loud town

Floating Away in Chelsea

Sam Zeiger runs the city’s oldest sensory-deprivation tank in his one-bedroom on West 23rd.

Illustration: Michele Febbraio
Illustration: Michele Febbraio

“In the basement of a university medical school, Dr. Jessup floats naked in total darkness. The most terrifying experiment in the history of science is out of control … and the subject is himself.” So goes the legend that adorns the poster for Ken Russell’s Altered States. The tagline functions as both a warning and an advertisement for its central experience: the sensory-deprivation tank, a water-filled encasement that allows its floater to drift into the unknown. The film is a terrifying, gory, and hallucinatory escalation of the reality of sensory-deprivation tanks. William Hurt’s Dr. Jessup becomes so addicted to his time in the isolation tank that he not only experiences abstract, dreamlike visions but eventually regresses into a prehuman, apelike state where he indulges violent urges and then goes back further into a glowing blob of pre-intelligent matter that destroys his beloved tank. It’s hard to read the film as an endorsement of the practice more than a cautionary tale of what happens when grad school goes too far, but for Sam Zeiger, it was a revelation: “I saw the film and thought, I’ve gotta try this out.”

The product of that awakening was Blue Light Flotation, which Zeiger has run in his Chelsea home, a one-bedroom adorned with a smattering of Buddhist décor and Zeiger’s own pencil drawings, for nearly 40 years. He didn’t think he was starting a business when he bought his first tank in 1985 — the very same bulky black rectangle from Altered States — and placed it right in the middle of his apartment. “I didn’t have this altruistic idea of having people come and float,” he says. He kept the tank clean and floated a few times a week. Zeiger is 72 and from East Brooklyn originally. He cuts a gentle, easygoing figure with dark hair and chic, clear-framed glasses. He doesn’t come across particularly New Wave–y, but he is calmer than any native New Yorker I’ve ever met.

“Every float was — is different,” Zeiger says of his experiences. He’s still using his tank himself, but only once a week for a few hours. Like prayer or meditation, his experiences are wholly his own to be cherished. But once his friends heard about the tank, a number started to come by, and these friend-floating privileges were proving a lot of work. Zeiger was newly unemployed, so he printed brochures and started leaving them around the city in small grocery stores and at yoga studios. “One woman from the yoga studio bought several floats for her husband, who then became my No. 1 best client of all time,” he says. That client wound up buying Zeiger’s first tank off him.

What was once a hobby transformed into a bustling business in the mid-’80s with Zeiger booking his tank out weeks in advance. It helps, in part, that early floats are less effective than later ones: People are encouraged to come back to keep enhancing their experiences. It’s a difficult practice to maintain: As with any multipart contraption, things wear down. “And the salt destroys everything,” Zeiger tells me with a sigh. He’s solely responsible for the upkeep and sanitation of his tank. (When I press him about the water bill, he demurs.) At the height of Blue Light Flotation’s success, he had clients ranging from doctors to consultants to, yes, he says, celebrities — though he is close-lipped about the stars who floated in his home.

To live in New York City is to forgo some pleasures in lieu of others: For every Disney World–esque amenity offered, the price we pay is peace of mind. Honking, sirens, raised-voices “neighborly” disputes. Even places of supposed calm and quiet — the movie theater, the art museum — are interrupted by the rumbling of trains or a pack of shrieking schoolchildren. The closest I ever got to quiet was in my old apartment building, since my room faced away from the street, at the expense, obviously, of any natural light. Everything’s a sacrifice unless, of course, you can find an escape. I’d long been curious about sensory-deprivation tanks, as both an occasional purveyor of the New York City day spa and mild hallucinogenic drugs. I consider myself open-minded, which is to say, I’d do almost anything to get away from the sounds of construction on my block. If it means getting in a tub in someone else’s apartment, sure, why not?

The first wave of floating was in the late ’70s,” Zeiger tells me, then heightened in the early ’80s by the aforementioned Altered States: “There were places all over the city, real mom-and-pop type of places that very much no longer exist.” John C. Lilly pioneered the isolation tank in 1954, experimenting with the device both as a means for mindfulness as well as in tandem with psychedelic drugs. Under Lilly, sensory deprivation was redeveloped as Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique or, fittingly, REST. Altered States, based on Paddy Chayefsky’s novel of the same title, was based, in part, on Lilly’s research. (A pencil drawing of Lilly hangs on Zeiger’s wall.) Isolation tanks diminished in popularity in the early ’90s owing, in part, to fears around HIV/AIDS. Every time the industry seemed threatened to vanish, however, there was always a comeback around the corner. Zeiger’s Blue Light Flotation is the last tank standing among the old guard, though a number of newcomers have cropped up in response to Joe Rogan’s interest in the practice. I ask Sam whether the nature of his clientele has changed over the course of his time running Blue Light Flotation, and he frowns. “Well, the world has gotten worse, so …”

Photo: Fran Hoepfner

He’s right, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to escape for a little while. True to its origins, Blue Light Flotation remains a lo-fi operation. To make an appointment, one emails or calls Zeiger. He only accepts cash and PayPal. For a humble $80, you too can seal yourself inside Zeiger’s tank for an hour, submerging your body in warm salt water, infused with a ton of Epsom salt—that’s “a ton,” like, literally—and soar into your subconscious. Of all the relaxation methods, sensory deprivation is Zeiger’s favorite in part because it requires so little of its participants. You don’t have to “know” any moves; you just lie down and relax. The water is heavily salted and incredibly clean, he promises, warmed to body temperature so that prolonged submersion lends the feeling of zero gravity. The key, Zeiger assures me when I arrive for my float, is to remain as still as possible, letting go of tension in the back, shoulders, and neck. The salt in the water lends it a buoyancy that would, in theory, keep one’s head up without effort.

Zeiger asks his floaters to take a shower before jumping into his tank, and it was only then it dawned on me how in-someone-else’s-home I really was: A mere wooden screen separated the bathroom and float room from Zeiger’s living room, where he worked on the computer. (It is tempting as a “woman living in today’s society” to feign a sense of danger; in Zeiger’s home, I felt ease.) I showered, wrapped myself in a towel, and crossed the hallway on my tiptoes into the flotation room. I slid the heavy wooden door behind me (a custom-made door Zeiger later told me cost $1,200 alone) and then entered the tank. The room was warm and steamy, but not hot — sort of like a summer day after a heavy rain. The lights were on, controlled by a big button to my left in the tank. Once I was settled and seated, I lay back and hit the button. The lights went out. I blinked. No difference.

Photo: Fran Hoepfner

It took me a long time to settle in the tank. Though the sensation of little gravity took hold quickly, I struggled not to move. The notion of remaining still felt counterintuitive to me; I wanted unrestrained movement — I wanted to be flying, waving my arms and legs. But my fidgets slowed in time, then ceased. I felt like I was falling backward, head-first, into nothingness, between wakefulness and sleep. What happened beyond that is a mystery to even myself. The sound of generic “chill music” alerted me that my time was up. It felt like a freight train. When I came out, I wasn’t sure how I felt. Zeiger had a cold tea for me out in the living room.

Zeiger admits his first time in the tank didn’t do much for him. “My first float was so-so, but the second one — the guy kinda forgot about me there,” he said with a laugh. “He left me in there for over two hours, and when I came out of that float and I walked home, it transformed me.” He had a memory of his childhood summers spent in the Catskills, the way the city felt transformed after he’d return to it — “Bright and fresh and new and magical,” he says. “It’s so precious a feeling. That’s how I felt after that float.” Sirens out on 23rd Street echoed in the distance. Zeiger smiled, unfazed by the noise. “That’s when I said, I’ve got to get one of those.

It’s hard to say whether this is the quietest place in New York. There were times over the course of the hour when I was certain I heard Zeiger in the other room, walking, opening cabinets. The thuds and creaks of everyday living. But was I hearing him? In the tank, I was sensitive to my own heartbeat, louder than I knew it to be, and an unexpected crack of a finger joint was deafening. “When you come here, you can undo all of that. You can go into yourself,” Zeiger told me. Was I leaving myself for myself inside that tank? At the end of Altered States, Hurt’s Dr. Jessup is pulled back to reality by his ex-wife (Blair Brown), whose love tethers him to human existence and, in turn, the modern world. So what if I heard Zeiger, the errant noises of his apartment or out on the street? Out of the tank, out of Zeiger’s apartment, back onto 23rd Street with its Orange Theory and Gloss Lab and organic bodega, the jostling noise and thick humidity of the world returned. It hadn’t gone anywhere, and really, neither had I.

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Floating Away in Chelsea