Two of my more visceral fears relate to fingernails. For your sake, and for mine, I’ll spare the background on how I came by my terror of having a fingernail displaced. Let’s just say that blood was involved, the terror exists, and leave it at that. The other fingernail fear predates the first, and goes so far back with me, I can’t remember where it came from and couldn’t background it even if I cared to: Acrylic nails give me the heebie-jeebies. They gave me the deep creeps well before they sent shudders down my spine as a matter of style. I hate them.
There were plenty of ladies wearing acrylics where I grew up, in Florida; one particular grotesquerie was the dagger set sported by the woman who drove carpool to soccer games, the minivan mom who tended to our team with Gatorade and orange slices, who bounty hunted our parents’ seasonal dues, and who would, when big tournaments rolled around, get a special set of acrylics done in blue and silver, our team colors. Her daughter wound up a star player in high school, and the last time I saw Mrs. Tacky Nails, it was my freshman year of college, over Christmas break, in the bleachers of my old high school, watching my former teammates play the district finals. We were the Greyhounds, so named because my high school was located across the street from a dogtrack. I can’t make this stuff up. Our colors were blue and gold. Mrs. Tacky Nails pulled me in for a big hug, and all I can remember about that night was the wave of nausea as she reached out for me, her blue and gold-striped, greyhound-embellished press-on daggers coming ever closer. Cue the music from Psycho as you read this and you’ll get the mental picture of this memory.
Goodbye to all that, I was happy to tell myself as I returned to Amherst for the Spring semester. No more boggy winter nights, no more dogtracks, no more acrylic talons. And though it’s true that my college years offered an acrylic respite, as did the year I spent in London, New York is a big town for big nails. They’re unavoidable. I cheap out on a manicure and discover that the woman beside me is having a beach scene affixed to her fingertips; I look up, and see the “best of” photos lining the wall, acrylic homages to Bon Jovi albums and the Fourth of July. I find myself hypnotized, at the checkout line at the grocery store, by the Puerto Rican flags painted on the claws of the otherwise inconspicuous woman scanning my organic yogurt and hummus dip, and what shakes me out of my fear is this other fear, that I’m prey to the prejudices of my class. If my acrylic paranoia is primal, I’m fine with it; if it’s elitism, that’s embarrassing.
My latest occasion of nail art reckoning came as a surprise. I was bouncing around the Lower East Side with a friend, and we stopped into Valley NYC, a newish boutique I’d been meaning to check out for a while. Valley is the kind of store I’m glad to see open up in my rapidly gentrifying corner of the neighborhood, an independently-operated shop that stocks exactly the mix of clothes I like to wear. And at Valley, not only can I indulge my summer jumper obsession close to home, but I can also partake of an acai and granola treat, and even get my bikini line waxed in the basement. I might as well burn my MetroCard. There’s a manicure station, too – and that’s where the surprise kicked in. Valley NYC specializes in nail art, fingernails gilded and bedazzled and tiger-striped. I had to ask. Co-owner Julia Werman got back to me via email, writing:
“Growing up in the Valley I wore very long nail extensions adorned with all sorts of art, airbrush, decals, nail charms, etc. I missed expressing myself through this medium. My sister Nina frequented the corner nail salons for simple designs, and she saw a void in the marketplace for an upscale salon that provides a wide array of intricate nail art. And as we did more research and learned of the Japanese technique of nail artistry, we knew it was something we wanted to celebrate.”
I thought a lot about what Julia wrote. What struck me the most was her line about nails being a medium for self-expression. I’d never thought about nail art as art before, and as I looked back down at my hands I saw, instead of ten fingernails with chipped burgundy polish, ten tiny canvases. I began to wonder what I’d put there; what it would bring me joy to see out of the corner of my eye as I blow-dried my hair or typed on my laptop. I had an image of black-as-night sky, studded here and there with flashing diamante stars. Was that tacky? Who decides? Maybe, it occurred to me, Mrs. Tacky Nails herself was just a woman with no place else to express herself but through her vivid nails, the ones she caught sight of every time she sliced oranges, every time she gripped her hands to the minivan steering wheel on the way to soccer games.
I had another question.
“Valley does not use acrylic nails,” Julia replied. “We use a full cover artificial extension
called Prescription Nails. They do not damage the natural nail and are safe for pregnant women to use as well. And plenty of girls get nail art on their natural nails, too.”
I haven’t gone back to Valley for night-sky nails; not yet. I’ve still got some coming around to do on the concept. But I was at the grocery store last night, and Ms. Puerto Rican Pride was working the checkout. She passed my veggie burgers and Tofutti Cuties under the scanner, the flag stripes on her fingertips glinting under the fluorescent Key Food lights. I made my first great strike at the heart of my phobia.
“I like your nails,” I said.