The reason to get to the bottom of this nail business is that otherwise the city can be a complete mystery.  You are standing on the corner, things are dirty or not, unbearably hot or not; and you look up and, just at the level above where you had been looking before, there is a nail salon.  Try it.  Go outside and look at what you look at first.  Then look up.  Not all the way up.  We’re talking about the sky here.  Now, what do you see?  A nail salon.  Exactly.

From Mercedes at Times Nail (go to Times Square at Forty-second Street, look up) we have a description of what happens at a nail salon – or, rather, what process on the part of the nail worker is involved.  We give the basic process (five dollars and twenty cents).  Where our conversation with Mercedes was in Spanish, we give a translation.

PROCESS                                                                                      TRANSLATION

  1. Remove.
  2. File.
  3. Pongo la mano in the agua.                                       I put the hand in the water.
  4. Other hand.
  5. I cut the cuticle.
  6. Put cream, give you a massage.
  7. La base.                                                                            The base
  8. The other hand –hago lo mismo.                                I do the same.
  9. When I have bothhands ready, I put on the top.

When you walk into Times Nail, you see an ordinary-looking room with plenty of air and light.  There are ample windows (a good, big window that can support a sign is one of the requisites of a nail salon); there is a feeling of spaciousness, because the nine-step operation described by Mercedes doesn’t take up a lot of room.  Mercedes sits at a small table. It almost seems like a miniature.  The whole nail-salon business almost seems like a miniature.  It almost seems like something that is being done for fun, although it may also be a part of the alarming trend toward separation: the separation of things that really work from things that don’t work anymore.  A nail salon doesn’t have big start-up costs, and no license is necessary, and you can run it without understanding English down to the last detail.  It is a self-explanatory business.  Everyone understands what is going to happen.  The owner of Times Nail is a young woman called Joy Hong.  She told us that the nail-salon business has real advantages for people who are learning English, like our acquaintance Mercedes.  Mercedes is studying English.  She had a book in her lap.  She is from Cartagena, Colombia, where there are no nail salons.  She is shy at moments, but always intelligent and aware.  We asked her what she was reading.  It was this paragraph in an English-study book: “Yo hemos enseñado que los dos verbos más importantes del idioma inglés so los verbos to be y to have,” which means, “We have already demonstrated that the two most important verbs of the English language are the verbs to be and to have.”

It’s not too soon to talk to people who have memories of nail salons.  “This is where I stood and watched for about forty-five minutes, three months ago,” a young man told us.  We were standing on Fifty-eighth Street just east of Fifth Avenue.  “Let’s stand here and watch.  They are right up there.  Occasionally, you’ll see women gliding by the windows.  The faces are what I watch, and the way they use their hands.  Something wonderful is going on.  It’s no luminous; beauty is not what is going in their faces, I think.  Stand here and watch them as they leave; watch their hands.  Here’s someone – I wonder if she’s going to use her hands.  They don’t want to really handle anything; they hold their hands out, the fingers are spread.  She’s being less careful.  Here’s another one; she’s being careful.  We haven’t seen an extreme case.  Now, here: the right hand is chopping at the left hand; she is rubbing the palms. There’s a face! There is something about being touched with no affectionate purpose, but affectionately.”

“The way barbers were for me who got a shave every day,” we said.

“I’ve never done that.   My father used to do that a lot.”

We felt the pressure of nail salons all around us: Pikaso 2 Nail (Sixth Avenue between Forty-sixth and Forty-seventh, second floor); AAA Fingernail (Fifth Avenue between Forty-seventh and Forty-eighth, second floor); A.C.I. Fingernail (next block up on Fifth, second floor).  Everywhere, not quite secretly, women were going through the process.

“I have watched my mother, at seven in the morning,” our friend said, “making a very intense, intricate motion with her fingers, using something like an Eskimo’s tool – very delicate.  This tool was like a spoon with the sides cut off, concave at the end, with two barbs coming out from the sides.  She was cutting her cuticles.  It reminded me of the tools Melville talked about in ‘Moby Dick.’”

“Now, really,” we said.

“I will bring you an illustration,” he said.  He did.

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