My first manager was a tender woman named Sharon. Her dreams of motherhood had been dashed by unsustainable ectopic pregnancies, and she transferred her nurturing instincts onto us. Like all children, we made her cry from time to time and met her efforts with ingratitude. Like all mothers, Sharon experienced the occasional nervous breakdown that she blamed on perimenopause and then actual menopause. And then she quit.
Ricki—Sharon’s replacement—was younger and jazzier. She wore adult braces and the sort of politically correct clothing sold at health food emporiums. Recently divorced, Ricki gathered our thirteen-member staff into a meeting and encouraged us to join her in “new beginnings!” and “fresh starts!” She spoke of her boundless passion for the spa industry and welcomed everyone on a journey that held the potential to change the world. Ricki wanted to elevate the human condition through facials and massage. When she asked for ideas as to how we could collectively create the best spa ever, a lone hand shot up in the air. Upon being invited to share, one of my coworkers informed Ricki that he needed Thursday off for a court date. Maybe Friday, too, it just depended on how things went.
Ricki’s queer way of communicating unsettled us, but we adored her predecessor and clung tight to the hope that we’d like Ricki, too. Our baseless optimism lasted approximately one week, and that was followed by three full seasons of what I like to call Spa Wars.
During her first month on the job, Ricki crashed the computer system, screwed up everyone’s schedules, and spent most of her time burning sage against our bad vibes. Problems began arising in every practical aspect of operations; products were never ordered, towels and sheets went un-laundered, and no one answered the phones. If we expressed anxiety about the dwindling state of affairs, Ricki might diagnose us with a chakra imbalance. If we begged for clean linens, she’d enthuse, “Guys! Who goes home after a great treatment and says, ‘Wow, those were some spotless sheets?’ No one, that’s who! Let’s focus on what matters and knock people’s socks off with five-star service!”
This was how Ricki addressed pressing technical issues, and everything else was to be taken up with our new H.R. department—The Universe.
The Universe, according to Ricki, was the highest order of management. If we asked, it would provide. As well, when things didn’t go our way, The Universe held reasons that we were simply too small-minded to understand. The way Ricki saw it, we weren’t victims of her incompetence, but rather suffering the ramifications of our own spiritual lethargy. And by virtue of that logic, she officially absolved herself of all responsibility for doing her job.
Sharon’s leadership style had been based on achievable goals. She asked that we be sober and not steal things. Ricki wanted our souls. Before the ink dried on her contract, she suggested we start washing our clients’ feet in a biblical gesture of humility. Then she determined we should bow at the waist upon greeting them. Every member of the staff refused to do either—and one threatened to sue—so Ricki switched gears and brainstormed more upbeat names for the services. A Swedish massage became the “Big Body Beautiful,” a facial was “Sacred Skintimacy.” Both modalities were packaged into a multi-hour indulgence coined “Spa-la-la-la-la.” It was impossible not to fear an embarrassing uniform loomed in our future.
Ricki saw herself as a missionary among savages, people she pitied too much to hate, and she took our education very seriously. Mandatory workshops were organized for everything from shamanism to the dangers of dairy. Once, she invited a French woman to school us in customer care. Celine opened with the lightly accented question, “Do we know why ze client come to ze spa?” No one responded, so Celine answered herself. “They come for ze love. This iz whys they come.” We quickly pointed out that under New York state law, we are not legally allowed to give clients love. “Not in exchange for cash, we’re not!” a voice snapped from the back.
Despite our staunch resistance, Ricki pressed forward with her evangelism. Meetings increased in frequency, employee yoga classes started, and unless we had something “proactive” to contribute, our comments were no longer welcome. By this point, she’d stopped returning our desperate calls and spent much of the day hiding in her office, visualizing better tomorrows. Team building seminars quickly devolved into boss bashing sessions and all hell broke loose. The facility fell apart, clients disappeared, and Ricki mostly stopped paying us.
At heart, she saw herself as an artist. While composing memos in calligraphy came naturally, the dry administrative duties of her position frustrated Ricki to the extent that she plain stopped doing them. She needed to live her truth, and admin wasn’t her truth. Nothing drained Ricki quite like payroll, and as result our checks were random guesstimations of what we were owed. Her method never erred in our favor, and the debt grew to hundreds of dollars. When we wept about impending evictions, Ricki sent us straight to Human Resources: “You need to learn to trust the Universe, guys! Money isn’t where it’s at.” When that failed to dam the avalanche of tears, she introduced our new spa mascot, Mahatma Gandhi.
Inspirational quotes had long been cropping up inside the product closet and on various forms of Xeroxed communication. In volume, they were directly proportionate to how largely she was failing at her job on any given day; the worse Ricki botched one task or another, the more effort she exerted plastering poems across the walls. They all smacked of passive aggressive insult, but none so much as what Ricki announced would be our new mission statement:
“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
This was classic Ricki. We were teetering on professional collapse and financial ruin, and she was shaming us for not energetically affecting a more beautiful outcome in our lives. Using Gandhi against us was beyond the pale.
Gandhi was labor, not management.
By Ricki’s six-month anniversary, we were shadows of our formerly happy selves. Traditional morning greetings were dropped in favor of “I hate this stupid place” and “You’ll never believe what she did this time.” We started calling her “metal mouth” and vandalizing her artwork. If Ricki posted a poem about teamwork on Tuesday, by Wednesday it was shredded to pieces or covered in graffiti. Sometimes whiteout was used to erase portions of text. Once, a passage from the I Ching was smeared with something rust colored that, upon closer examination, smelled like blood.
I have what my mom used to call a “mouth” on me, and I’d been assaulting Ricki with it for weeks. Initially, my bickering was motivated by genuine frustration and, later, it was motivated by the fact that my co-workers heralded me a hero every time I engaged my vocal chords. The reputation of rabble-rouser suited my self-image well. Soon I was fighting my fights, everyone else’s fights, and a few imaginary fights for good measure. I accosted Ricki daily with my sharp-edged barbs and I always played to the balconies. When she shrugged off one of her grosser mistakes by declaring, “Sometimes monkeys fall out of trees.” I lurched at her and screamed, “You didn’t fall, Ricki, we pushed you out of that tree. We pushed you!”
I had no idea what that meant, but my popularity soared to new heights. It’s possible I let the power go to my head.
A certain member of our team extended an olive branch to Ricki in some benign act of kindness, and I cut her off like a tumor. Tami was a deeply insecure girl as a result of her lifelong weight problems, and she tended to overcompensate in an effort to be liked. Upon realizing the error of her ways, Tami earnestly apologized to the other therapists and they, in turn, let it go. I, on the other hand, made Tami sink to bended knee and sob for my forgiveness. After which, I told her I’d have to think about it and get back to her. Such was the intersection of my indignation and my ego.
In retrospect, my audacity back then astounds me. That company was my first real employer out of college and I projected onto it the only authority dynamics I’d ever known; parent/child, professor/student. My mom and dad were required by God to keep me around and in a Fine Arts program, being obnoxious is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. Like smoking. It never occurred to me, at that stage of life, that I was expendable. This is all I can offer to justify my recklessness. Well, that and the fact that no one ever got fired from that place. Not the stock boys who took bong hits in the closets, nor the retail supervisor who once locked up shop so severely intoxicated that she left her keys dangling from the door overnight. This company had many flaws, but unrealistic expectations of its hourly employees were not among them.
Just when bullying Ricki was restoring meaning to life, my army buckled behind me. One by one, my coworkers waved white flags and slipped into defeated depressions. Some left, others wanted to leave but were too intimidated by the daunting cobra premiums, a few sought the numbing relief of pharmaceuticals. I tried to rally my troops and suggested we ask H.R. to have Ricki hit by a car, but they knew good and well the Universe only took Ricki’s calls. I never bought that nonsense anyway. It is not for the Universe to take care of us. It is for us to take care of each other. I had plenty of fight still to spare, but in the absence of an adoring audience high-fiving me every time I opened my trap, I just didn’t see the point.
Around the same time, Ricki’s teeth started falling out with some regularity, and we learned that she wore braces because she’d been born with a cleft palette, and endured multiple childhood surgeries. Then we found out she’d turned to the wellness industry after failing in the musical theatre. Finally, it was revealed that her husband had left her for a massage therapist—which was more than a little enlightening.
I never thought I’d surrender, but devoting my every conscious thought to wishing someone with a birth defect might time an intersection wrong became an unbearable way to exist. My forthcoming letter of resignation was greeted with palpable relief, and that was that, she won. Ricki would eventually be fired and the spa would shutter its doors. There was some vague, official reason why they closed, but my money is on Ricki bringing the walls down, one proverb at a time.
All these years later, I’m left with a single haunting vision of Ricki, and it’s a product of my imagination. In it, I see her through the windows of her office and observe her unnoticed from the street. The time is after midnight, and the city assumes a quiet that sadly harmonizes with the image of a thirty-something divorcee hunched over a calculator. Platitudes and inspirational quotes clutter the surface of her desk. She doesn’t know it yet, but these sentiments will be her undoing because life cannot—it will not—be reduced into a sentence. I watch as Ricki struggles with the second-grade math of our payroll and mindlessly picks at her expensive orthodontic work. Beaten but not broken, Ricki looks upward to the vast beyond. She is arming herself with positivity. She is renewing her abiding faith that with a winning smile and a meaningful career, the floodgates of fortune will open and all her strange dreams will come true.