Last night I took a sojourn into the wilds of northern New Jersey, to Pompton Lakes, to explore a possible future.
My mother grew up in Jersey City. Ever since the 1970's, it's been an example of urban neglect. Oh, I know some will say there are some beautiful parts of Jersey City, but not this neighborhood. No matter what hour of the day, there are chemically enhanced individuals staggering in front of that old three-family house, and they are not shy. We heard gunshots in the middle of the night on several occasions during the 1980's. We knew the apartment building across the street and a few doors down was a drug house. Everybody knew it. But for 20 years nothing ever seemed to change. There were juice boxes and fast food wrappers littering the streets, and a small percentage of windows were boarded up. The last straw came in around 1990, when my four-foot-eleven, 78-year old Grandma was mugged in broad daylight, waiting for the bus at about 10am. Some kid bopped her on the head, grabbed her purse and ran. After that she lived with my parents for the duration of every summer. Years later, when I moved to New York, I noticed some small changes, indicators that a police presence had materialized and the worst of the criminals may have moved on. The residents were keeping the yards and house fronts cleaner, and younger kids were playing in the streets. It seemed safer during the day. After dark, however, it's still far from welcoming. Even the police are menacing.
Contrast this to Neptune City, where my cousins grew up. My aunt and uncle owned their own business. They built themselves a two-story house, very modern design, in about 1985. The house was on the shore of the shark river, along the south Jersey shore. The Belmar area. They and all their neighbors had pools and boats. My cousins wore very fashionable clothes. (I was still wearing hand-me-downs and clothes from Zayres.) The few times I got the opportunity to stay with these cousins were some of the best times of my life. We went to upscale shopping malls. We went to an under-21 dance club, which, at 13, I thought was heaven on earth - no such places existed in my hometown. We walked home at 10pm and didn't think twice about it. We swam and boated and flirted and just enjoyed being young. Their neighbors lived in houses just as big and fancy, and when the cop cars rolled by, they smiled and waved to us, and left us alone.
Since then I have seen some other areas of New Jersey that are even farther along the spectrum: the mansions of Wall and Deal, Asbury Park, on the brink of Gentrification, and the New Jersey Aquarium in Camden, which wasn't in nearly as bad of an area as I'd heard. I’ve seen Rutherford, which looks like any suburban American town, manicured Spring Lake, background of half the wedding photographs on the eastern seaboard, and Lambertville, the artsy twin of New Hope, Pennsylvania, where you can buy street fair clothes in stores that have air-conditioning and fitting rooms.
My recent excursion into New Jersey was to Pompton Lakes, where the Institute for Massage Therapy is located.
I have been interested in this line of work for a while now, but I’ve been letting it simmer slowly on the back burner of my mind. I'm really not a career person, in the sense that I don't believe I will ever find something that I'd like to do for the rest of my life. I have both Uranus and Pluto in my house of Career, and was once told that this means I will basically job-hop all my life. As much as I hate that... part of me doesn't hate it. As insecure as that sounds, not to mention a hell of a lot of work constantly reinventing myself, it also sounds like a lot of fun. I'm working on being more comfortable with this idea.
I've been interested in Holistic Medicine ever since I had to have some fibroids removed on the day of the 2003 blackout. That's a whole other essay, but the fact that I made it home from the hospital a mere 20 minutes before everything went black... well, I had a lot of time to ponder the many close calls in my life, and my emotional and mental state of being that co-existed with my health issues. I lived with a holistic health counselor for awhile. I have experienced wonderful results from massage therapy myself, and I have quite the interest in aromatherapy, nutrition, reflexology, and other practices that can augment western medicine. Add to that my very disillusioning experiences working in hospitals. Sprinkle on top my awareness of my own gifts of listening, feeling, and care-giving. Stir well… That's what's been simmering all this time. I'm not sure when I really first thought of it, but I keep coming back to it.
I remember saying to these guys in a bar once that I was sick of prostituting myself to soulless corporations, being paid barely-big-enough paychecks to do work that I found tedious for companies whose practices offended me to the core. When I was let go from the Siberian Work Camp, I promised myself that things would be different from now on. Well, they have been.
The company where I've been temping for the last two and a half months is a municipal bond insurer. I had no clue what that meant - I only knew that the offices are gorgeous, the company spoils its employees rotten, and the pay was sufficient. However, it didn't take long for me to learn that this company's clients are city municipalities, school districts, and hospital systems. We help them build things like a school in a crowded district of Chicago, or a new cancer wing at a hospital in Minnesota, or a new set of low-income apartments in southern California. The day I realized this I almost cried. I asked if I could be considered for permanent work there. They interviewed me once and I felt that it went well.
No dice. I have no financial background. I've been in consumer products for four years, and healthcare before that. Yes, I felt a twinge of bitterness, but after all these years in the workforce, I know how the game is played. And as great as this company may be... somehow, deep inside, I know this is not where I belong. It is, after all, still a giant corporation. I gracefully said thanks for the consideration. I'll leave on July first with happy memories, and maybe even a bit of restored faith in the good that money can do.
I'm just not really cut out for business. I've known this for years, but have been terrified to do anything about it – how could I live without those paychecks? How could I possibly take out another student loan, tripling my debts? What if I have a sudden family obligation? What if…
Well, a lot has happened. Looking at myself now, all those “what if’s” don’t apply anymore. With no rent to pay, with lots of my debts paid down, with many of my other obligations and burdens lifted... what's stopping me?
The drive down through Rockland County into Passiac County is unremarkable. Pompton Lakes itself appears quite blue collar, although I was rather impressed with the assortment of cheap dining options, the pet adoption agency, the dance studio and music studio, and the cute salon all within blocks of each other. The Institute for Massage therapy is two doors down from Jimmy the Shoe Doctor, who has the largest property on the end of the tiny block.
We parked right in front of the building. The clinic where the students practice is next door to the entrance to the school. It looks like east fourteenth street, with less traffic. I stepped over the crumbling curb and muttered "To quote Bette Davis, what a dump!" G agreed, not saying much, looking around. We were tending far more toward Jersey City than Neptune here. The streets were swept clean, but the storefronts might date back to the 1950’s. Various junior-high kids on dirt bikes hi-jinked around, looking over G’s convertible with the New York plates. “Are you sure you want to go in this place?” He asked. “Yes,” I stated unequivocally. “We came all this way, we’re going in.”
I opened the door, and inside was a stairway, looking like a run-down apartment building on the upper west side. The railing showed decades of layers of enamel paint. The carpet was dingy, the walls were painted mustard-yellow and brown. A rather bent over man in his fifties, wearing what looked like an undershirt and a pair of trouser shorts, emerged from a doorway behind the stairs and shuffled by, looking sweaty, glancing at us in mild irritation. “What a dump indeed,” G said.
I grabbed the railing and marched upstairs. The school was on the second floor. I tried levity: “We could go with the Angela Lansbury quote: ‘Welcome to the junkyard!’” G chuckled politely.
At the top of the stairs were two doors facing in opposite directions. One had a hand-typed sign that said “Institute for Massage Therapy Open House End of the Hall to the Left.” I barreled through.
Sure enough, at the end of the hall, to the left, was a small conference room. There sat the Admissions Director, a lovely woman in her forties, and three other prospective students. They were a nice bunch of people. The room was clean and comfortable, and there were bowls of pretzels and bottles of water strewn about. The AD was talking animatedly about the program, and her personal insights on various aspects of the profession of Massage Therapy.
G and I were impressed right off the bat. We asked questions about placement services, do they have a “feeder” system into area hospitals or other businesses, do they license for New York as well as New Jersey, how many clinic hours do students get, etc. The AD answered all our questions with exactly what we’d hoped to hear, and then some. She talked extensively about not rushing too quickly into practicing on the general public. She talked in detail about the insurance required for student practice versus post-licensing, and touched on basic business sense, for when the salons want to hire. The school helps you to formulate a business plan. Over 75% of their students are also holding down full-time jobs.
Then she took us to see a class.
There were about 10 students. A very energetic male instructor talked extensively about the muscles and ligaments in the hand and foot, while he demonstrated on one of the gals in the class. There was a lot of laughing and light-hearted humour regarding the Manolo Blahniks this young gal clearly favored, and a detailed explanation of the difference between Carpel Tunnel syndrome and simple Tennis Elbow. The instructor’s knowledge of anatomy seemed endless. The students seemed like a little family, joking with each other and enjoying their class. They clearly had a great rapport with the instructor and the AD. I was completely fascinated. G was too.
I felt that little shift inside my stomach again. Something was moving… and clicking. I felt warm all over. I was laughing along with them. I felt that I was already part of this group.
After we returned to the small conference room, G asked about fees. The total cost of this program shocked me – it is far lower than I had expected. I may not even have to take out a student loan, if I can get steady, well-enough paying temp work. And the total time it takes to complete the program and become certified to practice isn’t measured in years – it’s in weeks. I could conceivably be out there doing this in less than a year.
On the drive back to Rockland, G and I mused on the low rent they must have to pay for their classroom space. We talked about the fancy academic buildings featured on the websites of some of the other schools I’d been looking at, whose tuitions were thousands of dollars more. We talked about getting me a car.
G looked around at the surrounding neighborhood, and expressed a bit of concern over the thought of me driving alone out of that area. Isn’t he darling? Pompton Lakes isn’t exactly Spring Lake, but it’s not Jersey City either. I reminded him that I’d lived in New York City for the last decade. He laughed. “Never mind,” he said, merging onto the highway.
Over dinner that evening, I asked G “Would I be totally stupid not to pursue this?” His answer was a confident “Yes.”
Classes Start in July and October. I have some planning to do.