Beauty in the Hood

I frigging love my current nail salon, so much so that I’ve been meaning to blog about it for weeks, but I’ve been so busy with work that I haven’t had time. My job at PF, although I put in notice, doesn’t seem to be coming to an end. I think my bosses have opted to pretend that I didn’t quit. My new job, which is a return to one day of bartending at Bowery Electric, has more fun that I expected. My friend Tim Greer is DJ-ing and running movies for me and I get to see friends more regularly, but it still takes another day out of my schedule. And then Zoe and I did our show, which was well-received and also fun, but draining. So essentially my plan of making more time to write is currently taking it’s sweet-ass time to manifest.

Okay…ANYWAY…fingernails. Nail salons in my hood have become increasingly expensive and the girls working in them less versed in anything other than the most rudimentary of manicures. I was having trouble and spending too much money, and my lovely friend Ms. Codie Ravioli recommended her salon on Avenue D.

For those of you who don’t live in New York, Avenue D is hardcore. It’s not dangerous anymore, but it is home of the Projects and there are no white girls like myself walking up and down the Avenue. It is populated by inner city, working class Hispanic and black people and their numerous children. Most everyone communicates in Spanish.

So I trotted over there and found a magical land in which Christmas decorations stay up all year round:

This is one half of the room, the other half is exactly the same size, with giant, semi-destroyed, brown massage pedicure chairs. It’s tiny, and everything is covered in fingernail dust. It looks much cleaner in this photo than it should. All of the Korean ladies working here address the women, including myself, as “Mami”.

Everyone talks over one another in a shout, it’s very chaotic, and I fell in love as soon as I entered because I was seated on a pedicure chair next to a woman who looked very much like this:
Except that my girl was about 60 lbs heavier, her hair was flaming red, and her lips were equally dramatically outlined with Chola lipliner. She had a constant look of outlined surprise. Her feet were so big I couldn’t stop looking at them. I tried to guess the shoe size. 11? 12? 13?? She was there for the pedicure and a dubious sounding service in which they glue eyelashes onto you so well that they last for days and days. Gorgeous!
Because we are all packed in like sardines either waiting for or getting services, and because of the friendly, community nature of the neighborhood, everyone chats loudly with everyone and their children run rampant, which would ordinarily annoy me, but in this setting is simply more entertainment. No one reads, no one talks on their cell for long, they just all shout at each other about their relationships, their kids, their fingernails. 
Not five minutes into my pedicure, a woman standing near tells me she’s wearing a colostomy bag and pees out of her belly-button. Now I’m really in heaven. I gleefully texted Codie immediately. “COLOSTOMY BAG. JACKPOT!”
Clearly the woman was open to talking about about it, so I asked her what happened. She told me that she went in to the hospital 12 years ago for a C-section and they cut too far into her and destroyed her insides in a way that left her thus debilitated. She had had numerous surgeries to correct the problem, to no avail. She lifted her shirt to show me her stomach, which was distended and criss-crossed with scars. She was going into the hospital in a few days for another operative attempt at repair.

Then she said, “I’m not happy with my pedicure. They have to fix the design.” Everyone in there except for me had elaborate, multicolor designs planned for their toes. She said, “I don’t have a man, but I have pretty toes and I want to show them off.” And my John Waters delight for the grotesquerie of the situation faded a bit. How incredibly tragic it must be to go into the hospital to simply have your baby and exit with your body destroyed? She was open and kind and I wondered if I would have the same attitude in her place.

The lady in red left my side and was replaced by an older woman with a blonde buzz cut and the longest toenails I’ve seen in some time. They were thick and yellow and hoof-like and I shuddered with pity for the poor pedicure girl, her masked face inches from the toes as she dug underneath them with a metal tool. The woman mumbled at the girl about not cleaning them properly and then shouted to the salon manager in a thick accent, “Can ju tell her to clean underneath? She’s not doing that.” The manager got up and shouted something in Korean to the girl, who doubled the digging effort.

“Ai!” The woman said to me. “She dossent clean and den I get a fungus. And she dossent speak our languish so I can’t tell her!” I said, gently hinting that a simple trim might be in order, “Well, your toenails are very long. Don’t they hurt when they’re pressed up against your shoes?” She told me no, and then bitched out the girl for the polish design, which was not zebra-ey enough for her liking. She wasn’t mean, but determined to get satisfaction. The manager came over and quickly swiped glitter and polish on the toes until they were a work of creepily too-long toenail art. 

I fucking love my new nail salon.

The next week I tried to get some surreptitious film of the place while I was sitting next to a woman with enormous, swollen legs that were criss-crossed with blue veins. She said, “Oh, honey, don’t film my legs. They aren’t pretty.” I felt bad and put the phone down. I asked, “What’s going on with your legs?” and she told me that she was born with crooked legs and spent much of her life in a wheelchair because her family didn’t have the money to get them repaired properly when she was young. Recently she had an operation which allowed her to walk, although it took a long time and a lot of rehabilitation work. She said, “I did not want to spend my life in a wheelchair, so I’m proud that I can walk on these legs now, even if they don’t look so good.”

As we talked a woman with three kids, one a toddler on her lap, sat getting large chunks of silver glitter applied to her long fingernails. She said, “Hang on! I don’t want the baby breathing these chemicals!” She put the pretty little girl down, and the baby stood next to the table, mouth and nose level with the situation, waving her bottle of juice. The grandmother, who had been advising a woman whose boyfriend had just been caught cheating on her, shouted from across the room, “Chanel! Dat baby is still breathing dat shit!” The young mother gently pushed the baby and she toddled off to stop three feet away. The tiny salon hasn’t been wiped down in years, it’s coated in chemicals, but I found the gesture sweet nonetheless. 

And thus, beyond the magic of chola eyebrows and colostomy bags, I understood something new and saw these exotic creatures as people rather than mere entertainment. I come from a privileged, white, upper-middle class background. As much as I have lived a rock and roll life, I am a snob in many ways. I entered this tiny land feeling other, possibly superior, and left slightly more humbled and educated.

Most of the women frequenting the tiny salon come from an low income background and live a blue-collar, very urban life. They don’t have control over a lot of things. They don’t have control over doctors, who fuck them up during childbirth, or who charge too much to fix crooked legs. They have children at a young age and don’t have a nanny to watch the kids while they get their nails done. In the case of Big Chola Red, they don’t appear to have control over their eating habits. But they do have control over their fingernails. They can come to this tiny place, shoot the shit with each other, get and give advice, forget about their troubles for a short while, and walk out with art on their toes and fingers. Who am I to judge the high drama of their artistic fingernail and eyebrow choices?
So now I am simply grateful that I can go visit them any time I want and forget about my own confusions as they welcome me as one of their own. I am happy to put the phone away, park myself in a beat up chair, and enjoy the connection. I am still going to try to film the action, as it should be shared, but I’ll have to wait until the proper time.
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6 thoughts on “Beauty in the Hood”

  1. It's very true what your saying! The place can be a stage if comedy ! I do feel the same as u do in the fact I was also raised in an upper middle-class family n in my case n with my situation they also mak me feel wellcome ! Let's go together soon!

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  2. Since I both live and work in the ghetto, I totally “got” this. In Newark, everywhere I go I get called “mami,” and I love it. At the laundry we see the kids, the grandmas and the girls w/ crushes on the boy on crack. It's exactly your nail salon. In JC, my female students have the most outrageous manicures, their mothers may have no teeth, the kids may weigh 260 pounds or the exact opposite a possible 90, but their nails are profound works of zebra, glitter, perfectly tri-colored joy. I don't get manicures or pedicures anymore because on a teacher's salary I can't afford them, but if I did, I would love to join you and Codie! You painted a perfect picture of a world I know well, but most of my rock & roll friends don't, and you captured the flag.

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  3. This my sister is a work of literary genius. I was there. I laughed, I want to go there, & I felt for these women who have indeed live a tough life. I got to live that life while I was out there- I spent many a day on that avenue running through apartments in those project. What makes this so special is the beautiful way that you humanize and don't mock, but actually consider these people. I too love the grotesque & to have a front seat on Ave D for an hour is simply worth gold. You wrote this beautifully, with much sentiment. Absolutely great work!

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  4. I too loved the way you spoke about these women in a non-derogatory manner, that takes skill. Kudos…I can't wait for Part Deux mami….

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