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Massage Parlor And Musical Tourette's


The traffic on University Avenue behaved as if it’d dropped a tab of LSD. Frantic vehicles jousted in a concrete arena wallpapered with layers of tattered concert posters. A pedestrian would be fumigated with diesel bus exhaust and VW Beetle backfire. No wonder I felt like I was going crazy. It didn’t help that I was bone-deep lonely, and broke.

I walked to the job interview. I didn’t own a car, have a boyfriend or a friend to bug for a lift. Normally, I wouldn’t traverse as far as University Avenue, three miles from the room I rented on Panoramic Way near the UC Berkeley Stadium. Mostly I hovered around the north side of campus, Euclid Avenue, familiar territory, woodsy, less stressful than other areas of the city that were adapted to bring on another panic attack.

I had run out of money, not that I’d ever possessed real money, mostly minimum wage smatterings. At eighteen, I’d been serially employed and unemployed. Call it immaturity? I’d hopped out of the nest the day after high school graduation and ran back to the San Francisco Bay Area.

My parents had thought the move to the country, six months earlier, would be a sanctuary for our family. Endless rural roads, the smell of straw baking in oppressive summer heat, and pasture dirt in every crevice, drove me crazy.

I loved Mom and Dad, and my siblings, but this city-girl was lost around horses and farm life. Years later, I would regret that I didn’t stick around to help my family during what would become their darkest days.

Out in the elements again, I was chasing down another gainful prospect as I walked along the city sidewalk in high heels, the only kind of shoes I owned. High School in the early 1970’s required girls to wear skirts and dresses, stockings and dress shoes. We were never permitted to wear jeans or shorts except once a year on Earth Day. On that momentous occasion, the student body gathered on the football field—peace signs, hand painted posters and crowns of flowers, mildly reminiscent of Woodstock. I didn’t participate. I still had a little baby fat around my thighs and didn’t like how they looked in pants.

The advertisement for the job stood out from the others. It seemed more exciting than being a cashier at the local co-op, working retail, or a waitress at Denny’s. I’d grown up in a theatrical family. The experience honed my antenna to gravitate towards the unconventional. The receptionist job at Xanadu Massage Parlor had provocative possibilities, I thought.

I’d seen the exterior of the building before from a bus and car windows. The place looked exotic, polished teal tiles trimmed with faux white marble, Grecian almost, with a neon billboard. No barkers out front like the strip clubs, and other adult massage parlors advertising “Girls, Girls, Girls” on Broadway and Columbus in North Beach, San Francisco.

When I entered the business, it took a moment for my eyes to focus. The transition from a sunny day into a darkened den was initially disorienting. Maybe it was intended, a method to appraise the clientele while they were adjusting their vision. Were they a creep, a cop, or cool?

An attractive young woman in a leotard, bare legs, red-red lipstick and stilettos stood up from an elongated leatherette bench that stretched around the room. Three similarly outfitted women remained seated.

“Hi, may I help you.” Her voice and manner reminded me of Roberta, an old acquaintance who’d been a bottomless dancer in San Francisco. She used to drink Grand Marnier and played Russian roulette with heroin. Their speech wasn’t sloppy, no slur, just slow motion, very relaxed.

“I came about the receptionist job?”

“Oh yeah, Doug will help you. I’ll get him.” She walked away gracefully, a sexy ballerina.

I couldn’t help it. I stared at her legs. They were stunning, not a trace of cellulite, perfect proportion. A little peek of a flawless round rump escaped her covering. I wondered if giving naked massage to men was good exercise. The other women on the bench were equally endowed, toned legs, long hair, red-lipped coy smirks. Their only articles of clothing were the dancewear and ultra-high heels.

I felt over dressed in a short skirt, blouse, underwear and a bra. My heels were not as tall as theirs. Comparing myself to them was unavoidable. I was already suffering a hit to my self-esteem traipsing around town job hunting. The physical beauty of the leotard clad girls at Xanadu took my ego down another notch.

I watched Doug, I assumed, descend the metal staircase from a loft that looked like a guard’s tower in a prison. The catwalk above provided a bird’s eye view of the employees below on the bench. And there was enough space for a couple of desks, a table with chairs and a refrigerator and microwave, an elevated staff lounge.

As he approached, Doug reminded me of a gangster-type from the movies, burly swagger, ill-fitting sports jacket strangling his biceps, a shadow on his jowls, a half-lipped cigar smile.

“How ya doing?” A deep Marlon Brando voice. “So, you here for the receptionist job?”

“Yes,” I smiled, a little nervous. I still hadn’t totally adjusted to the dim lighting. Felt like I was wearing horse blinders—stunting periphery.

“Let me show you around.” His outstretched hand invited me to join him on a tour of the facility as if guiding me onto a dance floor, gracious, big black shoes, a slow waltz.

“These are some of our ladies,” he said as we stopped at the bench and he rattled off names—no Trixie, Cherry, or Honey among them.

“Hi,” I said as they stretched like felines on the leatherette and softly purred their greetings.

“Come this way.” He pushed open double swinging doors; the kind used in restaurants without windows. We entered the inner sanctum.

The scene was from ancient Rome. Steam rose from an authentic tiled bathing pool, columns and urns. Clients could submerge in azure healing waters, where muscles, and quite possibly libidos, could be soothed. Luxuriant and extravagant, big money must have built the replica from the days of Moses and Spartacus.

A series of rooms surrounded the bath, doors with numbers where the massage occurred.

“This is beautiful,” I said with wonder.

He chuckled. “Would you like to start tomorrow?”

“Sure, what do I need to do?”

Doug explained the receptionist’s tasks—sit at the desk in the lobby, greet clients, bring them to the bench to choose a masseuse, and that was it. All money matters were handled by the girls.

“Your hours will be noon to nine. Does that work for you?”

“Sounds good,” I said as a mild panic crossed my mind—the precarious prospect of walking home at night.

When the sun set in Berkeley, awnings retracted, and families locked their doors. Then the street goblins appeared. They magically emerged from urban cubbyholes and sleeping bags at People’s Park. Those lost in pharmaceuticals, plant-based depressants and homeless PTSD haunted the city after-hours, a menacing hangover from burned-out hippie days. University Avenue and a swath of Telegraph were to be avoided unless traveling in a group. A solitary female could be subjected to a gauntlet.

I’ll worry about that later, I thought.

“Thank you. See you tomorrow at noon,” I said, waved, and walked out into the sun squinting my eyes.

Buoyant from being hired, I dilly-dallied on the walk home—window shopped at a thrift store and then stopped and coveted the unobtainable new clothes at The Little Daisy. Seemed like another lifetime. When I was thirteen my mother purchased a yellow dress for me at that store. A favorite outfit, sleeveless, empire bodice, taffeta and silk skirt, pretty. I wondered where it had gone, maybe lost in the moves, or perhaps tossed-out because of set-in teenage sweat stains under the arms. “Young girls they do get weary, wearing that same old shabby dress.” Try a Little Tenderness, the song was fitting. I wore the dress almost every day, lived in the thing like a uniform.

Memories. Sometimes it hurt to miss my family.

The sun descended as I arrived home at the flat, I shared with Chuck and Judy, my new roommates, the same couple who produced lavish Sunday brunches for an entourage of beautiful beings. We’d become fast friends when the champagne flowed and Boz Scaggs’ music emanating from their turntable. Those afternoon soirees induced creative imaginings in artists and writers, even laypeople were flush with whimsy—a living room and balcony filled with faces that glowed with a bubbly buzz.

Judy was studious and serious, studying for her CPA license. Chuck was a brazen Berkeley cop on suspension for shooting a kid in the shoulder as he ran away with Judy’s purse. I fit in vaguely between them. A cocktail napkin poet, I offered their guests entertainment for a few hours at a Sunday party—words fired-off like firecrackers. Folks thought I might become an accomplished writer. I knew I had only had one month’s rent.

“I got the job!” I announced entering the apartment.

“Yay! Tell us about it.” Chuck hollered from the kitchen where he was cooking something that smelled akin to liver and onions. Yuk.

“Let’s go out to the balcony,” I said and pushed open the French doors, walked-out into a cool Bay Area evening. The view from their deck was stunning as usual with lights opening across the city.

Judy came from their bedroom and joined me outside. “It’s magical isn’t it?” she said and sat down on the bench-like railing.

“I love the view,” I smiled. “The city looks charming from up here.”

Chuck brought out a freshly uncorked bottle of white wine, and three long-stemmed glasses hanging from his fingers.

“Here we go. Cheers to your new job!” He poured the glasses full and passed them around. “Now tell us all about it, but first,” we clinked and sipped heartily.

“Well, you’re not going to believe it,” I titled the glass again.

Chuck literally licked his lips as I disclosed the exotic domain of Xanadu Massage Parlor, the Roman bath, the bevy of leotard clad girls ready to strip for a session in the rooms, luxuriant release.

“I got to see this place!” Chuck hooted.

Judy slapped him on the thigh. “Whoa, take it down boy!” We all laughed.

“Why don’t you pick me up tomorrow and I’ll give you a tour?”

“You got a deal!”

And I had a ride home.

Neither of them asked what the heck I was doing seeking such bizarre employment. That was a relief, because my head hurt already. A bewildered conscience stung that night as I fell asleep.

I think the outfit I chose for my first day at Xanadu was a reaction to the women on the bench. Their one article of clothing revealed almost everything. I went in the opposite direction. Wool sailor pants, clogs, and a pink gauze dress-length shirt with long sleeves. I bought the blouse from an Indian trading store on Telegraph where I’d worked for just one day. The gauze wrinkled like a rag, cute on the hanger, a mess when worn.

Doug didn’t like my ensemble.

“Hey, tomorrow wear a short skirt like the one you wore yesterday.” Eyebrows raised, he looked puzzled, then turned and ascended the guard’s tower.

I plunked down into the receptionist desk. It was within talking distance to the girls.

“I think you pissed him off. Doug doesn’t look that way very often,” one of them said.

“Yeah, guess he doesn’t like the way I’m dressed.”

“Honestly, you look goofy.”

“Yeah, I don’t think my brain was working when I got ready this morning.” I half smiled.

“If I had an extra leotard, I’d let you wear it. You’d look good.”

Wished I was confident enough to wear a leotard with bare legs.

The entrance opened. A timid man came forth from the sunlight. He seemed nervous, being temporarily blinded didn’t help his confidence. I stood up and went to him.

“Hi, how can I help you.” The question seemed to make the guy even more uneasy.

“I I’m here for a massage?” He spoke in the code, a massage meant sex, intercourse, or something else that would satiate.

“Great, come this way,” he followed. We stood in front of the bench. “Chose a masseuse and she will help you.”

He didn’t pick the prettiest girl, the one I thought would be most popular. A half hour later, the guy came out from another door, and departed. An entrance and an exit, a circle game. It got busier. About ten guys circulated through the maze. They came in nervous and left relaxed, as if they’d received a real massage. All the girls took turns. Customers paid in cash. No receipts.

During a lull I talked again with the girls. I learned that one of them was married and had a child.

“Doesn’t your husband mind?”

“No, I make good money. He gets to stay home with the kid.”

Not one of them had a normal life or seemed happy, joyful or excited. They sat sedately on the bench and waited to offer a pound of flesh. I wondered if drugs were involved.

Needing a break, I climbed the stairs to the catwalk.

“Hey Doug, can I take a few, get something to eat?”

“We’re too busy right now. Grab a frozen pizza and heat it up in the microwave.”

That sounded good.

The freezer needed defrosting. I had to pry a little round Tony’s Pizza from a glacier. As I waited for it to heat up, another gangster-like man came up the stairs. He may have been the big boss, because Doug seemed eager to please him.

“How ya doing Bugsy? I’ve got all the numbers for you. You’ll like them.”

Bugsy probably wasn’t his name, but it could have been.

Gangster number two grunted.

“We’re doing real good,” Doug said again.

“Who’s this?” Bugsy pointed a finger at me just as the microwave chirped. It startled me.

“She’s the new receptionist. I told her to wear a short skirt next time.”

The two big men nodded with disapproval, then turned away from me, whispered. Bugsy’s jacket was unbuttoned. When he put a hand on his hip, I saw a gun in a shoulder holster, a snub-nosed thing, black, lethal. I’d never seen a real gun in person—made me weak in the knees.

I quickly grabbed the pizza from the microwave, scrambled to get off the loft. Good thing I’d lost my appetite. The little Tony’s pulled from the iceberg smelled like mildew. The ultra-thin girls on the bench probably already knew to stay away from the freezer.

Abruptly, Bugsy left the building, taking his gun with him. It made sense that Doug probably had a firearm too. Gangsters with guns didn’t make the place feel safer to me. Instead, I began to feel sorry for the girls, wondered if they were trapped in the business.

For the next few hours, a steady stream of men summoned by primal desire slinked through the back alleys of ancient Rome. Afterward, the girls deposited their earnings with Doug. I wondered about their cut. Certainly, it didn’t need to be fair. It wasn’t as if they had OSHA to protect them.

“Hold-up!” Doug yelled from above.

One of the girls was taking too long in a room. This seemed to induce a panic among the crew.

“Are you there?” Doug called through an intercom.

The rooms were wired. That was smart and voyeuristic.

“Is everything okay?” He asked again.

Apparently, it was. Doug listened to a voice I couldn’t hear, then relaxed, took his finger off the button. A moment later the customer departed. Then the overdue girl climbed the stairs with a wad of cash and a proud smile. Her bench-mates applauded.

None of it was discussed with me.

Meanwhile my pink gauze top continued to wrinkle. “Rag Doll”, the song from Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons streamed through my head. It was a chronic affliction. Situations triggered corresponding lyrics. I called it Musical Tourette’s.

When Chuck showed-up I was surprised. No clock in the lobby and I didn’t wear a watch, neither did the girls. The day was over. Yay!

“Hey Chuck, I’ll show you around.”

Kind of ballsy really. I didn’t own the place, nor did I get permission from Doug.

I introduced Chuck to the girls then gave him a tour of Rome. It’s funny how the eyelids on most men lower a little when they think of sex, a reflex I noticed.

“Wow, this place is unreal,” Chuck said.

“Who’s your friend?” Doug was in the lobby when we exited the backroom.

Some criminals say they can smell a cop. The look on Doug’s face indicated he noticed an odor in the house.

“I’ll meet you outside,” Chuck said, hitched his pants up like Popeye and swaggered out the building. I groaned inside at his blatant show of chest-beating masculinity.

“That’s my roommate,” I winced.

“Hey, it’s not working out. Here’s your pay.” He handed me some bills, “Take care.” Doug wasn’t happy.

The “Take care” part could have been a warning.

When I got home, I threw away the pink gauze shirt and gave Chuck and Judy some money for groceries plus my thirty-day notice, minus a week.

I was busting out of Berkeley. Where I’d go was uncertain. It wouldn’t be the ranch. I could visit, hug my family, hang around a week, then move on before I got kicked by a horse.

Theater was taxing, high heels and daydreams. I needed to adjust its gravitational pull.

Maybe I’d go down the coast, work in a restaurant, waitressing, where smiles were awarded for remembering to bring ketchup to a table with French fries.


Karen Clay is a memoirist, poet, nonfiction writer, and investigative journalist. Her story, “Oh What a Lonely Boy”, won first place in the 2022 Gold Country Writers 100 Word Story Contest. She’s a licensed Ham Radio operator, volunteers for the Tevis Cup (100 miles-One Day) horse race.

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Unknown member
Mar 27, 2023

Karen's narrative style is one of the most refreshing that I have read in years. Her quirky sense of humor reflects the past in a way that made me smile of the errors of youth. I hope to read more of her memoir vignettes.


Unknown member
Feb 11, 2023

Haunting and Lyrical.....

This story was my introduction to this site and I will definitely be reading more based on Ms. Clay's piece here. I loved the rhythm and tone of her voice. The specific details made me feel as if I was right there with this young woman. The city, the parlor, even the "rag" shirt felt like additional characters. I especially loved the subtle and economical drops down into her family's rural life. So much was said that wasn't said. I really admire (okay, envy) writers who can use that technique so well. Where can I find more of this author's work? I would like to read more!


Unknown member
Feb 08, 2023

What a story! Kind of gave me goosebumps. I'd never have had the guts to get a job in a place like that. The author strikes a delicate balance between the naivete of youth and inexperience, and not being surprised at the ugly side of life. I look forward to more of her memoir stories.

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