I’ve never gotten a pedicure. Manicures and pedicures have always felt to me like something straight women get with their girlfriends, bopping into a place, arms draped with shopping bags and already-done nails, gossiping on their cellphones about whoever isn’t there. They plop their stuff down, climb into the pedicure throne, and ignore the people who crouch down and scrub their feet. The pedicure is something for those women, and I am most decidedly not those women—I’m frankly too relentlessly homosexual and filled with class rage to join them for their nonstop bachelorette party. Or maybe I’m just a judgmental asshole—certainly not going to rule that out.
So there I was this week, feet aching from walking too far in just-ill-fitting-enough-to-fuck-me-up shoes, a rock of dead skin making each step a literal pain. Could I be the kind of person who gets pedicures? If I am that kind of person, how do I do it? Can this be an impromptu field trip, or do you need to make advance arrangements? Will they shave all that skin off your feet, or do you have to ask for that special? How do I know what color of polish to get? Are all brands the same, or do some give you foot cancer? I have no idea what I’m doing here, people.
I put out a call for tips on my personal website, Facebook.com. And it turns out that all kinds of people get pedicures. My sister gets them, even calls them an essential part of her health care as a runner. She got her first in the last weeks of training for this past New York City marathon, getting her callouses scrubbed off before blisters formed underneath them. My brother gets them—feet are another part of the body, and what’s wrong with taking care of them? My elected delegate gets them—in our district of course, because we should all support our local businesses. People get them as a treat, as self-care, for the massage, for the break, for all kinds of reasons. And seriously, aren’t I the one being the jerk, acting like there’s something necessarily servile about being a nail technician? It’s a job, and like any job, the problem isn’t the work, it’s the working conditions. So there I was, cash for a hefty tip, wandering into a place on Light Street because that’s where I happened to be, and I heard on the internet that Lorde got her nails done here when she was in town. Fine—that’ll do.
It was a Wednesday afternoon, a quiet time in this particular nail business’ business. I didn’t so much as shut the door before I was being shuttled to the polish wall to pick a color. I hadn’t given this any thought at all—my first mistake. I was leaning toward blue—matches my eyes—and then purple—because I’m a lavender menace—but settled on a sparkly red because red is the color of nail polish in my head. I was then shown to my massage throne—I mean chair—a few down from a woman halfway through hers. The nail guy already had the foot sink full of water, so I put my feet in there and thus ensued a complicated system of tapping and grabbing that I did not understand. A tap seemed to generally mean to put my foot back in the water and lift up the other one, but sometimes I was supposed to put my foot up on its heel or turn it a bit. I followed along OK, and oh boy, it felt great. Especially when he started salt-scrubbing and massaging my calf muscles. This guy was good.
The pleasure of it aside, I was feeling kind of awkward. Like, are you supposed to talk to the person taking such good care of your feet and legs? I don’t really liked to be talked to when I’m working—does he? At my day job we call that “affective labor,” the part where you have to smile and be nice and care about the thoughts and feelings of someone who is probably exploiting your labor. Service-industry professionals and teachers and nurses and moms know all about it. But if I didn’t talk to the nail guy, was I failing to acknowledge his—and our—shared humanity? Or was I overthinking everything? Knowing myself, it’s probably the latter, but that’s always tied up in the other stuff, too.
So I asked him: “How’d you get into the nail business?” And he said: “Short answer? Structural classism.” I laughed. Yep, that’s pretty much it, that and structural racism that funnels certain kinds of work to certain kinds of people. He’s an independent filmmaker, but that job doesn’t pay, so he works here with his family, making money to fund his creative endeavors. I asked him if any part of him liked the job, or if it was really just a job. He poured some oil on my right calf, rubbed it in, said nope—it’s just a job. The real problem, he said, is capitalism, a system that needs a bunch of people to do low-wage work like this, for high-wage people like me. “All the -isms—they’re because of capitalism. We’re from Vietnam, but here we are, thanks to capitalism.” I asked him what kind of movies he wants to make. He’s not sure, but he doesn’t much like working with actors, so maybe something with not a lot of actors. That’s work too, indeed.
Once he was done sloughing and rubbing, he got out the polish and finished up. “You pick this color?” he asked? Yep. “Nice—it’s real out-of-the-box.” He told me I could sit in the massage chair as long as I wanted, so I did that, reading an article for my class the next day about ethics and anthropology, and the ways research can do its own kind of violence. The nail guy sat next to me, asked me what I was reading. I told him, we chatted about gender and race and violence, I asked him how long polish takes to dry, and he slid his finger slowly over my big toe. Wait about 10 more minutes, he said, which I did before checking out, paying my bill, and picking up a punch card, because I’ll totally be back.