There's the Rub
When the media is the massage . . .

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, July 15, 2007

This column originally ran on September 2, 2001.

Have you ever gotten so darned angry at work that you just had to grab $60 from petty cash and head off to a massage parlor? Me, too.

I was steamed because of a letter I had received from Joel Oxley, general manager of Washington radio station WTOP [now senior vice president and market manager of Bonneville Radio, which owns Washington Post Radio]. Oxley objected to a column in which I criticized WTOP for airing ads that offered a cure for a scary-sounding-but-nonexistent medical condition. You are throwing stones from a glass house, Oxley wrote: The Post runs questionable ads, too, he contended, saying we routinely advertise "massage parlors" that everyone knows are actually houses of prostitution.

Now, other journalists might sit idly by while someone slanders their employer. Not this one. If a business advertises in The Washington Post, I say, it is legit. And so I set out to prove it.

The first thing I noted is that Happiness Tanning Spa on 10th Street NW has not only a reputable address but a sacrosanct one. It is across the street from Ford's Theatre, a couple of doors down from the sepulchral solemnity of The House Where Lincoln Died. Plus, Happiness is so classy it has only its address on the door, not its name. (Buckingham Palace doesn't have its name on the door, either.)

"Hi," I said to the middle-aged proprietress. "I saw your ad in The Washington Post. I have a crick in my neck, and I was hoping your staff of trained professional massage therapists might help me."

She stood there, blinking. "Your neck?" she said.

"Yes, a crick," I said, trying to look afflicted.

She seemed suspicious. Had her years of massage training alerted her to something fishy about my story? Wordlessly, she wheeled around and escorted me into Room 5.

I had expected one of those metal massage tables, but was pleasantly surprised instead to see two comfortable-looking beds and many towels. Lights were low. Soft rock played. Instantly, it became clear that this establishment's first concern was hygiene.

"You take off your clothes," the proprietress said, "and the girl will give you a shower and a massage."

"I don't want a shower," I explained. "Just a neck rub."

"No shower?" She narrowed her eyes. "It's $40 for half-hour," she said.

I was impressed. This upfront discussion of fees is a common courtesy too often lacking in modern business. Gratefully, I ponied up.

"No shower," she muttered, shaking her head, shuffling away.

Next, I was escorted into another room with a bed, and was again instructed to remove all my clothes. Apparently, proper massage technique requires this, but again I demurred, since only my upper torso required treatment. I removed my shirt only. Pretty soon, my massage therapist walked in. Her name was Maya. Maya is Korean, about 22.

There is something about the bearing of a consummate professional that inspires the confidence of everyone around. I felt that way, for example, the first time I met Ben Bradlee. I felt that way about Maya, too.

I suspect I was Maya's last customer of the day: She appeared to have changed out of masseuse scrubs and was now wearing high heels and a small, shimmery mid-thigh turquoise cocktail dress -- probably to attend the opera or an evening of diplomatic receptions. Because it is inappropriate to comment on the physical appearance of a woman in the workplace, I will observe only that Maya looked trim and healthy, equal to the physical requirements of her job.

I lay prone on the bed, face in a pillow, and Maya started kneading my back with strong, confident hands. Proper massage techniques apparently required her to position herself above me, her knees on the bed on either side of my body; I realized her outfit was both elegant and practical -- the commodious slit in her dress seemed designed to facilitate this.

"So, are there any men who work here?" I asked.

"No," Maya said. "Sometimes maybe someone ask for man. We send away."

"So," I said, "I guess you get a lot of guys coming here after sports injuries or car accidents, right?"

"Sometimes, maybe," Maya said, giggling. She spoke in a husky semi-whisper, like Bacall.

She kept checking the digital clock on a table. I had paid for a half-hour, and after a while she started kneading body parts not ordinarily associated with routine massage therapy, such as my ear cartilage. I suspected she was running out of things to do, no doubt because I had asked for upper-body therapy only. Most of her clients probably require additional service.

By the end of our session Maya was giggling pretty much nonstop. I appreciate a cheerful workplace environment, so I tipped her my remaining $20.

In my half-hour at Happiness, I detected nothing untoward. I was not touched inappropriately. I was treated in a courteous manner by a skilled professional.

So that snide letter was a lie. Truth is a stern mistress. Isn't it, Mr. Oxley?

Gene Weingarten is on vacation.

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