I am a devoted fan of walk-in qi gong massage joints. I will passionately defend them to anyone who gives me a kind of concerned look when we walk by a sandwich board advertising $38/hour and I tell them that’s the best massage in the neighborhood.
Just like every other masseuse in the city, qi gong masseuses can be very good and very bad. The shops all appear nearly identical from the outside, with the same sandwich board by the door, thin walls and pan flute version of “Amazing Grace”—some are clean, some smell like mothballs, some are secretly fancy and some seem to only attract drunk businessmen seeking bad handjobs.
One remarkable constant is that you will never pay more than $50 for an hour-long massage. Anywhere else, a massage is an unaffordable luxury only for the rich or for special occasions, but for someone making a middling salary, the spot near my old office and next to a liquor store made me feel like I was getting some kind of bargain for receiving basic self-care.
A walk-in massage joint is self-care stripped down to its essence—the actual care for your body, without the fluff that makes you feel like you’ve experienced luxury for simply having spent too much of your own money. My favorite Midtown spot was just good enough to keep me coming back, and just strange enough to keep me wondering why I would actually do such a thing.
There is something absolutely gentrification-resistant in parts of Midtown, where the ghost of seedy, old Times Square is still a little bit alive. I used to work at a now-defunct digital agency on West 37th, where ominous energy from deep inside the Port Authority stretched for blocks. Unlike the surrounding areas, there is absolutely no effort made to create any kind of “mood” in this corner of Midtown—it’s treeless streets lined with familiar chains and perpetual scaffolding. It’s one of those transient places where Nobody Actually Lives but Everybody Has To Be At Some Point, and unfortunately Some People Also Have to Work There.
My coworkers and I frequented dives like Holland Bar, where you could watchWheel of Fortunewith old men at four in the afternoon, and the now-closed Pisces Bar on 8th Avenue, which boasted several neon palm trees, fully carpeted floors, and at least one couple fighting at all times. Everything around there was just a little bit cursed–like the Pax on 8th Avenue that gave me food poisoning twice (watch out for the sprouts), and the perpetually empty storefront owned by a psychic on 37th. In fact, after a coworker and I were going through particularly rough breakups, we decided to head a few doors down to the walk-in psychic to get a reading. She never answered the door, or any of our calls. Neither did any of the four other psychics we tried nearby.
The massage parlors did, however, although like any service industry of this kind, massage is not without its own strange experiences. These women (and sometimes men) are talented and hard-working but often exploited. Many unlicensed massage parlorsare conduits for sex-trafficking, but others are simply what they appear to be — low-rent establishments offering non-sexual massages for an affordable price. These are the ones I frequented, where everything was above board, but the nature and quality of massage could be wildly different on any given day.
At my favorite,Aquis Body Spa, one woman would play a game of chicken as she mercilessly dug their elbows into my glute, while one man was adamant about keeping my body completely covered with a towel for the entire hour. But there was one masseuse with a truly unusual style. There was the one massage where she walked in before I was finished putting my clothes on, finished buttoning up my already half-buttoned shirt, picked up my glasses and put them on my face. What was this for? Was she just being motherly? Was it to ensure a good tip? I had no idea, but what do you do when the woman gives a really good massage? You continue patronizing the establishment until something weirder happens.
At the end of another massage, she asked me to roll over onto my back and paused, looked at me, poked my forehead in three different places to form a triangle, and said, “Baby, baby, baby” as she poked. Not in a sexual way, not in a particularly childish way; maybe a little playfully but with a kind of matter-of-factness. “Baby, baby, baby.” Was this some kind of joke between us that I wasn’t clued in on? Was this a wry impersonation of a happy ending? Was it a curse? I still don’t know what to make of it, but I count it as one of the many strange surprises you can find if you are open to new and unusual experiences, or just have sciatica and happen to work in Midtown.
There are other neighborhoods with better lunch spots, walkable areas, and a lack of human poop, but there is something special about this place, where the spirit of old Times Square went after it was evicted from its ancestral home. I hope that this corner of the city remains as gentrification-resistant as ever–if only for the $49 massage.