The subtitle for the sequel to the film Wall Street was Money Never Sleeps. Those three words officially tenured Oliver Stone as high priest in the cinema of gross exaggeration. Money sleeps all the time. Money sleeps like a recently fed newborn. I sometimes have to physically nudge money out of its steadfast slumber at the end of money’s massage. Money—mark my words—sleeps just fine.
During my intake with a client, I ask when they had their most recent massage. Two people in the last five days replied, “A week ago.” One person said, “Yesterday.”
New York City.
In my youth (that blissful stretch of years before my hands dangled from my wrists like wet dishrags) the wealthy were the small number of folks who drove Cadillacs, hired weekly cleaning ladies, and took vacations that required air travel. The rest of us scrubbed our own bathrooms and summered on the beaches of Galveston, Texas; stretches of sand so dismal that land and sea were differentiated only by their varied hues of grey. One August, the air conditioning went out in our car and my sister and I hung our heads out the backseat windows—panting like dogs—for most of the five-hour drive. Another year, the tape deck refused to eject, and we spent seven straight days enduring the relentless pump of the soundtrack from Footloose. Everybody cut, everybody cut. Mmmm Hmmm. Everybody cut, everybody cut.
Still, we had satiated stomachs and warm beds, and—truth be told—in a household where seventy five percent of the residents urinated sitting down, the toilets didn’t require professional attention. More importantly, according to old school Christian ethos, it is far better to endure the non-stop musical score of a Kevin Bacon film than to try to force a camel through the eye of a needle. We’d surely be inheriting the earth someday, and that sort of thinking will keep you spirited through the blander patches of middle class living.
Or, at least, it will keep you spirited until adolescence sets in, social disparities draw into sharper focus, and you begin to notice how much better expensive denim fits. After a couple of life shortening sunburns and a bad batch of seaside hush puppies, I decided financial mediocrity was an uninspired way to live, and architect-ed a grander plan for my future. The idea was to arrive at a gleaming pre-war apartment mere blocks from Central Park. I arrived there tonight. I left an hour later. Dreams, I have learned, hinge on specificity.
As tony a demographic as you’ll find in a spa, the real spenders hire me privately for massage in their homes. One of these clients is a woman named Lisbeth. She’s in her mid-thirties, married to a financier, has three children and two nannies. She’s Pilates thinned and Photoshop groomed. Lisbeth does not work and yet requires frequent massage on account of how “stressed out” she gets. Her muscles feel like butter left at room temperature on a spring day, soft and malleable. I’d hate Lisbeth except that I like Lisbeth. She’s friendly, polite and generous. Her imaginary stress pays my rent.
I get massaged very rarely. It occurs as often as I consider someone else’s feelings; maybe twice a year. My shtick is that it’s too pricey and I can’t afford it myself, but honestly, I don’t think I need it. It never occurs to me. Repetitive use has compromised my joints and tendons, but all in all I’m in relatively good shape. I also wasn’t raised on this notion that life is all that stressful, or that we deserve a special treat for handling it. Self-indulgence in my neck of the woods was restricted to buying fancy dresses at Easter and throwing parties for milestone birthdays. Anything greater was perceived as total disregard for the less fortunate and morally flaccid to boot. Both of her children were adults before my mother splurged on the occasional pedicure. To this day she cuts my father’s hair in the kitchen. We had quality possessions, but everything was bought on sale, everything was used within an inch of its life before being disposed of. Raising kids, maintaining a home, going to work, helping your neighbors—these weren’t burdens, they were gifts. There was little resistance to life’s responsibilities and little reflection about how they “made you feel.” It’s a pragmatic point of view that I find it both admirable and unsettling. That pragmatism is why I call my mother first in any unmanageable emergency, but it’s also the reason she sometimes drove with a baby in her lap and sent her kids to public school. It’s one of those things you could argue either way.
I once had a brief engagement massaging a Manhattan power couple. Their regular therapist was away and I visited them weekly for a month. After seeing their apartment for the first time, I went straight home and plugged their names into a search engine. According to an article I stumbled across, the husband’s 2009 earnings came in at four hundred million dollars. In the time it took the sun to rise and set on an uneventful day, he made seven figures.
Armed with this knowledge, it became impossible to focus on my work while quietly casing the place for trinkets that could fit into my pocket, or wondering what sort of ransom their youngest child might bring, and I was relieved when our temporary relationship drew to end. Most therapists’ prefer such an elite clientele, but they only served to make me uneasy. After witnessing the perfectly pressed polyester smocks the rest of the house staff wore, I assumed it was only a short order of time before someone greeted me at the door holding a garment bag and saying, “I have something for you.”
The last time I saw Lisbeth, she was “stressed out” because her parents were visiting. Standing in her majestic foyer (between the expanse of two formal living rooms and a five hundred square foot den) I enthused that her family must enjoy staying with her! Lisbeth shrugged and explained that, unfortunately, she simply didn’t have the space for guests, and visitors stayed in hotels. I see what you mean, I limply offered, as we journeyed to her personal massage quarters. Lisbeth didn’t appear to hear me over the mechanical hum of her elevator, and the crackling roar of the flames dancing in each of her two wood burning fireplaces.
When my parents come to New York they stay with me, sleeping in my bed while I take the nearby couch. Our toes would touch if we all lied down and simultaneously stretch our limbs to their maximum extension.
Despite the many cultural offerings of the city, we nearly always do the same thing; trek down to Canal Street and then find something for dinner that isn’t “ethnic.” Canal Street is in Chinatown, and while my mom isn’t a fan of their confusing cuisine, she does enjoy the retail offerings of the Chinese. Chinatown smells like day old fish and looks almost like Louis Vuitton. The streets are covered in filth and the storefronts are bursting with aggressive vendors hawking knocked off designer goods. Canal Street is all about fraud and bargaining and it makes me ill. My mom, on the other hand, is in nirvana. It’s a way of having “nice things” without staining her moral character and overspending on herself. My father always points out that watches displayed in a whispering man’s coat lining might have been obtained unlawfully, compromising an entirely other set of values, but my mother has learned to ignore him over the years. Next to faithfulness and respect, selective hearing is the engine that powers their enduring marriage.
Because the Chinese don’t pluralize words, neither does my mom in their company. It’s her way of letting them know they are welcome here and she understands how much they’ve been through. No daughters? No God? Devastating.
“Five dollah!” a hostile man in a fanny pack screams as my mom admires a Prada-ish wallet.
“Well, now how about I give you three dollah?” she politely counters in her lifelong Texas drawl. Once they settle on a non-pluralized price, she buys seven.
They love her. She’s their Lisbeth.
After stocking up on purses constructed of something leather-like, we usually eat hamburgers at a chain restaurant. My living arrangement suits my parents fine, because when we run out of other things to do they can sit and stare at me, glowing with pride. It’s the same with my sister in Chicago, and we are wildly unsuccessful people. I shudder to imagine how my mom and dad would behave had either of us actually achieved something with our lives. For reasons I will never understand, and always find troubling, we are what makes them feel wonderful. We are their massage.
My single wealthiest regular client lives off Park Avenue. Town houses—Manhattan’s version of single-family dwellings—are a real line of demarcation between the have’s and have’s-slightly-less. They run millions of dollars a pop, excluding the outrageous real estate taxes and maintenance costs. This man owns two, each broken through, conjoined, perfectly rehabbed, and totaling fifty-feet wide. His is the cruelest kind of fortune; he got it from his mom. An empire obtained through the scrappy hard work of hitching oneself to the right umbilical cord.
One afternoon, as I waited for him to end a phone call, I was privy to his side of the conversation. “You’ve got to be kidding” he bellowed, “There’s at least 16 million in that account, have him check again!”
Working on Stuart is challenging, not because his musculature is awkward or difficult to penetrate, but because I vibrate through much of the massage. That’s how progressive Parkinson’s works. When he shakes, I shake too. Some days we enjoy decent stretches of medicated stillness, other times it’s an hour-long earthquake. He can’t stand without a walker, so I always have to help him back into his underwear when we finish—putting one foot through one hole, the other through the other, and tugging them up to his waist—like you would on a child.
This is where I could muse something simplistic about how money can’t buy health or spare us from pain.
Legions of people with unspeakable physical and emotional stress navigate their lives in the absence of masseuses. They don’t possess the inexhaustible resources that allow for dedicated me-time or piecemeal payment to specialists willing to visit them at home. Money doesn’t have healing properties, but it’s pretty nice salve. It can coat a problem with a soothing numbing effect. And when that merciful tingle wears off—through the magic of sophisticated asset management—they can cash a dividend check and coat it again.
I will say this: the person who gets a massage weekly or daily—whether for problems real or imagined—is lucky. The person who doesn’t need it that often—who doesn’t need it at all—is luckier still.