Pink neon signs saying "Nail" hang above grocery stores, beckoning the fashion-conscious woman to buzz herself through the door into some dank stairwell, traipse up a couple of floors and through an iron gate to the nail nirvana above. The salons vary greatly from the posh to the plebeian but the fact remains that the vast majority of New Yorkettes have a weekly manicure somewhere.
Mine was on Times Square under a massive billboard depicting a naked Claudia Schiffer frolicking in some hay. This was the Salon Sophia. I was wordlessly clicked through three separate entryphone systems and emerged in a salon the size of a large restaurant with tens of Korean women sitting silently behind tiny desks filing, buffing, painting, gluing, spraying and drying the gleaming nails of their impressively coiffed clients. The chairs of customer and beautician were of padded pink leatherette, and the room was plastered with poster sized photographs of women in a lot of red lip gloss waving terrifyingly red talons (with or without diamond encrustation) in front of their half open mouths. The message: have your nails done here and everyone will think you want to have sex.
On a board behind the main reception desk were examples of the different styles of "nail art" performed by the salon. You could have palm trees with a sunset backdrop, rubies, diamonds or emeralds (ie pieces of shiny plastic) embedded in your claw, any combination of stripes, dots, hearts and little flowers or - and these I couldn't resist - stars and stripes.
The waiting area (also pink leatherette) was crammed with ladies who looked as if they were in some way connected to the local sex industry, and others who looked more like bankers and lawyers. Most of them clutched their preferred nail colour in their hands, opting not to risk the banks of possible hues arrayed on the counter. Along with death, nail salons, it seems, are great equalisers.
These places are invariably staffed by Korean women who speak no English apart from manicure-related jargon, so while they can say "I'll just buff this before I apply the acrylic tip and bathe your hand in acetone," they won't understand you when you ask how long they have lived in New York. It seems an odd way to learn a language and most of the clients have little patience with it. The women who swanned into the Sophia Salon were mostly dismissive of the staff and quietly patronising. One lady marched up to reception with some beige polish in a bottle and pointed languidly at her feet with a perfectly rounded fingertip in the same colour. Deferentially the manageress sat her down, removed her sweaty socks and trainers for her, and set about beautifying the fat pink toes she so unceremoniously presented.
In Hyun Sook, said the sign behind my manicurist, is licensed to practise by the State of New York. She laid into my hands with great enthusiasm, poking back the cuticles with a stick, clipping them painfully short, filing them smooth, bathing them in oil, painting them with glue, sticking acrylic tips onto them and layering them with silk, glue and more glue. Meanwhile people came and went around me. Lisa Carpetta, a buyer for the New York Times, has a $6 (pounds 3.80) manicure every week. She wasn't even looking at her fingers as one of her broken nails was artificially tipped without her bothering to ask. "I feel gross if my nails aren't done," she said, grimacing at the very thought of nasty nails. "Finish," announced her nail lady, holding out a hand for her tip. You have to pay before they paint so as not to ruin the polish.
On my left was an El Al air hostess who had developed chronic fear of flying from spending too much time in the cockpit and whose one comfort was getting her nails seen to in New York. She had opted
for long red things seemingly designed for appearing in porn films, and she looked more than pleased with herself as her hands were sprayed with Sea Breeze ("Just buff and spray") before she swept out into the Manhattan afternoon.
An hour and $62 (pounds 40) later I sat staring at the posters trying to reassure me that I can't get Aids from manicure utensils, with my hands under twin miniature fans and the American flag on two of my three inch long nails. When I asked why the one on my index finger was completely crooked I was told curtly "finger crooked". I skulked off back to my fans abashed. My special new appendages made dialling a phone number, typing, washing my hair or putting my tights on (I was specifically warned about this one) completely impossible, and I became a long-nailed lady of leisure. That night a friend told me I looked like Guidette (the female equivalent of Guido) from Queens: "Anyway, apparently it's totally looked down upon to have nail art unless you have it airbrushed on," he explained, putting me firmly in my place.