Step Right Up

Martin Balsam as erudite scoundrel Alardyce T. Merriweather in the 1970 film Little Big Man (photo blithely appropriated from


I sit on a reclining chair with a comfy headrest, feet on a footstool, eyes closed. I’m sinking into meditation. Or maybe it’s sleep.

It don’t make no never-mind to the folks who run this joint. If they could see me they’d figure they succeeded. I looked peaceful and content, glad about the deal that brought me here.

Little do they know what goes on behind the serene exterior. I am beset by doubt, even something akin to scorn.

Intending to run alternative therapies like this is a way to get a bank loan, isn’t it? Only unlike the usual ploy — say, a coffee shop or barber shop — this one comes with a special kind of pitch, one that harks back to the Old West.

I can’t help but feel some hippie carnival barker got me into the tent.

What’s the difference between this and some medicine show hustle? I think of Alardyce T. Merriweather, the miracle-cure salesman in Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man. Along with sidekick Jack Crabb, he gets what he deserves.

But he’ll never learn. Dustin Hoffman’s Crabb calls to his tarred and feathered mentor, during their mutual comeuppance, “You don’t know when you’re beat!”

Martin Balsam’s incorrigible philosopher chortles back, “I’m not beat, Jack. Just tarred and feathered, that’s all.” And laughs.

The hustles will never stop.

You sit in a room in your stockinged or bare feet. Barb suggested I rub my bare feet into the salt.

“They said it’s good for fungus.”

I’ve been at Walmart all day and am self-conscious about hot smelly feet pulled from sweatsocks, but Barb insists. Hoping to cure my athlete’s foot, I negotiate my toes through the pink crystals lining the floor.

As of this writing, my feet still itch like a bastard.

The floor of the place, a little room squared off with two sets of facing chairs and a footstool in the middle, is covered with “pink Himalayan salt,” which I figure is mined by Morton and food-colored. Some kind of atmosphere high in salt content is pumped in as ambient air. It has occurred to me that you could get the same effect standing on the prow of a Gloucester fishing boat. (Note to myself: send a letter to the fishermen’s trade association suggesting a way for those guys to make a buck in the off-season.)

A placard outside the salt room promises many benefits, including the one that secured my interest, or I should say the success of my wife in talking me into coming here: a remedy for allergies. I didn’t object when Barb bought a month’s couples pass: a hundred fifty bucks for as many 45-minute sessions as you want.

I’ve been coming here a week and I’m filling up wastebaskets bad as ever.

A lot of people believe in Ayurvedic rather than traditional approaches to diet and health. I get that. I even went into a “Chinese” herb store once (with Barb). A bottle of something that would cure my male pattern baldness caught my eye. I bought it; it didn’t work.

I guess I still believe in verifiable western science, carry around old-fashioned ideas about cures. I was raised in the fifties and sixties, the era of the “good doctor” with his medical bag, who made house visits. Like the guy who fixed Jem Finch’s broken arm in To Kill a Mockingbird. I miss that time.

Things are different now. People are uncertain about healing. We’re trapped in the system. Physicians knee-jerk order tests and prescribe pills. People cast about for nontraditional answers. And become suckers.

My wife talks to some guy on the phone to get “psychoanalysis.” I have no indication he even has a social work  degree. He sees her psyche over the phone lines, don’t you know.

She subscribes to acupuncture, which I suppose does have some time-proven benefit – this my sole qualification.

A high proportion of her friends practice some form of New Age hustle. One’s a psychic. I’d rather trust a Chinese fortune cookie.

Some of her friends are “reiki healers.” They’re not Jesus but they lay on hands. Barb has gone to reiki healers. They touch you and you feel their aura while they’re feeling into your pocket for money instead of getting an honest job.

We found out about the salt therapy place a few weeks ago. Barb knows a gal who knew about it.

At its year anniversary, it had a big virtual opening, an official ribbon cutting. Chamber of commerce PR people in pressed white shirts (this itself a sign of uppity falseness in this cowboy town) taking pictures for web sites, promos, whatever. Smiling guys coming over to shake the hand of some cynical shmo stuck there with his wife, the Believer. The main guy, a co-owner, buttonholes me about the benefits. It’s an effort to smile back.

But hey. Helps with allergies, huh?

After a week of going almost every day, I’m no better.

Not that it’s so painful. The 45 minutes in the room fly by. New age piano music piped in … it’s really quite relaxing.

I’ve mumbled to the people who run the joint I’m here to fix my runny nose and sneezing.

To their credit, they smile, ask whether the allergies have subsided.

I reply, “I guess it’s a real bad allergy season.” And lie. “But in general, I think I am better.”

Just to show you what a phony I am.

4 thoughts on “Step Right Up

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