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Digital bliss at the barbershop: It's OK!

August 26, 2012 12:10 am

THE CASE that would go down in the annals of detection as The Mystery of the Vanishing Fingers began six weeks ago when Ben Bursae of Spotsylvania County complained in a letter to the editor that the ladies at his favorite barbershop--Village Square Barber & Hair on Bragg Road--had been told by "the Spotsylvania County health inspector" to stop giving relaxing after-cut neck and shoulder massages.

"Apparently," he wrote, "such a service requires a license, which the barbershop did not have." Mr. Bursae's report bothered us the more we thought about it, like the short hairs that get under the barber paper and prickle your neck.

No more shoulder rubs. No more tension-melting thumb circles down the spine. No more clip-clapping mini-karate chops tenderizing bunched muscles. What was the meaning of such meddling in Village Square's perfectly symbiotic barber-customer relationship? Who exactly was behind it?

We called up our usual team of investigators but they were tied up. Nancy Drew was looking into something having to do with an old clock. The Hardy Boys were in a tower snooping for treasure. No matter. The League of Substitute Super Sleuths--a county official and two lawyers, one local and one out-of-town--jumped on the case.

Like any good peeper trying to crack a whodunit, Kathy Smith, Spotsylvania's public information officer, began systematically eliminating suspects. Ms. Smith reported: " the Sheriff's Office did not take the enforcement action cited in the letter the Rappahannock Area Health District and the Spotsylvania Health Department [both actually state-run agencies] offices indicate that they do not inspect barber shops the Spotsylvania Zoning Office does not have a case related to this matterthe state-level Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, which licenses barbers and barbershops, indicates that their staff did not perform any recent inspection at this shop."

OK, all you bureaucracies, we guess that clears you guys, but don't leave town without telling us. And great work, Ms. Smith--we're adding a bonus to your usual fee and ex'es.

Next we talked to Clark Neily, senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which specializes in taking on regulators and monopolists who get between workers and their paychecks. Mr. Neily instinctively put the finger on "licensed massage therapists engaging in turf protection." His hunch was that a licensed therapist had either sicced the authorities on Village Square, whose first-generation Vietnamese-American barbers have vivid memories of just how much grief government agents can dispense--or even, given Ms. Smith's findings, impersonated a state or county regulator to scare the ladies out of the feel-good business.

(We should mention here that we twice visited Village Square and asked for the name of the person who reportedly squelched the massages. The proprietor was disinclined to talk--a common reaction among regulator-harried immigrants who hail from tyrannies, says Mr. Neily.)

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What do the Virginia and Spotsylvania codes say about massages? Mr. Neily put an IJ law clerk, Bryson Smith, on the question, and here is what he found:

Massage therapists must be certified by Virginia--but only if they represent themselves as trained massage therapists.

The barbers at Village Square made no such representation. Nor do the Vietnamese-American women at several other regional barbershops evidently unvisited by Inspector Killjoy. Nor do the (mostly) Asian-American nail specialists who include relaxing foot massages with their pedicures.

In Spotsylvania, which in 2006 had to shut down a massage parlor for offering "happy endings" (commendations once more to the involved undercover deputies, who dutifully followed the criminological axiom that "you can never have too much evidence"), masseuses and masseurs must now possess a county permit. But there's a big however: "A massage administered only to the scalp, face, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, and/or the feet," states the county code, is "expressly excluded" from the the permit requirement.

Meanwhile, a renowned local lawyer--Solicitor X we'll call him, because he prefers anonymity in a matter so far from his customary beat--was scanning the same law books and reaching the same conclusions. "The episode you have described," he wrote, "appears to be a case of overreaching" by some renegade official.

Our thanks to the national and the local bar.

So, ladies, rub, knead, squeeze, stroke, and clip-clap away.

May your tribe increase.

For while the Mystery of the Vanishing Fingers isn't technically solved--the culprit remains unknown, though that may yet change--there is no mystery about one thing.

This is a tough life. Stressful and demanding, it knocks us around with bare knuckles while the timekeeper dozes and the brutal rounds seem never to end. And while it may be saturated with the sexual in 1,001 permutations, depending on one's voluntary social companions and search engines, encounters with the sensual, that first cousin of Eros who can soothe our whole beings and exorcise our cares without fumbling with buttons, are remarkably rare. Even most supposed recreation, as good Americans, we approach like the Olympic Trials.

At Village Square they had medicine for all that, administered in three-minute tactile doses that did a body (and a mind and a spirit) good. Why anyone would want to stifle that we haven't a clue.

Tomorrow: Neil Armstrong





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