Often I will go for a wonderful massage at my favorite Chinese hole-in-the-wall on 77th Street. This type of massage used to be only available in China town but now, little ‘tui-na’ massages are available on every other block on the upper east side. These little parlors are far from luxurious but the massages are generally better than you’ll get in a 5-star luxury spa. They’re usually on street level marked by a neon sign, a giant foot bearing a reflexology map and a red and white yin yang symbol – a place you would never find the likes of Tinsley Mortimer but it’s roughly ½ the price of The Red Door and you get a seriously great massage.
Usually tui-na parlors are no bigger than a studio apartment and these crafty little Asian women are able to transform a 350 square foot space into 6 separate massage rooms with a reception / waiting area. Of course the ‘waiting area’ is just two metal folding chairs jammed into the corner, blocking the full opening of the front door, and the reception space is another folding chair with an older Asian man holding the cash box. The individual massage rooms are about four feet wide – just large enough to house the bed and barely enough space for a 97 pound masseuse to maneuver around. Each room is divided by only a white curtain which will blow open each time a customer enters or exits the front door. When the masseuse enters the ‘room’ she will usually affix a plastic hair clip, like the kind you see in Duane Reade, to hold the two curtains together at the entry end. It’s kind of like being in a tent and you could easily hold hands with the person in the tent next door if it wasn’t for the thin white curtain divider.
There is a code of etiquette that most apartment dwelling New Yorkers abide by that is very important when visiting a tui-na parlor, and that is: keep your eyes on your own space. It’s no different than when you live in a brownstone building separated by only a foot or so from the building next door. Both your apartment and the one across the alley have windows. When you notice movement in the window of the facing apartment, you look away. One must never look directly into the neighboring apartment and risk eye contact. It’ is important to feel safe on the occasion you forgot that you put your towels in the laundry and must run naked and dripping wet through the kitchen and into the bedroom to fetch clean towels from a plastic bin under the bed. Since the curtains frequently blow open while trying to dress or undress in the tiny space, this is the same code of conduct that is important to abide by in a tui-na parlor. Its ‘eyes to the ground’ until you are safely lying face down on the bed, completely naked save the one small towel left neatly folded on the bed for you to cover your ass with. In the event there are customers in the waiting area, you must get undressed at the speed of light because the masseuse will almost always open the curtain and expose your nakedness to the waiting public before you’ve had ample time to disrobe, stuff your clothes in the bin under the bed, jump on top of the bed and cover your butt. You can only hope that the eyes-to-the-ground policy is being observed by all.
“Golf is more fun than walking naked in a strange place, but not much.”
- Buddy Hackett