Kindness and grace

The girls from the shop want to take me out for dinner – that is, the girls from the massage shop I sold out of four years ago. It was such an intense period of my life that it comes as a surprise that it was so long ago. Most of the girls from then have dispersed since, and many of them are back home in Thailand now. There’s a few still here though, and they’re the people I was closest to back then. I don’t see them a lot, but I probably catch up with them 2-3 times a year – which is surprising in itself given the time passed, and very gratifying.

This is what I know about Thais. They’re loyal and hard-working. The best of them are reliable and will bend over backwards to help. They’re famous for being gracious and friendly, but they’re also honest and uncomplaining. There’s no way I could have survived my time as a massage shop proprietor except with the active support of my staff, and the fact I got out of it by the skin of my teeth is thanks to their efforts. I’ll always be grateful to them, which is why I can’t do enough to help them when they need it.

That’s the other side of the Thai character. They want to shout me dinner because I’ve helped them out with this or that over the last year and they want to do the right thing and acknowledge it.

In my mind, there’s no need for it, but it’s gracious of me to accept it, so I do. Unfortunately, they have a tendency to contact me in the morning wanting to go out in the evening. That would work for me a lot easier when I was younger. These days I want more notice, particularly because of Rigby.

Right now I don’t know if I’m going out for dinner tonight or not. Whether it’s tonight or another time I look forward to seeing them again. In the toughest of times, they were people I could rely upon and were a rare friendly presence in my life. When I look back at that period of my life seems incredibly hard, and very grim. I don’t know how I survived it but know I wouldn’t have without the small acts of kindness and support from my friends and the girls in the shop.

The good stuff

I got another message yesterday from my old massage shop manager wanting my help. A couple of weeks ago I went with her to the cop shop to report a possible fraud. When that didn’t work I ran VCAT to see what her options were. Responding to their advice I put her onto somewhere else. I also went with her to her school in the city to explain that she may not be able to pay her fees because of this fraud. Yesterday she wanted me to come with her to confront the fraudster (it’s a complicated situation).

This was not in my plans and was an inconvenience. I’d have preferred 24 hours’ notice, but fortunately I wasn’t otherwise busy. Throughout the day she messaged me seeking assistance in the preparation of a legal letter of demand. At 5.30 I met her on tram 19 heading to Brunswick.

With us was Pat, another of my old staff. She was a very capable masseuse, and an intelligent, reliable employee. She now works in a kitchen in Hawksburn, following her passion – “better than massage”, as she said.

The tram was crowded and I sat there wishing I was going the other way. Halfway there Jeep got a message informing her that the other party wouldn’t be there, not until eight. I rolled my eyes internally, but we went on. We got off the tram in Brunswick and walked a short distance to a Thai restaurant, where they conversed in Thai with the mother of the other party. She confirmed that her daughter wouldn’t be in until 8.

I couldn’t hang around till then, and nor could Jeep, who had to work. Pat decided she could and after some pfaffing around I caught an Uber with Jeep. She was heading to Mentone to work and offered to give me a lift.

From what I gather Pat has come to some agreement with the other girl, which is good news if true. Though it’s not always convenient I’m happy to help. I think a lot of these girls, and am grateful for the support they gave me at a time of need. Jeep doesn’t always show her appreciation. She’s curt to the point of being abrupt often, taking it for granted that I’ll help and just hanging up more often than not once she’s communicated what she has to. I take it as one of her quirks, and am more amused than offended. But then she surprises me.

Late last night she sent me a message to update me and to thank me for helping her. No problems I told her, happy to help. She didn’t leave it at that though. In a very un-Jeep-like manner, she exclaimed that I was a “very good boy.” She said if there was anything she could do for me I had only to ask. She said I was like “a superman. Help me when everyone else can’t.”

From Jeep, that’s high praise, and I’m thrilled. It’s all karma, and this is the good stuff.

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.

Adjusting still

This is my first Saturday out of the shop. It’s not 10am yet, but by now normally – the last 3 months anyway – I’d have been gone an hour by now and in the shop preparing to open. I’m not, and it feels strange. It’s been a week like that. At times I’ve felt a bit lost. In stead of heading to the shop I’ve scratched around looking for something to busy myself with. Mostly I’ve been very happy to be free of it, to have that time finally to myself, and the stress of being a business owner allayed for now. As the sun has set each night and the evenings grow cold I’ve been especially grateful that I no longer must be in the shop and working to 10pm.

I’ve still got access to the security cameras. I’ve given them clear instructions, but the new owners have yet to update the account. A few times through the week I’ve tuned in out of curiosity. I can’t see much – the reception area mainly – and there is little to keep me entertained. I’m curious though, and note the minor changes they have implemented since I’ve walked out the door. Some of my girls are working there still I think, though some have been let go to. I expect to get reports back from them at some point. At some point I will return to the shop myself.

Today? Right now I’m not sure what to do. Perhaps I’ll walk Rigby. Later I’ll watch the footy. And tonight I’m heading down Mornington for dinner. Nice to be out of it, but still adjusting.

Over and out

Last night as I drove away from the shop I reflected that I felt melancholy. That’s not something I’ve felt for a long time. Melancholy is a private emotion. It’s a burnished, small thing. It’s an introspective piano tune, slow and intricate. I’ve had no time for melancholy these last 6 months. That’s not been my life. It’s been up and at ’em, the tune if there was one, insistent and up-beat.

That tune is ending though. I’m shifting into a another movement. Yesterday was my second last day in the shop and the end truly was in sight.

It was dark as I drove back. It had been raining and the streets were wet. There was little traffic on a Sunday night, and I drove the oft-travelled, so familiar route back to where I started each morning. I knew every sight about me. The traffic patterns have become subliminal. Soon though, today, that will end.

Earlier a couple of friends had come by the shop to see me off. We had a bottle of wine there before going to a nearby Spanish restaurant. We sat in the corner by the window in the brightly lit, convivial atmosphere. We had beer and wine. We ordered a selection of tapas. It rained outside. The cook that comes in for a massage came over to shake my hand. Then he bought his boss over, the owner, and introduced me. Another round of tapas arrived. We talked among ourselves just the blokes. The end here was discussed, finally, and a good thing. Here’s to a new dawn…

One of the off duty therapists had come in to say goodbye to me earlier. That was nice. I can’t tell you how gratified I am by the affection the girls give me. Some have already said they will stop working here after I’m gone. That’s partly mismanagement by the new owners, but several have told me that they work here for me. As I sat in the restaurant one sent me a message: “Thx my best boss”.

When they left I went back to the shop. I felt lost. It had been an awful day. With one therapist I’d had to turn away about $500 worth of business. What I was left with was well below par. I felt like I should say or do something to mark the occasion, but all I did was clean up a little and pay a salary. Then I was on the road.

I’m here again now, my final morning here on my final day. I debated whether I should open at all, then thought I should work it right to the end. If nothing else it would be an anti-climax not too. Besides, I might pick up a few extra dollars. I need every cent.

I don’t know how the settlement will go today. I don’t know how much I have to pay or if I need pay anything. I expect I do. I hope I have enough, but don’t know that I do. Guess I’ll find out later. I’m hoping for no more unpleasant surprises.

In the red

It’s my last real day in the shop today. Officially that’s tomorrow, but it’s Monday and only a half day in any case as we settle at 4pm and it’s all theirs.

How do I feel? Like so many times, I don’t feel a lot. Feelings are kept in abeyance while I’m still busy working at it, and there is a part of me that holds back, sceptical until all the forms are signed and sealed. I’m sure I’ll feel a bit then, and I’m tipping quite an amalgam of feelings.

If I feel anything at all it is a very remote sense of anticipation. To a degree this last week has felt a bit of a drag knowing that soon I won’t need to get myself out of bed every morning to get here, won’t need to fret and worry over the myriad issues that pop up all the time. If that’s to be, then why not now? I’ve trudged in regardless.

As it happens there has been a lot to deal with, and things have not progressed as I would have hoped. It’s a struggle still, and as I sit here early on Sunday morning I’m facing a puzzle I don’t as yet have the solving of.

One of the issues I faced in walking out of the shop is therapists wages. Generally I pay last weeks wages from this weeks take. Now that I’m walking out the door it’s not that simple anymore – I still have to pay last weeks wages, but this weeks also. Effectively my wages bill is doubled up.

I knew that was coming up, so in the last month I’ve been trying to pay in advance bits and pieces of salary, so by the time the therapists came to this last week they were each perhaps $50 – $100 in credit.

I managed that, more or less, though not as tidily as I had hoped. Ideally then I needed a big last week after a moderate second last week (equates to moderate wages bill).

That hasn’t quite eventuated. In rough terms about 43% of every massage goes to the therapist, with the balance going to the shop. I have to pay rent, bills, reception costs from that portion. The bigger the take the bigger the wages bill, but so to the more money to the shop.

Coming into this week I had a total wages bill – therapists and reception – of about $1,600 owing. So I have to make that much, but in so doing I’m incurring further wage expense. There’s a sliding scale then. There comes a point where I’ve made enough to cover all wages (bearing in mind I’m still paying other expenses), but up to that point I’m in the red.

Thanks to some unfortunate circumstances I’m in the red as of this morning, and won’t get out of it. In some ways I’ve had the worst possible set of situations arise in my last week.

We were on track until Thursday. Thursday morning a recent hire, a popular, but unreliable girl, called up to say she wouldn’t be coming in later, nor ever again. I was furious. That left me with one therapist Thursday night. I had 7 walk-outs as a consequence – about $450. She was not in again yesterday, which probably cost me about another $300.

On a Sunday I normally have 3, and sometimes 4 therapists working. Today I have one. One of my regulars has a calisthenics comp. Another had a bad fall and the doctor has said she can’t work. It’s practically impossible to get replacement staff on the weekend, so I’m stuck with just the one therapist on the busiest day of the week. She may be very busy, but realistically the best I can hope for is $500-$600, when on a good day I might expect anywhere up to $1,400.

Presuming a $500 day I’m going to be about $700 short on salaries. I’ve explained that to the girls and they understand. I said I’ll pay them next week, but without a shop I just don’t know how.

On top of that it looks like I might have to add in some money to the settlement tomorrow. It’s a nightmare really. What happens if we don’t settle because I can come up with the cash? I don’t know, but it’s on the cards. This is the puzzle I face and, just quietly, I’m over it.

Good things

I don’t know how to articulate this, though I’ve touched on it before. I look forward to the coming day when I will leave the shop to new owners, but there will be things I miss. I’ll miss the girls obviously, though I expect to continue to see some in different circumstances. The challenge of optimising a business like this has its ups and downs, but overall it has been invigorating. And then there’s the customers. Having come from a corporate sector with very little direct customer interaction it’s been an eye-opener. I’ve really enjoyed it though.

Despite all the trials of my time here – or because of – I think I come out of it a better man. I’ve learnt so much, had to be humble, to adapt to a completely different environment from what I was familiar with, and learned to manage a bunch of young Asian women. All of that, and by dealing with customers face to face, day after day, I’ve learned so much more.

I’m lucky in that my shop is located in a ‘good’ area. Most of our clientele are reasonably well off, professional, educated, and engaged. To a man they are reasonable, friendly and understanding. I spend a lot of time just chatting, which is part of the job of course, but also a genuine pleasure. I’m proud of our service and I’m chuffed when anyone tells me how good we are. I feel proud for the girls. I’m curious though too. Meeting people in this fashion has opened me up to their myriad stories.

One of the things I’ve learned is that most people are fundamentally decent. Now that may be more true here – a liberal area – than other places, but it’s a nice thing to be reminded of. People want to help out. They want to give you a fair go. If they can spread their good fortune they will. They’re good people. Times as they are, when so many of those elements are absent from public life, it’s nice to be reassured that it’s not all bad.

About an hour ago an old guy approaching 80 was standing outside reading the spiel on Thai massage I’ve put in the window. He came in leaning heavily on his stick. He smiled, his lined face soft with age, and said he’d passed by so many times and thought how nice it looked and how it was about time he came in. He asked about our service, our prices, expressed regret that he had not brought his wallet with him, but next time he would.

We don’t get a lot of old people here, but I wish we did. I imagine when I get to his age I’d be all over it. I looked at him, a mix of fear and respect in my heart. He was slow and bent, and each time I see someone like that I fear that one day I’ll be the same. But though he spoke slowly he was bright still, a man still part of life, rather than retiring from it. I admired him. Go well, I thought.

Then a customer came down from getting a massage upstairs. He’d been left waiting initially because his therapist fell asleep! I’d told her about the massage, but she had slipped back into sleep. Very embarrassing for all of us, and we were very apologetic. He was fine though. He came down and once more I apologised, hope it was worth the wait. “No worries” he said, “great massage, thanks.”

That was that. No dramas. Understanding, reasonable, decent. Good things.

Humble pleasures

Had a customer come in earlier, have a great massage, then come out feeling relaxed, happy, and expansive. Over a cup of tea he told me how long he’s been looking for the right massage, and now found it. He lingered, we chatted. He’d be in his late forties, divorced as he told me, and about to go and pick up his 13-year-old daughter. He told me how he was a consultant, used to work for McKinsey’s but had gone out on his own when he found they no longer aligned. Soon he’s about to fly out to a conference in Brazil, where he’s presenting.

He was a lovely guy, and I enjoy these interactions greatly. These are the things I’ll miss. Meeting people like I never did before, hearing their stories, connecting on a basic human level. There’s something about a good massage that opens people up.

As owner of the shop I’m always gratified hearing positive feedback, and often touched that we can have such an effect on people’s lives, small as it may seem. There are times you get a glimpse of life at its micro level, as with this guy today – obviously a very well-regarded international expert (securitisation?), but here in front of me, just another father in his Sarturday casual, a little overweight, a daughter to attend to. And a good bloke to boot.

Yesterday a bunch of schoolgirls came in the shop in their school uniform. I guess they’d have been about 16, giggling a bit, then turning serious. One of them wanted to book a massage for her mum this Sunday – it was her birthday, she would be 50. “Has she been here before?” I asked. “Oh, all the time,” she said. She then solemnly handed over the money for her mum’s massage – a gift from her.

The best things in life are those things that humble you.

Enough is enough

I’m about as angry as I’ve ever been right now. I’ve had my incandescent moments over the last couple of days, but right now it’s a cold anger. I’ve tried to do the right thing, I’ve been reasonable, and now all I want to do is kneecap someone.

I got an offer on Monday as I was sort of expecting and the landlord once more said no unless, etc, and that was enough to make me very angry. Then we basically told him to go fuck himself and he said ok then and that was enough to make me angry to because this is not the deal I wanted.

The landlord has fucked me up big time. His absolutely pointless posturing and punitive attitude cost me 8 grand up-front, not to mention the extra legal fees, and the stupid thing is that it cost him too. He’s made it hard at every point, when if he had cleared the way we’d be in business now. Bloody waste of time and money just so as he can feel mighty tough. Which is what he tried to again early this week, just as fucking pointlessly.

If common sense had prevailed I’d have signed the deal nearly 3 weeks ago and been that 8 grand better off, and he’d be 3 weeks closer to having a new tenant. (Which is not to mention anything about the missed opportunity with the other potential purchaser – add another 5 grand to the 8). Instead he had to go the he-man (why do so many people feel that need?) and here we are. Just dumb.

All this makes me furious because it’s unnecessary, because it’s stupid, because it’s cost me time and money, and because I come out of this with nothing. And because I feel dudded, and as if no matter what I do it counts for nothing. I should be thankful that the shop can continue. That’s a small, hard-won victory, but not certain till papers are signed.

To add to the sense of fury is that my jacket fell out of the car last night as I opened the door. In a pocket was my mobile phone, and somehow the screen managed to smash. And then before eating a steak sandwich for lunch my tooth crunched. What really pisses me off is that it crumbled initially about 4 months ago, and I’ve not been able to afford to go to the dentist since. Now it’s absolutely fucked, and I’ll probably lose the tooth altogether. Just sick of it.


Hollywood ending?

Don’t you love it in the movies how everything is a cliffhanger, how everything is desperate and seemingly doomed until the very last moment, just seconds left on the timer when the bomb is defused. It never happens with a comfortable amount time spare; but nor does it ever go off. You know the hero is going to save the day.

Even Masterchef is like that. Every challenge they get there’s a set amount of time to do it in. Never once in my viewing has anyone finished with 5 minutes to spare and set about tidying up the kitchen. Nup, every episode there’s a mad scramble as the clock ticks down to zero to get their special concoction plated up – without exception. Funny thing is, it’s rare that someone fails to get it done in time. That’s TV.

Life isn’t really like that I think, but here I am in my own race against time. Today is pretty well it. The clock is ticking. I have candidates, but will they come to the party on time?

Unlike the movies and TV in life sometimes the bomb blows up in your face. I’m handcuffed to the bomb. I hear it ticking ever louder. If it blows up I go up with it, and the pity of it is there’s no amount of defusing I can do to avoid the mess. I’m stuck and waiting for someone to come along and snip the right wire, just in time.

Fucked if I know. I’d like to claim all of this makes for nerves of steel, but in truth my nerves are fraying – too much for too long. I once had a girl admiringly say I had big balls (figuratively speaking), but right now I feel them retracting – the idea of flying shrapnel will do that to you.

Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t we have a healthy margin of time – everything satisfactorily settled well before the 2 minute warning goes off? Why can’t just fall into place? Maybe I’m in my own Truman show and don’t know it.

Nothing more to say or do – just wait, and hope for the Hollywood ending.