Unfamiliar paths, and the people you meet

I’ve just come back from having lunch with Jeep, the Thai girl who managed the massage shop for me. It’s her birthday so I shouted a meal at one of the small Thai cafes that sprinkle the city, this one in an arcade off Flinders Street.

I always look forward to catching up with her, and with the others when they occasionally join her. I have strong memories of the shop. It seems a strange time in a strange period of my life. It was not an easy time, but there was good that come of it.

You have to be open to things I reckon, if you mean to live fully. If you were sensible you would suggest taking on the shop was a serious misstep, and you’d be right. Except living is more than just about sense and practicality. I could have maintained the straight and narrow and I wouldn’t have learned anything much, and certainly wouldn’t have a bunch of good stories to tell. Sometimes you have to venture off the familiar path. It was an experience, and one of the positives of the experience were the people I encountered along the way.

For a guy used to working as a corporate taking on a massage shop will always be a daring idea. You reckon you’re smart, you reckon you’re savvy, you even reckon you’ve got some toughness about you, but gee, it’s a steep learning curve.

I would never have managed without huge amounts of help. The nature of the business is that you need human bodies, and the more you need the more complex it becomes. Machines are predictable, humans aren’t.

It’s a transient type of business and there is constant turnover of staff. You employ students, travellers, massage professionals, and they come from all over, Australia and Europe but most of all from Asia. Most are pretty good, though not always reliable, and some not so good. It’s the nature of things, the odds you play. But you have to manage it. As an Aussie private schoolboy from the ‘burbs you’re not really equipped to take this on without trial and much error.

I was lucky in that I got help. Over the journey probably most of my staff were Thai, and most of them hard-working, bright, considerate and kind by nature. I had genuine relationships with a lot of them. I liked them and they liked me.

Jeep became my manager. She’s someone I would recommend her for anything. She had a brusque efficiency and innate integrity. She had a great ability to bring order and intelligence to complex situations. It’s pretty hairy running a massage shop, let me tell you. We were open 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. You have to manage rostering and salaries, bookings and customers. Every day there’s a challenge. Someone is sick or turns up late. The phone doesn’t work or the air-con is broken. Or, worst of all, there are no customers.

It’s stressful because – as an owner – you never really rest. Even when you’re home you’ve got half a mind on what’s happening at the shop, and as it’s open 84 hours a week there are few moments when you could relax.

You have to have someone you can trust implicitly. Jeep was that person for me. She was never flustered, sometimes stern, and often funny. She had the respect and affection of everyone, which is one reason we still keep up.

She’s always given me a bit of cheek. In the years since the shop closed we catch up erratically and otherwise connect by social media and the odd message. She’s never shy of calling me for help with her tax, her CV, a job application, or pretty well anything. I don’t mind helping. I sort of feel I owe her that, and good karma, etc.

What I represent to her I’m not sure. They – the girls – used to call me best manager ever. So maybe that’s it. I always treated them with respect and affection, and we had fun. It was what I believed in, treat everyone as an individual. Whatever the reason I’m always chuffed when we catch up. Regardless of how the shop wound up, it feels a worthwhile achievement. I expect we’ll be friends for life.

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