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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

'I Didn't Have A Plan For This': How Target Saved A Kansas City Small Business Owner In The Pandemic

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Kip Ludwigs poses in front of the anatomy posters she references for massage while dressed for her current job at Target.

For 15 years, Kip Ludwigs carefully calculated every move she made as owner of her dream business, Solaris Massage in Kansas City. When the coronavirus threw all her plans out the window, she found solace and solutions in unlikely places. Here's her story.

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This time last year, Kip Ludwigs was celebrating the 15-year anniversary of Solaris Massage, her no-frills bodywork studio in Kansas City's Crossroads neighborhood. There was a party with balloons, but more importantly, Ludwigs took a wintertime trip to Florida.

After paying her way through massage school while working in restaurants and coffee shops, Ludwigs slowly but steadily built what she calls a micro-business.

"I would pay for one class at a time and I would sit in class and calculate how many cocktails I had served to pay for the class," she says, thinking back on how her journey began. "It took me a long time."

Having earned her credentials, Ludwigs started Solaris Massage with one appointment a week logged by hand in a paper planner. By 2019, she was booking nearly 50 appointments a week through her website and leading a staff of 10 therapists, herself included. She had finally figured out how to let go of outside sources of income and take a vacation.

"Pre-COVID, I would have these days where like, I'm almost coming to tears to know how lucky I am that I get to live this life, you know? Things felt stable-ish. I had solved a lot of problems that I'd needed to solve as part of how we slowly become adults in our culture. Like, having enough money in the bank to pay for things that break and all of that kind of stuff."

Then in January of 2020, a client hinted to Ludwigs that she might want to start preparing to go without income for a while.

"She said to me, 'You know, this COVID thing, it might get big... you might have to close your shop down for like a couple of weeks,'" Ludwigs remembers. "And that was like, 'Oh my god, a couple of weeks?'"

Knowing what we know at month 11 and counting, a couple of weeks sounds like a dream scenario, even if that's not how it sounded at the time.

The first few weeks of the pandemic found Ludwigs swamped, making calls to reschedule clients again and again before finally canceling appointments altogether. She was also calling her employees to inform them she suddenly had no work for them.

Meanwhile, she had no income.

For a while, Ludwigs made masks. Then she trained for contact-tracing jobs, hoping to be helpful in this moment of collective crisis. But, having completed the training, she found there were no real jobs for contact tracers. At one point, she explored outdoor massage, and the takeaway was not surprising; traveling outdoor massage proved impractical in decent weather, and impossible in the weather extremes of Kansas City, where you stop sweating just in time to freeze.

By late spring, restrictions no longer prevented Ludwigs from re-opening, but she wasn't confident that massage could be done safely. What's more, she did not feel qualified to create the safe conditions she would expect as a client. Remember: at this point, even something as basic as hand sanitizer was hard to get.

This period in Ludwigs' life can be distilled into a phrase she frequently uses: creativity under duress.

"It's not an ordinary, 'let's brainstorm about how we can improve the business.' It's, 'we might not make it if we don't figure this out.'"

By the time Ludwigs applied for a job at Target, she knew she needed not just money, though that was obviously urgent. She also needed to get herself out of duress. She saw herself as a little boat on choppy waters and she just kept thinking, "I need to be on a bigger boat."

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Kip Ludwigs continues to pay minimal overhead on Solaris Massage while waiting out the pandemic.

This is where the small-business lover might be saying, I'm sorry, what?

Yes. A part-time job working for a multinational corporation is keeping this small-business owner fed, clothed and housed while putting her in a position to consider those bigger decisions about her life and her business without abject terror standing in the way.

Ludwigs fulfills online orders for Target. And she loves it.

"I'm helping people stay home," she says. "I am helping people get diapers. I don't know the precise human that I'm helping, but when I fulfill an order and I see the variety of different things, every single time I think, 'this person didn't walk into my store, and I love that.'"

While moving about in the store, Ludwigs finds meaning in helping people track down what they need.

"I'm not going to lie," she says. "When someone wants to know where a mask is, or where the rubber bands are, or space heaters, I get to be a hero for 15 seconds."

That's not to say everything is suddenly fine. It's not.

Like a lot of people earning hourly wages, Ludwigs is on a shoestring budget, and that means putting herself at risk for coronavirus exposure, despite the great care she says Target takes to protect customers and employees. That makes for tough decisions when exposure occurs.

"There have been a couple of times when I have been notified that I had close contact with someone who tested positive," Ludwigs says. "Of course I really appreciate information and knowledge, but then the problem is, what can I practically do with that knowledge?"

If staying home had been economically possible for Ludwigs, she wouldn't have gone looking for a job. And it is rare for any hourly employee at any business to have paid sick time to the tune of 14 days of quarantine per exposure to COVID-19.

"I don't know how close I was. I don't know how much time I spent with them. I'm wearing my mask, they're wearing a mask. I wear a face shield all the time. I feel like I have to roll the dice because I don't really have another option."

Ludwigs had gotten tested a couple of times, with the results coming back negative.

She is so grateful for her job that she professes eternal loyalty to Target.

"If they need me, forever, they have someone who genuinely will, you know, it's 4 a.m. and you need me to come in? Honestly, I will be there because that job saved my life. I wasn't sleeping before I got that job."

What happens to the dream she spent her entire adult life building — pre-COVID, pre-Target — is another question, and a much more difficult one to answer. Ludwigs' $18,000 of savings has fallen to $3,000 in the bank, with more uncertainty on the horizon.

"That's still hard to look at," she says.

But finally getting some sleep sure can't hurt.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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