Go ahead. Make jokes about the massage clinic at the truck stop. Just don't make them to Helen "Lolly" Polvinale. "We're not talking trash here. We're talking serious stuff," says Ms. Polvinale, who operates Oasis Health Enrichment Center at the bustling truck stop in Jessup, formerly known as Truckers Inn and now called Truckstops of America Baltimore South.
Ms. Polvinale's clinic is one of a handful of massage practices at truck stops across the United States. She knows of only six others. We're talking therapeutic massage here -- no hanky-panky.
"Massage therapy is coming into its own because it works," says Ms. Polvinale, 47, a graduate of the Baltimore School of Massage and certified by a national association. "In five years I think you'll have massage therapy everywhere."
It's already in malls, airports, hotels and nursing homes. After the Oklahoma City bombing, massage therapists worked on rescue
personnel, morticians and victims' relatives. Next year in Atlanta, massage therapists for the first time will be an official part of the Olympics medical team.
And massage increasingly is becoming part of the corporate workday.
Therapists are turning up in law firms, government agencies and other white-collar venues, where a 15-minute massage break is replacing the traditional coffee break. Workers sit in specially designed chairs as therapists knead their shoulders, back and neck.
In Maryland, the number of certified therapists has grown from 100 in 1989 to 850, according to the state chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association. Nationally, the group has 22,000 practitioners.
"Ten years ago massage was seen by most people as weird or different," says Jerry Toporovsky, director of the Baltimore School of Massage, which graduates therapists after 500 hours of schooling. "Now it's become very mainstream.
"Everything's going a little bit faster. Society is so stressful, and people seem to be busy all the time. They're realizing the need for just taking an hour and zoning off into a state of deep relaxation."
Even truck drivers recognize the need to relax, although some can't recognize the difference between, say, Bambi's Magic Fingers and a legitimate massage clinic such as Ms. Polvinale's.
That's not helped by the recent publicity of Howard County police raids on six county "massage parlors," where untrained "massage technicians" are accused of offering sexual services.
"This is nonsexual massage. That's all over our literature," Ms. Polvinale says. "But some of them, well, initially, they do think it's something else."
She knew that would be a problem when she opened the clinic in May -- after reading an article in a trucking magazine about a successful masseuse at a truck stop in Arizona. But Ms. Polvinale is a spirited woman who won't for a minute buy the argument that certain illegal activities are, as one driver put it, "a natural stress release for men."
"It's less than you think -- maybe one in 10," she says of the number of truckers who want more than she is offering. "But what's been surprising is how open most of them are to massage. Of course, most of them feel so bad they're almost willing to try anything."
They complain of aching backs, tight shoulders and sore feet. They are stressed to the limit. Many have high blood pressure. Nearly all have lousy diets. They often are overweight, smoke too many cigarettes, drink too much coffee and never exercise.
After his massage, one driver told Ms. Polvinale: "Why didn't I treat myself to this sooner?"
When he returned a week later, she thought, that driver might be willing to talk with a reporter. She had already asked several of her regular customers, but all declined. They swear by her
massages, she says, but apparently they fear for their hard-driving, macho image.
"A couple of them have said they wouldn't want their buddies to know," Ms. Polvinale says.
The trucker indeed agreed to talk, but when asked to give his name, he said, "No way." He's 37, lives in Anne Arundel County and is built like a football player. He says his neck, shoulders and lower back hurt like the devil.
"Anything to relieve the tension and aching," he says.
Ms. Polvinale works out of two rooms near the front desk of the truck stop's hotel. The sprawling stop, one of the largest on the East Coast, is just off Interstate 95 at U.S. 1 and Route 175. It also has a barbershop, laundry room, group therapy sessions for substance abusers, a chapel and prostitutes in the parking lot.
One room of Ms. Polvinale's office is lined with books about spirituality, alternative health care, holistic therapies and the healing powers of massage. Next door is the massage room with its padded table, pale-purple walls, candles and soothing music.
Ms. Polvinale charges $50 for an hourlong, full-body massage, and $30 for a half-hour massage of the neck and back. She also works on clients who aren't truck drivers, although truckers make up two-thirds of her business -- an average of three hourlong massages a day -- and often depart saying they haven't felt this good in years.
"The need to be touched in a positive, nurturing way is a very basic survival need," Ms. Polvinale says.
She and her partner, William E. Elliott Jr., who seldom works here because the truckers don't want a man touching them, hope eventually to open an exercise room, library and cafe at the truck stop.
"We tell our friends we've opened a massage clinic, and they ask where," Ms. Polvinale says. "We kind of look at each other and then tell them a truck stop. They say, 'Yeah, right, a truck stop.' When they stop laughing, they ask, 'Where is it really?' "