At every spa job I’ve ever had, there are two inalienable truths: First, there will be someone I devote a great deal of energy to disliking and, second, there will be talk of unionizing. Sometimes both are warranted—like when my fellow therapist Karl joined a self-help cult and took to assaulting me with his personal growth every time I sat down. Or when an especially tone-deaf manager suddenly decided it was reasonable to insist we give free massages to her friends. Other times the motivation is harder to justify—like my irrational aversion to a girl who pronounced “mature” as “matoor” or the day my team threatened a walk-out over being asked to remain awake at work.
I’m not someone who revels in change and tend to stay at jobs for long stretches of time. The one exception to this rule was a brief engagement at a spa where I worked with a masseuse from Queens named Bobbi. And—in an unlikely intersection of the two inalienable truths—she became the object of my disdain on the exact same day that the staff decided we should really give some thought to forming a union.
Bobbi couldn’t have been more than thirty-five, but she had the ample bosom and matronly fashion sense of a much older woman. We were hired within weeks of one another and while Bobbi wasn’t what I’d call unpleasant, she took an obscene amount of delight in letting everyone know that she wasn’t like us. Her husband, she bragged, was a very successful man and she chose to work, but didn’t need to. For the rest of us, vacations might be spent anywhere a major airline carrier offered a discount, but Bobbi took wine tours of Italy. When a coworker recounted the painful experience of once being stiffed thousands of dollars by a corrupt employer, everyone in audience to the story responded with sympathetic outrage. Everyone, that is, except Bobbi. Bobbi opined that she felt lucky her “hubby” was such a fine breadwinner because the kind of anger we were all displaying was simply not good for one’s health. Galling as her commentary often was, none of it made Bobbi my official nemesis. It just made me rather not eat lunch with her.
The autumn following the spring I started working at this establishment, something was off about our paychecks. Namely, they were markedly shy of what we were owed. Upon investigation, we learned that our superiors had decided to eliminate all holiday and sick pay, but failed to inform anyone of this fact until well after the seasonal bout of Influenza and Thanksgiving. The official explanation was that they’d plain forgotten to mention it, as if changing our compensation package was as minor a thing as replacing one brand of toilet paper with another.
And so, on this day of great personal and professional insult, the topic of organizing arose. It always starts the same way—a group of us huddle in a corner and someone swears they have a friend who has a cousin who successfully unionized his restaurant and now everyone gets twenty weeks of vacation, top notch health insurance, and never works a minute of overtime! It smacks of urban mythology, but that doesn’t really matter. These rallies aren’t truly about starting a labor union. To pull off such a coup would require sustained effort and leadership—two things massage therapists are collectively and fundamentally incapable of. They are, instead, about indulging in a moment of false but comforting faith that we have some agency over our lives. For one person, it’s the dream of job security. For another, it’s protection against the unpredictable whims of management. For me, it’s the insatiable desire to have my picture taken hugging the giant inflatable union rat and then making it my annual Christmas card.
May the happiness of your holidays be as guaranteed as my right to a legally binding wage scale!
Whatever the case may be, none of this ultimately amounts to much because within an hour or so of plotting our big revolution, everyone loses steam and decides they’d rather just go get a coffee. The winds of change in a spa have all the velocity of an air kiss.
But in the same way you let a child go through the motions of packing a bag for what will inevitably be an unsuccessful attempt to run away, you commiserate when your fellow massage therapists whine and declare their intent to unionize, regardless of whether you agree. Unless, of course, you’re Bobbi.
While everyone was shaking and sobbing, Bobbi just sat there filing her nails. When the crying finally subsided, she glanced up and declared, “Sorry guys. Count me out. I just don’t believe in unions. I expect my hard work to be appreciated and treated individually.”
Any number of sound arguments can be made for or against organized workers. On the one hand, modern labor laws now govern the formerly anarchic landscape of industry. On the other, basic human decency is often the first extravagance cut when trying to decrease cost and increase profit. While I didn’t find Bobbi’s point of view original, it was—it is— a valid stance on the issue. Except that, in this case, it was coming from the mouth of a woman who repeatedly left work early—and moved her clients over to someone else’s schedule—on account of feeling “gassy.” This was the crux of my sudden disdain toward Bobbi. It wasn’t that she was a scab; it was that she was a snot—a snot who conveniently overlooked the fact that her own approach to the job was a glorified version of a strike.
Bobbi would do just about anything to avoid having to give people massages. There was always a funeral, always a cold, always a “thing” going on in her neck. And if all else failed, there was the chronic flatulence. When you’re willing to barter all dignity, it’s amazing the things you can get away with. The evil genius of Bobbi’s tactic was the entirely unquantifiable nature of her condition. No one was going to pose deeper inquiry as to whether she really needed leave because, quite simply, in the time it would take her to explain she might pass gas in their direction. And so it was that the rest of our team ended up assuming a more than acceptable portion of Bobbi’s responsibilities. In my mental H.R. department, Bobbi’s personnel folder contains a single assessment: She comes in, does two massages, farts and goes home.
I really didn’t see unionizing as an impediment to Bobbi’s career advancement.
Thinking I’d figured this woman out—the staunch resistance to labor protection, the cats she’d named Bush and Cheney, the pre-election season frenzy about the colored man rumored to be throwing his hat in the ring—I was surprised to learn, sometime later, that Bobbi had been carrying on extramarital affairs with not one, but two coworkers. Apparently, she’d taken to enjoying these trysts on the massage tables between clients.
When it comes to this kind of beeswax, I never mind my own and immediately insisted on minute-to-minute updates involving any and all gossip surrounding Bobbi and her shameful shenanigans. A coworker, Karen, took my orders to heart and called me directly after eavesdropping on a discussion between Bobbi and another therapist, Jimmy. Bobbi, according to Karen, was complaining that she was annoyed with her husband, bored with their sex life, and only sticking around until she found someone else. It took me a while to process this information. First, I had to come to terms with the odors involved. Jimmy had such severe halitosis that speaking with him felt like punishment. Bobbi, of course, couldn’t stop breaking wind. Before I let Karen finish transcribing the conversation, I demanded a very specific report as to where exactly they’d been standing. I then made a mental note to avoid the area for at least another two weeks.
Thankfully, my days with Bobbi were numbered and I soon found a job where I didn’t need to hold my breath all the time or wonder if housekeeping used enough bleach to rid the sheets of Bobbi’s creepy lust.
Last weekend I went for a massage—the first one I’ve had in six months. On the rare occasion I indulge in this way, I always go to a tiny Chinese bodywork place, tucked away in lower Manhattan. It’s nothing like the spas I work in; no one greets you at the door with a steaming cup of tea, no one pretends to be excited you’re there or invested in your wellbeing. I’m not altogether convinced they even launder the linens. When a familiar face disappears, I assume it’s because that person finally earned their passport back. Twice my therapist has carried on a loud conversation with someone in another room the entire time she’s massaged me. I find everything about their total disregard for social norms incredibly admirable and relaxing.
I always get my massage from someone named Amy. This is not because I regularly see the same masseuse, but because all the Chinese women are named—or rather re-named—Amy. Interestingly, almost every girl I grew up with was called Amy, too. But that was in Texas, not China. All just to say that if I’m in a commercially leased space and not wearing my underpants, it’s almost guaranteed that I’m there with an Amy. When I went in the other night, two Amys were sitting at the front desk. For the purposes of this story, let’s call one of them Amy and the other “Asian Bobbi.” The reason will reveal itself shortly.
Because the clientele for this place just wanders in off the street, the therapists rotate and take turns as customers come in. There’s no official booking, no computer terminal or complicated telephone system, no menu of services. English is rarely spoken, but when I arrived it was clear by the expression on Amy’s face that Asian Bobbi was next in line to do my massage. Amy was stretching her hands in way that indicated she’d just finished someone and needed a break. After an awkward pause, Asian Bobbi looked at Amy, shrugged her shoulders in weak apology, and rubbed her tummy in the internationally understood gesture for “stomachache.” And I would swear right then and there I saw a pungent vapor filter through the air, originating straight from the caverns of Asian Bobbi’s ass.
As Amy—now put upon to perform my massage—escorted me back to the treatment room, I felt a kind of sovereign-less empathy for her so intense and pure that had I glanced in a mirror at that exact moment, I believe I’d have seen a Chinese woman looking back at me. Amy muttered something in Mandarin that I suspect translated to, “We should really give some thought to forming a union.” I was too far down the hall to hear Asian Bobbi anymore, but I tend to assume she was musing something about preferring for her hard work be appreciated and treated individually.
At this point I expected Amy to make zero effort on me and, frankly, I wouldn’t have blamed her. Instead, she proceeded to give me what was easily the best massage I have ever had. It was slow and specific, deep and thorough. It was an experience so satisfying and generous that, days later, I am compelled to tell strangers about it.
This is what makes doing massage special. Hard work never goes unappreciated.