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On-Demand Massages While Living in Squalor. I'd Do It Again.

I live on San Francisco’s filthiest street to afford this lifestyle.


I live in a veritable grade-A shithole. We’re talking 200 square feet, turgid air, a mini fridge and a permanent cockroach population. I suspect it’s illegal housing, a converted-SRO building on a street smeared with human feces near San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. In an era of obscene rents in the Bay Area, one where shared bunk beds fetch $1,800 a month, my studio is considered a good deal.

One night, after a particularly grueling yoga class, I decided to order me a piece of the good life, something that did not fit with the rest: An on-demand massage. A few taps of the app and someone arrives at your doorstep to rub away the realities of life’s daily miseries.

But it turns out that bliss isn’t quite as forthcoming in my dim shanty of a home, even if you squeeze in a fold-up massage table.

How much different could it be from the rest of the on-demand world, of which I am a devoted customer? I go almost everywhere by Uber and Lyft. Sprig and DoorDash nourish me daily. Washio makes sure I have clean clothes. Even going to the post office is a thing of the past with Shyp. Perhaps that is why I live on San Francisco’s filthiest street — what I spend in delivery is saved in cheap rent. Clearly, massages were the next logical step to full assimilation into the Uber-for-X world. And massage-to-go apps Soothe and Zeel had been hounding me through Facebook for months.

For those who have not tried an on-demand massage app, here’s how it works: You choose what kind of treatment you want (Swedish, Prenatal, Deep Tissue, Sports or Couples), the day and time you want the masseuse to arrive (within an hour is the earliest), how long you want the massage to last, and whether you want a man or woman performing it. I’ve had massages from both genders in the past at professional spas and thus chose “either” on Soothe, my app of choice since Zeel was malfunctioning.

After I booked my appointment and arrived home to my broom closet of an apartment, it dawned on me that I should’ve gone for a woman. After all, a stranger was about to break into my personal space and lather me up in lotion while I lay there naked. It’s a few centimeters away from prostitution and it is not entirely inconceivable that pervs might request on-demand massages hoping for that. It was too late to make the change in the app, so I just hoped for the best.

There was a rap at my door and I breathed a sigh of relief when I opened it to an elderly grandmother type, carrying a black bag of equipment. She was ten minutes earlier than I expected, and scurried inside without much fuss to set up the massage table in my kitchen, which efficiently doubles as my living room and bedroom. The table almost didn’t fit the space — the base of it rested firmly against my small oven, while the top was inches from my space heater, with the clothes from a rod in my wall hanging over the edge of it. We eventually engineered a diagonal position to make it fit, so there was a sliver of space between oven and table.

My masseuse — I’ll call her Dawn — instructed me to strip down and cover myself with the towel as she stepped into the only private spot in the studio, the bathroom with my cat’s litter box. It wasn’t until I was naked and lying face down on the table that I remembered I had left vegetables roasting.

I sprang up and opened the oven door, releasing the smell of burnt Brussels sprouts with a wave of heat. I stuck the tray in the sink, rushing to get back to the massage table before Dawn returned from the bathroom.

But just as I’d settled myself face down on the table, a shrill bell sounded from the ceiling. The smoke from the sprouts had set off the fire alarm, which sliced through the air with ear-piercing shrieks. I scurried as fast as I could up the ladder of my loft bed to turn it off. The bathroom door creaked open and Dawn peered up at me.

When you’re buck naked, stranded on the top of your loft bed wrestling a piece of hardware into submission, there’s not many avenues for escape. I shot Dawn a sheepish look as I clambered back down. She slipped back into the bathroom with a sigh, as though this sort of encounter was par for the course of her job, and I returned to the massage table.

A few minutes later the door creaked open again. Dawn turned on gentle flute music and lit a scented candle. Its vanilla flavor mingled with the stench of hot, charred vegetables.

Dawn pumped lotion into her hand and my skin tingled in anticipation. In the middle of an exhausting week, a massage is a real treat. I felt a strange, quick pressure, sharper than I had expected. “Um,” Dawn said. “Your cat.” I craned my head over my shoulders and sure enough I had a visitor. Merv, my 20-pound shorthair feline, was strutting up and down my back attempting to rub his head against Dawn’s hand.

Once again the poor woman was subjected to my au naturel state as I grabbed Merv, his claws pinwheeling against my now-sweaty body. He shed clumps of fur as I chucked him into the bathroom, black and white hair that stuck to my belly and chest. He meowed from behind the door for the rest of the appointment.

With the cat, food and fire alarm subdued, the rest of the massage went as they normally do. Dawn is a professional who contracts with local hotels in San Francisco and does on-demand work on the side, carrying her massage table from job to job. Her steady fingers worked through the tension from my muscles as well as the added stress from the evening’s debacles. I fell into a meditative state and was able to forget, for the moment, the claustrophobic and grimy surroundings I had invited Dawn into.

By the time she finished the smell of burnt Brussels sprouts had nearly subsided. After hinting heavily that Soothe didn’t tip its masseuses — I forked over some extra cash — Dawn packed up her bag and slipped out the front door. I crawled into my loft bed with Merv beside me and fell deep asleep.

For all the awkwardness of the encounter, I’d do it again.

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