When my sister turned 23, our parents gave her a much-desired gift certificate to Burke Williams Spa.
She didn’t want to go alone and, when none of her friends were willing to shell out $100 for a neck rub and Jacuzzi bath, a generous family friend gave me a gift certificate, so I could accompany my sister on what is recognized as the epitome of female bonding. She scheduled her appointment a few hours ahead of mine, and we agreed to meet in between our respective facials.
At Fourth and Arizona in downtown Santa Monica, I entered an unassuming elevator, rode up one floor, and was deposited at what looks like the gates of Heaven, but was actually a reception room/gift shop.
Its soft lighting, mood music, silk robes, and very expensive skin products lined up on glass shelves were clearly designed to soothe the most frazzled nerves and get all who entered into the “spa mentality.”
A hushed voice greeted me. “Hi!” The receptionist smiled. “Do you have an appointment?”
On learning that I was a Burke Williams “virgin,” she gleefully set out to initiate me, and hurried me down a long corridor to my first stop — the lounge area, where men and women, their bodies rubbed with essential oils and wrapped in terrycloth robes, reclined in giant armchairs, sipping ice-cold, slightly lemony water, and flipping through the pages of the latest Vogue.
It is there that I was to meet my “aesthetician,” ten minutes prior to my appointment. My guide then showed me into the women’s spa area, where the hot tub, steam room, misting room, and locker room were located.
“Here’s your locker!” my tour guide trilled, handing me a little key on a wristband. I hadn’t been to anything called a locker room since middle school P.E., as at Samohi, one can avoid P.E. by participating in a performing art disguised as a sport, such as ballet, ice-skating, or, in my case, marching band. I expected the familiar mix of metal and concrete – minus the training bras and backpacks-on-wheels, but the locker room of Burke Williams was swathed in glossy varnished wood and soft, moss-green carpet, and felt more like a medieval forest than Lincoln Middle School.
Inside my locker hung a thick robe, (with BW embroidered over the heart), and a pair of squishy sandals. I didn’t know whether to strip down right there, in the open, and paused, clutching the robe. But the sight of women prancing around in lacy thongs or shedding their BW robes to reveal nothing but, in one case, a butterfly tattoo, suggested that I could get into my robe at my leisure.
I took my book to the lounge to wait for my sister to finish her facial. When we met up, her face glowed, and I began to look forward to my own facial. After all, if it turned my sister into a robed goddess, it might do something for me as well.
We headed off to the hot tub to chat, only to find that several other women had the same brilliant idea. “Ugh, it’s so crowded today!” my sister, the goddess, said. “Next time I’m coming on a weekday.”
It was then that I realized how very full the spa is. The couches in the lounge were full. The misting room’s chairs were all occupied. The showers were all in use. Then it hit me: A whole lot of people spend a vulgar amount of money on pampering. My sister and I were there on gift money, a special, once-a-year-or-less treat, but how many people go to spas on a regular basis, and think nothing of the staggering bill?
The Burke Williams Spa is located a short block away from the Third Street Promenade, where homeless people sleep on benches or the sidewalk, desperately in need of a hot shower and something to eat. How many people could my facial have fed?
After making the rounds of the spa facilities, my sister and I returned to the lounge. While we waited for my aesthetician to collect me, we played Scrabble on a beautiful lacquered board and snacked from a bowl of glossy fruit.
When the petite woman to whom I was to entrust my face arrived, she apologetically called my name. “Alice? Alice?” As I followed her down the hallway, she said she was so glad to meet me and that I was about to have an amazing experience that would rejuvenate and refresh me.
After I disrobed and tucked myself into the little table/bed, she dipped my hands in hot wax, put plastic baggies on them and then put my bagged hands into what looked like terrycloth oven mitts. The moment my hands were out of commission, I got an eye-watering itch just below my right nostril. Not wanting to paw at my face with my oven mitts, I kept still, itching like mad.
From that point on, everything was pleasant…except for the part when she squeezed the “impurities”–a euphemism for blackheads, whiteheads and pimples – from my pores with her fingernails, and the part when she aimed a gurgling steam machine right at my face, forcing me to breathe damp, hot air for almost 20 minutes. But the oils she massaged into my temples, the cool, herb-y mud mask that she pated onto my face, the neck and shoulder massage – all that was heavenly.
But that wasn’t the point. Nor was the point that I ended up looking not radiant like my sister, but pink and shiny. Nor was it that the facial un-relaxed me as much as the hot tub and sister bonding relaxed me.As I looked at myself in the wall-to-wall vanity mirror at Burke Williams, I felt less “rejuvenated” than repulsed, because it seemed to me that the point is, here in Santa Monica, which boasts of its compassion and devotion to human rights, we should take care of our poor before we take care of our pores.