Letter of Recommendation: XpresSpa – The New York Times


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The airport spa offers the perfect counterpoint to the poking and prodding of the security checkpoint, restoring your dignity to baseline levels.

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Jonno Rattman for The New York Times

Getting permission to travel by air should not be as degrading as it is. As a matter of course, you — with your wide eyes and genuine smile and clear conscience and valid identification — are bombarded by invisible rays that reveal explicit details of your anatomy. You are made to endure unwanted touching, particularly if, like me, the scanning of your body invariably leads to follow-up searches of the tip of your head and the seat of your pants. Every single time. Then, the blue latex gloves come out, and even if you have the presence of mind to ask that they put on a new pair to comb through your hair and conduct something that is not not a rectal exam ­­— no penetration, not exactly, and yet — they will be resentful. And though they will acquiesce, they will punish you for your request by going extra rough on both your tender head and your poor, weary rear.

I bring this up only because a post-security-line mind-set is important to understanding the allure of Xpres­Spa. I spent several years ignoring the incongruous Zen glow that emanated from those stalls — tucked among the Cheeburger Cheeburgers and the Hudson Newses — with their women in chinos and utilitarian polo shirts, cracking their knuckles with readiness. I would recover from the trauma of the T.S.A. line-grope by shrinking into myself and avoiding all human interaction. Besides, like everything else in the airport, Xpres­Spa seemed like something you didn’t want to touch.

I’ve never sought out massages anyway, except when I am forced to on dire occasions: baby-shower gift-certificate redemptions and compulsory ‘‘girls’ day’’ sorts of things. It’s not that I couldn’t use a massage; I spend most of my waking hours hunched over my computer, curled into a question mark. I worry some days that I might lose my neck entirely as my shoulders pursue a permanent engagement with my ears. But I can’t stand the expectation of mindfulness that you find at nonairport spas. Out there in the regular world, they hand you towels and slippers and ask that you escape your life amid their warm oils and groping hands and tinkly music. They force you to surrender to a sort of relaxation that doesn’t exist for me. They ask that you leave at the door all your obligations and become a version of yourself that is as pure and unsaddled and malleable as a newborn.

My conversion was sudden; it happened last summer, just before a flight to Russia. I arrived three hours early — as you must when you know that you will have to use all of your feeling words to bargain for an aisle seat, and, if that fails, fake a pregnancy — and I had a crick in my back, a result of having hoisted my luggage into an overhead compartment the week before. In the Turkish Airlines terminal at Kennedy Airport — no power outlets anywhere, no Wi-Fi to be found — I finally submitted to the glow.

I took my place in a leather Barcalounger, in a line of other Barcaloungers, in full view of other travelers. A woman in a smock stood over me, staring straight into my eyes. I didn’t tell her about the crick, or about how I’d gone to several chiropractors and yoga classes to treat it, or about how I also bought a cervical pillow, or about how none of this had made the slightest difference. I just sat there. She reached behind my back, felt around, found the spot and, locking eyes with me, manipulated whatever strings there are in my back until it was released.

‘‘How did you know?’’ I asked her.

‘‘It’s my job,’’ she answered. Only then did she look away.

If it sounds sexual, I don’t know what to say. It wasn’t. But it was a special experience shared by two people, and I will always treasure her and wonder what her name was. Part of it was the massage, yes. The other part was a touch of kindness and healing after the blue-latex-glove experience, like a cold plunge in the pool after the sauna.

Xpres­Spa does not pretend to be a palace of luxury. Before you even enter, it conveys to you its brisk efficiency through its name, with that economical omission of an initial ‘‘E’’ and a final, redundant ‘‘S.’’ You won’t take off your shoes (unless you’re getting the foot massage). You can even continue to work your phone while your service is happening, for certainly Xpres­Spa does not expect you to close your eyes in an airport. There is no implied moral judgment against you for continuing to be the person who got this stressed in the first place.

The modern airport has evolved to mimic the world outside of airports, to varying degrees of success. There’s a Kiehl’s at J.F.K. now, around the corner from a Michael Kors. There are islands in between selling artisanal wine and cheese experiences, all peddling the illusion that you would be here if you absolutely didn’t have to be. Everything is receiving an upgrade, except the Core Airport Experience, which remains as awful as ever. And this makes Xpres­Spa an oasis for those whose expectations have been wisely lowered. It doesn’t pretend it is heaven. Its only job is to restore your dignity to baseline levels, because it also knows what’s ahead for you: arcane preboarding exercises, the guy taking up the entire arm rest, the pre-urinated-upon toilet seat. And that’s why they wish you luck as you leave, because they know exactly what you’re headed into: an airport, and then an airplane.



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