Paying it Forward

I was making dinner on a recent Friday evening when my phone lit up with a notification. I’d received a Venmo payment from my client Sarah in the amount to cover a 60-minute massage, plus gratuity. The last time Sarah had been to my office was a few weeks prior, and I was certain she’d already paid for that session. Confused, I opened the app and looked at the message she attached to her remittance. Prepay my next massage! Is that okay? I replied to Sarah by text, sharing how tough the past weeks had been as I’d quarantined in my San Francisco home, my therapeutic massage practice shuttered. Your compassion has me in tears, I texted her. Literally.

Sarah wasn’t the first person who reached out with an offer to pay in advance for services to be scheduled at a later date, when California’s shelter in place order is lifted and the coronavirus pandemic diminished. A dentist whose own clinic is indefinitely closed purchased six gift certificates. The mother of a teenage client, an accomplished Irish dancer who will no longer be attending the world championships in Dublin, bought her daughter’s next session. My regular Thursday morning client G., a spry and playful octogenarian, now owns a package with multiple one-hour massages. And, my friend A., who already has four pre-paid appointments on the books, invested in several more. 

I’ve been a bodyworker for close to thirty years. Therapeutic massage was still a fringe career when I acquired my initial certifications in 1992; I was just the fifth person to obtain a license in the small Central Valley city where I launched my practice.  Although Merced had a massage ordinance on the books for two decades, there was no state-wide accreditation at that time. In fact, massage therapy was such an outlier job when I first started working that the Bureau of Labor Statics failed to include the vocation in the May 1994 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook. 

But, demand for my services was consistent from the get-go, reliable enough for me to trade my entry level management position with its cozy benefits package for the autonomy of my own piece of the American dream. I found both camaraderie and a common mission with the yoga teachers, personal trainers, and Pilates instructors with whom I worked, and I was grateful for the people they referred to my practice. Likewise, I encouraged my clientele to seek the expertise of these fitness professionals should they need assistance with strength and flexibility training. And, I bartered my skill set with other self-employed individuals—hair stylists and manicurists and aestheticians—pointing my clients toward those businesses. In return, these service providers sent their patrons to me, helping me develop a diverse roster. 

This ecosystem of collaborators and customers is the backbone of my professional life. I have been the first person at the hospital, with the exception of family members, to visit a postpartum mother and her newborn infant, and I’ve attended funerals where I don’t know anyone except the deceased. I have a clientele that includes multiple generations of a family, referred to me by Pilates teacher, and I have worked on hundreds of people just once, treating a vexing physical complaint, then never seeing that person again. Although dual relationships are discouraged in my field, one of my dearest friends was once a client, our affinity for one another irresistible. And, with no intention to do so, I introduced two athletes who patronized my business. They are now married and raising their young daughter. It’s impossible for me to separate myself from my vocation and the people who’ve pursued my therapeutic ministrations. Without my clients, I am only a massage therapist on paper.

This past March, I marked my 28th anniversary in my career, no small feat in a field where most practitioners will quit at six years. Over my three decades in practice I’ve witnessed dramatic shifts in this industry, from the increasingly rigorous requirements for state level licensure, to the development of a national board certification. I’ve watched franchise spas blossom in strip malls and airports across the country, making massage therapy geographically and economically accessible to many Americans, while simultaneous allowing new therapists to enter the profession without the expense of opening one’s own studio. I’ve noted the 300% increase in the number of massage therapists since I was first certified, as reported by Associated Body and Massage Professionals. I’ve been pleased to see my vocation become an ordinary, middle-class job. But never did I expect to see myself and the majority of my 300,000 fellow therapists out of work, our high-touch occupation sidelined by pandemic. 

My practice has been on hiatus for more than a month, and my income has dwindled to a fraction of what I typically earn. Right now, my only sources of revenue are the gift certificates and prepaid appointments that some of my clients are requesting. This is true as well for other personal services workers, which is why, despite my constricted income, I am buying haircuts and yoga classes and manicures. I can’t afford to advance purchase more than a few of these sessions, which have become luxuries under my current budget, just as I am becoming a luxury for some of my clients who will no longer be able to afford my fees. Despite my own economic crunch, I feel I must contribute at the community level and help my favorite small businesses stay afloat. Even with the government’s economic stimulus package and the possibility of SBA loans, my self-employed colleagues and I are getting gutted by the pandemic. The least I can do is invest in services that I will need once shelter in place is lifted.

I have loved my career. Its constancy over my years in practice has been an anchor, despite personal difficulties, national crises, and cultural shifts. As we slog our way through the coronavirus pandemic, I long for hours with my clients in the quiet of my clinic in a desperate, aching way. I am sure my fellow personal services workers feel a similar yearning. We miss the routines of our vocations, and we miss our reliable incomes, but mostly, we miss our regular customers. The interpersonal connections we have with our clientele is one of the real perks of our professions. I am humbled by the generosity people have shown me in these difficult days, and I will be grateful to return to my career when it’s safe for me and my community. Until then, the best way I can honor my longstanding massage therapy practice and the clients who are supporting me is to pay it forward.