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Pressing the Flesh

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“In terms of patient response, this has been amazing,” says Lowenberg, estimating that 75 percent of his patients take advantage of the free massage service that’s offered from ten to six every Tuesday and Thursday. “Patients who used to give me a lot of problems because of their anxiety now like to come. Sometimes, they stop by on days they don’t have appointments just to get a massage.”

The Albany office in charge of state board examinations for massage also administers the licensing tests for psychologists. “There’s a connection between the two, don’t you think so?” says a staff member. Sure, one could point out the obvious similarities between psychoanalysis and massage therapy: Both require you to lie down. Both touch on sore spots.

“I’ve heard about eating obsessions, parents’ struggles with their children, marital difficulties,” says Anat Raz. “This is like a little haven, so people come, they get their treatment, and they can fall apart on the table. Occasionally, people cry. There are those who believe that the soft tissues store memories, and as you do physical work it may release those memories.

“For me, as for a therapist, it’s important to keep everything private,” adds Raz, who uses a Swedish-acupressure blend. “I see husbands and wives; I see mothers and daughters or people who are close friends, and everything that is said here stays here.”

At the Great American Back Rub one recent Friday afternoon, four massage therapists in blue T-shirts with the company logo are standing, squatting, bending, kneeling through an eighteen-step sequence that covers the neck, arms, shoulder, back, and lower back -- all in full view of sometimes startled passersby.

“At first I thought it was weird to do it out in the open like this,” says Ann Heimberger, 27, a law student who has just topped off her monthly massage with a reflexology session. “But you get so lost in the massage you don’t even notice. So much weird stuff goes on in New York that someone getting a massage in a storefront is the least of it.”

The idea for the Great American Back Rub began nibbling at Bill Zanker almost ten years ago during a morning jog in San Francisco when he saw a man on a park bench giving massages for a dollar a minute. “He looked kind of dirty, but people were lining up. I waited and I got a massage and it felt really good. I would try to go for a massage before work, but it took too long and I kept thinking of the guy in San Francisco,” Zanker says. “Then in a Sharper Image store, I saw those massage products and thought to myself, ‘Why don’t you put those two things together?’”

There are those in the business who dismiss Great American Back Rub, who view it as the McDonald’s of massage. “I find it degrading even to use the words back rub, because it’s so unprofessional,” says Anat Raz. “A back rub is something you give your spouse for five minutes before you make love.”

But Zanker takes the big-tent approach: Massage -- any kind of massage -- is good.

“We’re in a generation of people who are saying, ‘What else is there to do?’” he says. “You’re not smoking, you’re not drinking, you’re not taking drugs. You can’t have sex. This is something you can do and nobody is getting hurt. And you feel jazzed afterward.”


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