In the heart of Chinatown in Manhattan, amidst the shouts of street vendors and the briny scent of fish, there is a plain awning advertising, in both Chinese and English, medicinal herbs, bodywork and acupuncture. At first glance this probably is not a business you would go to purchase any of the above, unless you didn’t mind leaving with a criminal record.

“You absolutely have to go. I’ve never had a such a great massage.” This from a friend at work.

“What’s the name of this place again?” I asked, the skepticism oozing from my voice.

“Fishion Herb Center.”

I’m no connoisseur of spas, but in my experience they usually have names like Bliss and Tranquility. I’m pretty sure Fishion isn’t even a word. Sensing my trepidation, my friend offered to go with me. She called to make our appointments before I could think of an excuse.

“We’re all set,” she said. “It’s $40 for 60 minutes.” In Manhattan, that’s quite a bargain. Hour-long massages can start at $125. “We’ll go after work tomorrow. Oh, and it’s cash only.” Of course it is.

The last time I had a massage was a special birthday gift at a day spa. From the moment I arrived, I felt relaxed. Lavender filled the air; the lighting was dim; the bathrobes were fluffy. In the distance I heard the sound of a waterfall. The receptionist whispered in her best golf announcer voice. “Excuse me, ma’am, can I get you a glass of cucumber-infused water?”

I knew the herb center was going to be different before I even opened the door. The main entrance was set back from the street down a long, narrow, cement corridor. Green astroturf lined the floor. Just inside, the front desk area was a beehive of activity, especially surrounding the glass counter where the herbs were kept.

ChineseMassage Place

Chinese massage Place

As we waited on rickety folding chairs, I said, “You know, I’m thinking I can live with this knot in my neck. If we leave now we can just make a movie somewhere.”

“I’ve been here before. It’ll be fine,” my friend said. “Besides, don’t judge a book by its cover.”

My friend was called first. I thought about skipping out, but within a few seconds, my name was called and I was led toward the back of the building by a small Chinese man whose leather belt was wrapped around his waist twice. He was a smidge shorter than me, which would put him on par with Prince. He said only one word, “Mike,” and he pointed to himself.  I guessed his mother hadn’t named him that.

There were a line of cubicle type units with tall walls. Mike stopped in front of one cubicle, parted the shower curtain used as a door and gestured me inside. He handed me a threadbare towel and held up two fingers which meant either he’d be back in two minutes or he was wishing me peace. I quickly changed while listening to the man in the next cubicle make horrifying sounds. “Ack! Uumph! Eerg!”

I rationalized that the guy was likely getting one of those intensive deep-tissue massages. I was to learn that was the only kind of massage given at the Fishion Herb Center. Mike returned and I tried to explain. I pointed at the cubicle next to us and shook my head. Then I pointed to my shoulders and said, “Easy. Soft. Light.”  Mike looked at me and nodded. “A-okay.”

Mike’s tiny stature belied his strength. He pressed with Herculean force into my hamstrings and my lower back and my calves and my neck. He pulled my limbs this way and that. He stretched my head so far away from my body  I thought I might gain two inches in height. I was sure there would be bruising. I realized I was making the same noises as the guy in the next cubicle. We were a symphony of agony.

“Easy? Soft? Light?”


At one point I closed my eyes, not in relaxation but to hold back the tears.  The hour wasn’t up soon enough. I just lay there on the table as limp as a fish in the market next door. Mike left his business card next to me. “You come back, ask for Mike.”

I was reunited with my friend near the herb counter. “I would kill you, but I can’t raise my arm to do it.”

She said, “I think I may have a hairline fracture in my collarbone.”

“Why on earth do you keep coming here?”

“You’ll see.”

We stumbled outside into the sunshine, dazed and confused. Somehow I made it to the subway and all the way home. I glugged a glass of water and  sat on the sofa where I instantly fell into a deep, dreamless sleep for two hours. I hadn’t slept that good in, well, ever.  When I woke, I was refreshed beyond words. I felt like a newborn baby, like I was on a cloud, like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. There was no trace of tension or strain anywhere in my body. I was so joyful I wanted to sing like Julie Andrews from a mountaintop.

It was the best massage I ever had.


Have you ever had a massage? Did you enjoy it? 

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