It’s like you’d sheathed yourself in Kiehl’s crème de corp + afterbirth and wrapped yourself in damp lotus leaves + cheesecloth and chilled in a wet-heat sauna for 20 minutes. That and your hair gets amazing and you serve full-tilt beachy waves for the rest of the day. Plus, and this is the kicker, you will sleep like the dead and wake up inexplicably sore. It’s as if you were visited while you slept by some brutish, brolic incubus. WIN. Five stars.
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Mary HK Choi writes for Wired and MTV’s House of Style. Photo by Toni Frissell, via.