Early on in my year of massage school it struck me that I wasn’t gaining a skill so much as a platform for doing good in the world. I began to imagine the oily fingerprints of basic decency I could leave on mankind and suddenly everything illuminated.
To elevate a job into a calling you need a plan, so I decided I would be the proletarian massage therapist; the “people’s masseuse.” I’d slash my rates below market value and dedicate my full time talents to the hardworking masses, the folks who really needed massage and couldn’t afford expensive spas. I would work on real people. And I’d care enough to know a thing or two about them.
Sometimes the choice is commerce or love. I chose love.
Like most social experiments and lofty goals, the complexity and scale of my ambitions threatened to hinder my ability to execute them. So I put things on a back burner to marinate and by graduation I’d abbreviated my business plan and edited my mission statement: I would massage rich strangers, it read, and it would be irrelevant whether they needed it or not.
Here’s the thing: people don’t need massage. They want it. It’s divine. But no one needs it. Google “reflexologists without borders” and you will not find anything.
I’d like to say this pragmatism is what led me away from my harebrained plan to save the world one back at a time, but I soured on my big idea because of an old lady who lived downstairs in my building. They say charity begins at home. I’d argue that it ends there, too.
My first place in New York City was on the sixth floor of a steep-staired, high-ceilinged, old-tenement walk-up. By the time you reached the top you didn’t need to lift your head to pray. I shared a 300-square foot apartment with two roommates, Katie and Lauren. This building was a straight split of young tenants paying devastating rents, and ancient tenants paying pocket change. One of those ancient tenants died in our second year of residence and spent two weeks decomposing in her kitchen before the smell hit the hall and someone called 911. Saddened by a life so unnoticed that it passed without anyone the wiser, we decided to introduce ourselves to our elder neighbors and encourage them to call if they needed anything. That’s how I came to know Virginia.
Virginia lived on the third floor in what I later learned was her childhood home, and spent her days getting up and down the stairs. Sometimes we’d leave for a night out and pass her entering the building, only to return well after midnight and find her halfway up the first flight. Hers was a life lived in transit. Virginia’s ankles were bound by thick compression garments, but even restricted they retained enough fluid to make it appear she was concealing water balloons beneath her calves. The lack of mobility was unfortunate, but her hair simply broke my heart.
Having recently studied the circulatory system, I understood her grey pallor was the result of having a poor one. It also explained the hair. Each strand on Virginia’s head could be assigned a number, and not one accomplished its sole responsibility of obscuring the scalp. And it was dyed the color of grape drink. Because her eyes would fix in a way that indicated she wasn’t seeing much, I assume she had no idea her hair was purple, and nothing else about her suggested an indie spirit or passion for testing societal norms. When I wrote down my number I didn’t think to clarify that it was really just meant for emergencies.
The phone would start ringing at dawn. It began with daily runs to the corner bodega to fetch her a half dozen lottery tickets and the occasional TV Guide. Before long she added a stop at the grocery store for coffee filters or ice cream cake. Since the liquor store was a mere half mile down, we decided it just made good sense for me to pop in there, too, and purchase the afternoon’s bottle of scotch.
Everything else could arrive at her door undisguised, but the scotch was to be hidden in a brown paper bag, seeing as how it was no one’s damn business how she took her coffee.
One afternoon—concerned that the burden of generosity fell too heavily on my side of our relationship—Virginia graciously insisted on helping me practice what I was learning in school and began to remove her socks and shoes.
My roommates—girls secure in their inherent goodness—felt no guilt about establishing boundaries with Virginia. I’m always borderline convinced I’m a jerk, so I set no limits as to how far I’ll go to prove otherwise. That is how a kind offer made by three people became a tragic narrative lived by one.
This little experiment in being a decent person would come to span four full seasons, and by winter I was already bent out of shape. In need of encouragement, I phoned my grandmother in Texas to let her admire me. Sparing her no detail of my benevolent crusade, I sat back and waited to hear what a sweet child I was or how much God loves a giving heart. Instead, she called me an idiot and declared that people should do for themselves. How dare this woman take advantage of me! How dare I let her? Our conversation ended with an endorsement of the Republican Party and a generalized condemnation of social welfare.
(In the final years of her life, my grandmother had one of my uncle’s fetching her Red Lobster at all hours of the night and the other driving across town to clip her toenails.)
One morning in early May, as I was cramming for final exams, Virginia called to announce that it was spring cleaning. Having been in that war torn apartment enough to subconsciously reconstruct it in my dreams, I feared an entire afternoon of hard labor. But it turned out she only wanted her drapes laundered so I scurried down full of relief and optimistic about my day.
I arrived to find the filthy mess of fabric still suspended by rusty metal clamps from the ceiling, ten feet high. Since Judge Judy hadn’t finished entertaining the defendant’s explanation as to why she’d withheld the plaintiff’s security deposit, Virginia wasn’t free to help, so I scaled the window sill alone, stood on my tip toes, and released each menacing drape from a hook that whispered, “gangrene.”
Once everything was down, I dashed up to my apartment to grab detergent, schedule a Tetanus shot, and partake in a cry.
By that stage I was running on autopilot, powered by a sense of duty, and growing more resentful by the day. I was working full time, attending school, memorizing things about the human body no one outside of a surgical gallery needed to know, and if Virginia cared about clean drapes she wouldn’t have waited thirty years to take them down. I was prepared to tell her exactly that when I returned to find her bent over a sewing machine, revealing the full crown of her head. My objections were quickly silenced (as they always were and would be) by that pitiful tuft of hair, and the large patch of scalp that it never managed to hide. It was almost like she knew.
Just as I was heading down to the basement laundry room, Virginia’s next door neighbor Violet ( “Oh please. Call me Vi!”) popped out with a huge plastic basket perched on her slender hip.
“A little birdie told me what an absolute dear you are!” she gushed as she winked at Virginia, and transferred soiled clothes from her hip to mine.
“So helpful and sweet to us old timers.”
Had either of my arms been free at that point, I would have pushed Virginia down the stairs.
Vi might not have been menstruating anymore, but she wasn’t an old timer by any stretch. She bounced around those halls with the vigor of a teenager.
“Don’t you bother folding anything,” she insisted as though doing me a favor, “Don’t you dare! I’m easy, got it?”
Then she gestured to her left and cackled, “Not like this one!”
I looked over at my albatross, Virginia, who just loomed in the doorway, not registering the insult, eyes focused on nothing. It was the same dead expression she wore in any situation that didn’t involve lotto or liquor.
I suppose it was down in the basement that day—as I picked through Vi’s underpants and quietly monitored my hands for signs of infection—that I began to revisit my career goals.
I wouldn’t have admitted this at the time, but much of my newfound devotion to the working class had more than a little to do with the fact that I was about to join their ranks. I began to comprehend, with chilling clarity, how much real people might disappoint me by simply being themselves.
Once finished with everyone’s laundry, I knocked on Violet’s door first. Engrossed in one of her programs, she hollered to let myself in. Standing within her apartment for the first time, I paused to catalogue its contents; the plastic covered couch, the rabbit-eared television set, the wads of cash scattered here and there. It was a different layout than our place, bigger, and there was a sizable closet off the kitchen that I’d never seen in the other units. Vi had converted it into a utility room where she housed two very large appliances; her own personal washing machine and dryer.
Shortly thereafter I sat for my State Board Examination, and began work at an expensive spa in an especially moneyed part of the city.
I’ve been working at one or another of these establishments now for ten solid years. They’re the kinds of places where the clients inform you right up front that they’d really rather not talk.
Sometimes the choice is knowing people or loving them. I chose love.