On airport massage chairs and the meaning of indulgence

Often when I am stuck at an airport, I make use of a massage chair. You know the ones–you insert your credit card, lean back, and are treated to a certain number of minutes being mechanically thumped and kneaded. Some chairs, like one I used during a layover in Paris, have a sort of roof on top with a video screen that features swimming goldfish and tropical flowers. Tranquil music plays tinnily, broken only by intercom interruptions calling a passenger’s name.

I don’t see other people using the massage chairs that often–though perhaps I’m not paying enough attention–but my sense is that most people, like me, feel a kind of loathing toward the reality of modern life when they see these things. Massage chairs, purely as objects that exist, are fairly ludicrous. They are ugly, hulking robots that vibrate and hum, giving you an approximation of a massage that, because no two bodies are alike, can end up only being somewhat satisfying. I’m a woman of average height (for an American), and I assume most massage chairs are built with the average male build in mind. Therefore, the neck massage portion of the chair’s machinations ends up mostly squeezing my skull.

Still, it’s nice. Using a massage chair is one of the cheaper ways to indulge at an airport, compared to getting drunk or buying a cold, pre-made sandwich for eleven dollars. While people rush by and the fluorescent lights burn overhead, I treat myself to some back-thumping and calf-squeezing. (The leg massage is by far the funniest part of the whole experience, but it does feel good.)

To truly relax in a massage chair, I have to let go of caring what other people think, which is a real feat. Being witnessed indulging in something semi-luxurious by people who are not doing that is a curious thing. At least in a nail salon, or somewhere similar, you’re surrounded by nail techs and other customers who are there for the same reason you are. There’s a shared camaraderie, a sort of permission to relax and let yourself be taken care of.

At the airport, however, all of us are there because we eventually intend to be somewhere else. The airport itself is not the destination and it is certainly not the reward. Opting for a chair massage means giving in to the present, which feels brazenly antithetical to the real purpose of where it’s located.

Last summer, JD and I were at the Denver airport, finding ourselves with several hours to kill after our flight was delayed. We opted for a sit-down breakfast rather than the bagels and coffee we’d planned on, but even that was a quick and efficient activity. As we wandered around the terminal afterwards, we came upon two massage chairs. It cost five bucks each for something like twenty-minute massages.

We sat side-by-side in the chairs and got rhythmically kneaded and squished while we watched the morning sky change through the huge terminal windows. At some point, we watched a bird that had gotten inside flit around, lighting on various beams overhead, while people pointed and laughed at it. We had gotten up at an unearthly hour that morning to catch our now-delayed flight, and lay in the massage chairs in a bit of a hypnotic stupor.

Our massages ended, and we still had another hour or so before boarding. We looked around, and of course, no one was there to take our places. We stuck our credit cards in again and leaned back for a second round.

So, yeah–I’ve decided that seeking out and using the massage chairs at airports is my thing now. Later this month, I’ll have a layover in Detroit. You’ll know where to find me.

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