Pipe Dream, April 20, 2022, by Jude Hopkins
Here's a remembrance from a time I spent a "big birthday" at a Beverly Hills spa, a day in which I was mostly broke and brokenhearted. I recall one of the spa stations being permeated by the kitschy music of Zamfir, master of the pan pipes, who transformed all involved into magical creatures of the ancient forest (or so I thought at the time).
I once celebrated a birthday in Beverly Hills.
Not that I lived there; I lived in the nearby San Fernando Valley at the time. But I spotted an ad at a spa in the Hills that offered various beauty treatments for one set price.
Having been recently ghosted by a boyfriend, I decided the perfect pick-me-up would be the day-long renewal.
The price, though, gave me pause. Even discounted, the offer was way over my budget. But I figured, hey, these big birthdays don’t roll around that often, so I’m in.
I walked into the place, feeling a bit like an outsider, not quite Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman,” but close. I paid the set price and anticipated decadence of the first order.
The first station was nails. I was never a nails person. I didn’t like the maintenance of nail polish or the smell of acetone to remove it.
Nevertheless, I turned over my digits to the care of the manicurist who dipped and filed and painted.
Why people spent so much time on such things wondered me, to quote the Pennsylvania Dutch, but maybe they have a fashion sense I lacked.
As I rose to leave, the nail maven stood before me, her hands, perfectly manicured in a lovely vermilion shade, clasped in front of her. She smiled. I smiled back. I realized she was waiting for me to do or say something.
“Thank you,” I said, waving my fingers. “My paws never looked better.”
She continued to smile, blocking my egress to the next station.
She then nodded her head to a sign that read, “Tips Appreciated.”
Tips? Oh Lord, no. I thought the set price included—? Of course not. I’d been to New York City and participated in prix fixe meals that excluded tips. But I had only budgeted for the overall price, not the gratuities. I felt unequal to my nails.
The tipping made me question the whole outing. I hated the fact the rube in me always popped up like whack-a-mole to get educated in the most humiliating way. At what age would I know everything?
I peeled off several bills from the mostly George Washingtons stuffed in my purse. My gratuity must have been sufficient as the nail diva stepped aside to allow me to move into the next station, facials.
“You look upset, dear,” a woman wearing bright red lipstick and painted-on brows told me. “Sit down. Relax.”
I remember a towel, some steam, a few revolutions on the cheeks, and Zap! It was over. I tipped her the rest of my cash and slogged to the next station, makeup.
I love makeup like most every girl, woman or drag queen. I kept Princess Marcella Borghese in tiaras back in the day. But facing this makeup goddess only made my vagus nerve go wacky. Another big tip lurking!
At the end, I looked like a slightly long-in-the-tooth hooker (back to “Pretty Woman” again). Cash poor at this point, I resorted to my credit card that had little to play with. I closed my smoky eyes, bit my mauve lips and signed over a sawbuck.
The final station was massage.
The masseuse, an older woman, said nothing, as she covered me with a starched sheet. I could only think about how I could survive on Ramen noodles until payday.
Then, she pressed "Play" on her boombox. From it emanated a high-pitched doleful sound. It was Zamfir, the pan flute master I’d heard on commercials from years ago.
Zamfir! The very name conjured up exotic lands. I imagined the master himself climbing a hill in—where was he from?—followed by a mesmerized crowd that included me.
The masseuse began de-kinking the rhomboids and deltoids twisting in my neck and shoulders like centuries-old tree roots gone awry. Soon, I had forgotten my money problems.
The whole tranquilizing process soon became one with the lugubrious sound of Zamfir’s pipes. Oh, Zamfir! You lonely shepherd, you reed blower! It’s as if Keats’s stilled piper had jumped off that ancient urn and joined me in this overpriced spa, each toot followed by another uncoiled muscle in the shoulder girdle.
The more intense the massage, the more I mentally shouted out to the piper: “Goat boy! Filthy satyr! Show me your embouchure, the lipping of those sylvan pipes!”
It was over too soon. The muscle maven turned off the boombox, ending the best massage I had ever had.
Although as limp as a deflated Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, I had to rally. The matter of a tip once again loomed. The masseuse deserved the heftiest, but all I had left was a bad check.
“That was surreal,” I told her. “And the music!”
She smiled, saying nothing. I reached for my tote, but the woman shook her head and put her hands out to stop my looking within for a check as hot as a stolen TV.
On the drive home, my eyes almost swollen shut from an allergy to the makeup, I thought of how I might consider this a lesson in class warfare, how the rich, even on a discounted spa day, still rule the world and succeed in making us hoi polloi feel small, excluded, unworthy.
But it became about something else.
Under the YouTube video consisting of Zamfir’s kitschy 1970s commercial featuring his covers of “Somewhere My Love” and “Memory,” a woman had commented that her dog barked uncontrollably every time the ad played.
But I understood the dog’s reaction. No one can ignore Zamfir. Attention must be paid.
The plangent notes evoked the ancient forest, a land of mystery, moving us to feel life on a different level.
That day, too, a fellow human being must have felt my taut flesh relax under her kneading hands, sensing, perhaps, my being broke, my broken heart, hell, my brokenness.
And spellbound by the master’s lips blowing out a woebegone cover of “Because You Loved Me,” she gave me a break on a day made even more memorable for my being painted, penniless, schooled—and one lousy year older.