In case you haven’t been reminded lately, we should point out that things aren’t always what they appear to be in the classified section of a newspaper. Classifieds, those tiny ads that can be purchased for as little as $4.20 a week on an extended contract with our newspaper, for example, are the Internet of our operation.

What do they say about the Internet? On the Internet nobody knows that you’re a dog, even though you’re parading around like a prince? It’s a little like that in the classified section. Ads for golden business opportunities involving stuffing envelopes at home may well have been placed by someone who answered the exact same ad a few months before.

If you see a big display ad in our paper or in our competitors’ publications, making the same claims and offers week after week, year after year, you can bet that the business buying those ads is in business to stay. But, while there are plenty of rock-solid businesses that rely on classified advertising, you might not make that same bet with every tiny classified ad you see. Here at U.S. 1 we have a classified ad category called “Off-the-Wall Offers.” It’s a good title.

Which brings us to the off-the-wall case of one of our longtime and steady classified ad customers, Meryl James, whose face seemed to jump off the front page of the Trenton Times last week. The story under the color photograph of the smiling, middle aged blonde said that she had been arrested for prostitution. The charge was that she turned massage sessions into sexual exploits for an undercover police officer investigating her home-based operation after neighbors complained of excessive “traffic” to and from her front door.

And James probably didn’t help her case by subsequent interviews with the press. The Trenton Times reported that James claimed she was a victim of “entrapment.” But, at least as she was quoted in the paper, one of her massage techniques could certainly invite some questions: “I’m in the nude and the client’s in the nude too,” James was quoted. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of massage,” she added. “I never did anything but what was therapeutic.”

But things aren’t always as they appear. James’s advertising paints the picture of a vibrant masseuse, “specializing in reflexology, neuromuscular therapy, acupressure, magnified healing, toning, and Swedish techniques.” In her classifieds she promises “spiritual rejuvenation” and “intuitive, integrative Swedish full body massage,” administered, as she says in one recent ad, by a “tantrica priestess.”

Tantrica priestess? Sex goddess? You can see the tabloid headline writers toying with the alliterative combinations — the Princeton prostitute, the Mercer madam? But in person this priestess turns out to be a wisp of a woman with a disability that leaves one arm virtually useless. In our office Meryl James was a demonstration of personal courage, a single mother approaching 50 and living in affordable housing in Princeton Township, trying to eke out a living in a trade that normally requires two strong arms and hands.

We gave James a call, hoping to find out how she ended up in such a precarious state. In a brief telephone conversation on the eve of her arraignment, she gave us a quick overview of her life. She was born in Staten Island and raised in northern New Jersey where her father worked as an electrician and her mother worked for IBM. She began her massage practice in 1981 she said, and in that time also overcame manic depression. Her disability is a result of a 1987 brain injury — “I’d rather not go into details.”

James’s website — www.netspree.com/meryl — includes testimonials from Willie Stargell, the late Pittsburgh Pirate baseball star, who proclaimed that “I had such pain in my knees I couldn’t sleep at night. After one treatment I felt relief and slept soundly.” Another website tribute notes that “Meryl gives a better massage with one hand than most therapists do with two.”

But elsewhere on her home page you discover that she is writing a memoir about “surviving bi-polar illness” and that she also has a book in the works entitled “The ABCs of Reversing Depression.”

We suspect that a hard life got a little harder in 1999, when James suffered second and third degree burns of her face, chest, and upper respiratory tract when her hair and clothing caught fire while she was leaning over a lighted candle. She ended up in the burn intensive care unit of St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston. James, now an ordained minister through the Universal Brotherhood Movement, has little to say about that other than “God is great.” She adds: “Things always work out for the best for me. I have three daughters, two in college and one who lives with me. As long as they wake up happy and healthy, it’s a great day.”

James cuts the conversation short. “I’m tired,” she says, “and tomorrow I have to go in for the arraignment. Hopefully then I’ll get a public defender who will tell me what to say in situations like this. I’m a naive person.”

We think back to her interview with the Trenton Times. While things aren’t always what they appear to be, this time her self assessment does not seem to be off-the-wall at all.

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