Lessons from a New York City Nail Guru


Lessons from a New York City Nail Guru
by Libby Leonard

Getting my nails done was not something that ever occurred to me. As a tomboy for a majority of my teens and early twenties, one that elicited such comments as “I don’t really look at you like a girl” from guys who didn’t know how to treat women whom they actually viewed as “girls,” it seemed like a frivolous expense. 

Several years later, I was wandering like a zombie through the Upper West Side in frigid February temperatures. I had just gone through a breakup, and didn’t want to go home after work, but didn’t know where else I wanted to go either, until I found myself checking my phone in front of a nail salon. When I looked up, five nail technicians with empty chairs were looking at me smiling. One waved me in. 

“How much?” I asked, not actually caring about getting my nails done, so much as being less alone in friendly company, even if they were only being friendly to get me through the door. 

“Fifteen dollars.”

Sitting across from a male technician with the first bottle of red that I found, we both laughed for the next few minutes as I kept having problems giving up control of my hands. Every time he would try to move them, I tensed up. I explained that this was my first time, but he said he could tell by looking at my cuticles. 

Midway through, the salon started to get busy, and just as it did a woman burst through the door demanding that she get her armpits waxed and that she only had ten minutes to do it. My technician rolled his eyes. We then talked about how everyone in New York is always so used to having what they want at any moment, they forget how to be patient and to respect others’ time. He tapped my hand to remind me I tensed up again.

“Give up the control. You’ll be more Zen,” he said.  

I listened and relaxed my muscles. 

When I left the salon, I looked down at my well-manicured hands. They made me feel like a different person. One who is put together. One who may carry a briefcase to work, who has money, a place of her own, a thriving career. But as I was approaching the bus, I remembered how I had none of those things. At that point, I had never been good at allowing myself to be okay with who I was in the moment, or more importantly being grateful for what I did have. A roof. An income, however meager. Food. The love of my friends and family.  It never seemed enough. I never seemed enough. 

When I got home that day, after thinking for a long time on what the nail technician said, still with my body tensed for not having the life that matched my polished nails, I eventually realized that everything that I wanted or thought I wanted wasn’t going to be able to happen overnight, that holding my body and my mind constantly in a fist, living in what constantly wasn’t, was a form of control that I needed to let go, so I could give myself the space to realize that moving forward was an accumulation of as yet to be had moments that speak to the whole, not one sweeping motion that was out of step with time. 

I relaxed my body. 

In the several years after my first time going to the nail salon, I would sometimes get them done for special occasions, or do them at home myself. Something to allow me to feel a little more put together than anything else. But this year, I found myself three thousand miles away from New York in Bend, Oregon, accessing the other reason why I did it. The virus had hit. Up until then, I had and was on the way to more of the things that I had always wanted for myself, but now the world was falling apart, my living situation suddenly uncertain, my health uncertain, and unsure what would become of my job. I found myself hovering over my computer for hours trying to control things and people I couldn’t control, why are people still going to big events? Why aren’t people wearing masks? My body and my mind, again tight like a fist, then I caught myself. 

I went into the bathroom to paint my nails. No phone, no computer. Just a tiny red bottle of paint, and me, and to remind myself that in order to move forward, to be able to have clarity on how to do it and to see what part I needed to play in what was next, I would need to step back and remember to be okay that the solution would not happen overnight, that I needed to give up the control of time, of others, and to a certain degree myself. To see what stillness had to offer, to be more Zen.   


Libby Leonard is a freelance writer in several mediums. She can be found on twitter at @howhighijump.

Photo: Evelyn Semenyuk/Unsplash

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